This post comes to us courtesy of writer and Williams-Sonoma creative consultant Laura Martin Bacon.
Once upon a time, in a California seaside village, two witches made a vow to spread Halloween happiness all around the coast – and beyond.
The story begins back in 1988, when Melanie Miller and her sister Rhonda Short decided to make up for their adulthood’s lost years of trick-or-treating with a little Halloween magic: five strings of pumpkin lights, a few creatively carved pumpkins, some cool treat bags and about fifty visitors.
Over the decades, the coastal cottage and garden have become an enchanted fantasyland, where hundreds of trick-or-treaters wander along winding paths illuminated by dozens of jack-o’-lanterns set on spooky old tree stumps. Merry monsters and ghostly graveyards lurk around every corner – and windows are illuminated with a colorful Halloween carnival town and terror-ific ghost train.
At the door, guests are greeted by two cackling green crones: the Wicked Witches of the East (Rhonda “because I live a mile inland from the ocean”) and West (Melanie, “because it’s MY house”).
All ghosts and ghouls are welcome, Melanie says, “unless they’re wearing ruby slippers, in which case we slam the door and yell “GO AWAY!”.
Everyone else is treated to creepy candy bags and silly songs screeched in the witches’ signature cackles and shrieks.
The witches’ guest book shows Halloween night visitors from all around the San Francisco Bay area – with a sprinkling of wanderers from such far-flung places as Ireland, Cambodia and Costa Rica. “We get around 600 trick-or-treaters, which averages out to about three a minute.”
Most locals agree that The Witches’ House is the epicenter of the town’s Halloween revelry – but haunted houses and dazzling decorations extend for blocks, where streets are closed off for the holiday.
Over the years, neighbors have showcased everything from life-sized pirate ships to a fairytale Never Never Land and futuristic Star Wars world (where a roaming R2D2 robot doles out treats). Party themes range from a mariachi-filled margarita mansion to a haunted island tiki bar.
Melanie admits that she’s a frightful fanatic for Halloween fun. Over the years, she’s collected hundreds of decorations and thousands of pumpkin patterns, which she keeps in a bewitching garden workshop marked with a sign inviting visitors to ‘Come in and sit for a spell.’
“Anyone can make Halloween magic,” Melanie assures me. “It doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. You can do a lot with just some well-placed lights and a few really great pumpkins.”
“And of course, everyone can pitch in – that’s part of the fun. My friends and neighbors love to help out with the prep, carving and set-up. It’s something we all look forward to every year!”
Planning, decorating and celebrating really is magic, Melanie says – it brings buddies together and can turn casual acquaintances into lifelong friends. “Plus, it’s great for busy witches to have assistance – if you can, find one do-it-all helper like my pal Kathryn Farbstein, whose pumpkin-gutting and behind-the-scenes magic have been indispensable.”)
The prep itself can be a party where everyone brings a favorite snack to nibble on as they go about their designated haunting. And on Halloween night, it’s fun to top off the festivities with a simple potluck supper, complete with spooky seasonal cocktails.
Witches’ top tricks for the best-ever Halloween celebrations:
Dunk your pumpkins
After gutting pumpkins, Melanie preserves them with “Pumpkin Dunkin.” Her homemade potion consists of 1 cup pickling lime (a preservative) and 3 tablespoons of borax (a mold repellent) in a standard 21-gallon Rubbermaid container filled with water. Soak pumpkins for 8-12 hours – make sure you keep lids on the totes for kid-and-dog safety. Drain on a flat, nonabsorbent surface (cement works well).
Use magical tools
Witches never use their good cutlery for carving – they say pumpkin tool kits are faster, safer and easier. Get a battery-operated power carver if you’re carving lots of pumpkins. And use transfer paper (available in office supply stores) to trace patterns directly onto your pumpkins – it’s a lot simpler than punching holes through taped-on paper patterns. Flex wrap (to protect fingers) and band-aids also come in handy.
Gut pumpkins from the bottom by turning them upside down, cutting out a circle of flesh and scooping out the seeds as usual. This leaves the top of the pumpkin and its stem intact. Also, you don’t have to fiddle with fitting lids, creating a level surface for a candle, or reaching inside to light your jack-o’-lantern.
Light up the night
Place your jack-o’-lanterns (with carved-out bottoms) directly over votive candles in glass holders. Votives last longer than tea-light candles, and glass holders help prevent the flames from blowing out. It’s also a good idea to keep plenty of matches (or torch-style lighters) and extra candles on hand.
Give out fabulous candy
“My treat bags include something for everyone: a good-sized tootsie pop, a great mini chocolate bar, colorful hard candy, bubble gum and Witches’ Warts (sweet-tart candies). There’s no way that you can get this magical bag and not find a treat you love!”
Keep a magic spell book
“When you create a Halloween scene you really like, write down exactly what you did – and take lots of photos. I keep a special Halloween book with everything from notes on how I rigged cords and set up decorations to a map of where I placed the pumpkins and tree stumps. This makes it a lot easier to recreate the fun the following year – and to show friends how to help out with the set-up.”
Hungry for more Halloween how-tos? Check out these bewitching videos by Montara Fog:
About the author: Laura is a longtime writer and creative consultant for Williams-Sonoma and other well-known entities. She’s also the Culinary Creative Director of DooF (“food” backwards), an organization that uses multi-media entertainment, education and live events to help kids and families discover the magic of food. DooF explores every aspect of food – from flavors, history, science and cultural traditions to the exciting journey from source-to-table. Laura’s mission: to make good food fun – at home, in the classroom and beyond.