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Ghosts in the Wall(paper)
by George F. Ledo

There is something about entering an old Victorian house at night that just gives me the creeps. Especially if the house is dark and there is only a bit of moonlight coming through the window. Something about the repeating design decorated in wallpaper, the dark wood trim, the paintings on the walls, and the blue cast created by the moonlight, conjure up an aura of mystery and makes me wonder if that statue on the newel post really moved… or if it was just my imagination.

Materials List:

  • Thin paper (like tracing paper) for the original artwork
  • Stencil paper or railroad board (available at art supply stores)
  • X-Acto knife
  • Two cans of urethane: spray and brush-on
  • One-inch foam brush
  • Fine netting or lace, available at fabric shops
  • Chalk line, or long straight edge and pencil
  • Flame-retardant wood treatment
  • Paint for the background color
  • Spray paint for the stencil pattern
  • Aluminum foil and masking tape

Wallpaper is a good choice as a decorative element in a haunted attraction because it is authentic for old houses, and because there is a wide range of ready-made materials to choose from. Some of the patterns and colors from the 19th century seem tailor-made for a haunted house, and can help establish a mood. Using existing patterns for inspiration, we can take it up a notch and make our own wallpaper with unlimited possibilities.

Suppose we were to design a room with a painting of a character (let us call him Sir Hugo de Ravenswood) hanging over the fireplace. He has a very distinctive haircut and moustache, and deep piercing eyes looking straight at us. The rest of the room is decorated with a Victorian-style wallpaper with a repeating medallion pattern. All very nice, but if we look at the wallpaper closely, we will see Sir Hugo's face in each of the medallions, blending right into the design; his haircut and moustache are unmistakable, and those piercing eyes are right in the center of each medallion. Suddenly our perspective changes, this is not just any room, or any house. This is his room and his house.

The good news is that creating a wallpaper effect is a very straightforward process, consisting of four steps. Designing the wallpaper; Making a stencil; Preparing the wall surface, and Spraying the design using the stencil. This technique is the same regardless of the number of colors used for the desired print.

Step One: Design The Wallpaper
This is the fun part and begins with doing some research. There are hundreds of sample books in paint and wallpaper stores, as well as reference materials available at the local library, bookstores, and the Web (where you can find patterns used in the Disney haunts). Decoration books and magazines, catalogs, collections of period designs, books on old houses, and even designs for pumpkin carving could all be used for the wallpaper pattern. Use this reference material to generate ideas or provide actual patterns for your wallpaper. I used books on Victorian architecture and house restoration, because I find that looking at pictures of entire rooms gives me more to work with than just looking at swatches or samples.

My intention was to create wallpaper that would give an eerie effect in a room illuminated by faint moonlight, achieved by lighting the room with a low-wattage bulb with a blue color filter. The wallpaper itself is very straightforward: a single repeating motif in a diagonal pattern, in front of a horizontally striated background. At first glance, in a dark room, it just looks like faded wallpaper. It is only when we look at the wall closely that we notice that the motif is a ghost, and that the open spaces formed by two adjacent ghosts are shaped like a Gothic arch with a suggestion of rolling clouds beyond. To reinforce the feeling of moonlight, I painted the background in shades of blue, which visually recedes behind the lighter colored ghosts.

My design is based on a 12" grid, which works well for Haunted House interiors made from four-by-eight panels. This way, the joints in the sheets coincide with the pattern, and could even be integrated into the wallpaper by including vertical lines in the design. My ghosts fit just inside a 12" square, which makes them easy to align on the plywood when spraying.

Once I settled on the design concept it was time to draw it. After a few hand sketches at a small scale, I did a mockup on the computer to see how the design would look when repeated. Photoshop or a similar graphics program works well for this, as you can actually draw the design in color. Back in the old days, I would have simply used tracing paper and laid out the sample by hand.

To draw the ghost at actual size, I took a sheet of thin paper and drew a one-foot square on it, subdivided that into a 3" grid, and then, since my ghost motif was symmetrical, I folded the sheet in half, along the middle grid line. I drew the right half of the design on it, aligned with the crease. Then I turned the folded paper over and traced the design onto the other half of the paper. When I opened the paper again, I had the complete design, with the crease running down the middle. I wanted the ghost's head to be slightly asymmetrical, so I adjusted it by hand.

Step Two: Make A Stencil
Making the stencil is the most time-consuming part of the process, but well worth the time as it will result in a clean, sharp pattern and make the painting go much faster. There are different materials available for this purpose, including stencil paper, railroad board, (similar to poster board but stiffer), 1/8" lauan (a plywood type material used for tile underlayment), and plastic sheets. The choice of material will be dictated by the complexity of your design. For instance, lauan can be cut with a scroll saw into intricate patterns, but floating objects (such as the cut-out eyes in my ghost design) would have to be held in place with a thin "bridge," (like in those old lettering stencils). The lighter materials, such as stencil paper, are good if you have floating objects, because you can use thin polyester or nylon netting to hold it all together (do not use cotton netting, it can shrink and pull the stencil out of shape). For my stencil, I used a 22" x 28" sheet of railroad board, large enough for two side-by-side ghosts. To stiffen and waterproof the material, I first sprayed a few thin coats of urethane on each side, letting it dry on a flat surface between coats.

To transfer the design to the stencil, I drew a 6" grid on it, beginning at the center of the material. Since my design is basically a 12" square repeated on the diagonal, the 6" grid would help line it up when painting. The outside edge of one ghost lines up with the center of a ghost on the row above. Transfer the pattern with a "carbon paper" technique, by tracing over the entire original artwork again with a very soft lead pencil. Then turn the artwork over onto the stencil material, align it with the grid, and trace it again from the back, using moderately heavy pressure and a harder lead pencil. This will transfer some of the graphite on the front onto the stencil.

I used an X-Acto knife with a fresh blade to cut the stencil, taking my time around all the curves and details. If there are any floating pieces, you will want to be careful to keep the "waste" sections intact, as they will be used to align the floating pieces in the next step. While you are at it, cut out a series of small V-shaped notches all around the stencil where the grid lines hit the edges. This will simplify aligning the stencil on the wall panels. If you are doing a large room, you can make two stencils at the same time. This will allow for a second painter to work with you, or to allow you to use one stencil while the other one is drying.

To finish the stencil, cover a flat work surface with aluminum foil and place the stencil on it. Spread out the netting over the stencil, overlapping it on all sides, and tape it down to the work surface to make sure it is flat: you want it taut but not stretched. To give my ghost some additional texture and movement, I used polyester lace instead of netting.

Using a disposable foam brush, paint the solid areas with urethane, right over the netting, to seal it onto the stencil paper. White glue can be used for this, but there is a danger that the paper will absorb the water in the glue and wrinkle. An oil-based urethane will not do this. Be careful around the edges, you do not want the urethane to spread onto the netting or to get under the paper.

Once the urethane is dry (a couple of hours), you can remove the tape and trim the netting, and you will end up with a fairly stiff, flat stencil. If necessary, touch up the urethane here and there. Now, if you have floating pieces, you can assemble them under the netting and urethane them in place. When it is all dry, spray the netting with one or two light coats of urethane, especially at the cut edges, to stiffen it.

Step Three: Prepare The Wall Surface
To prepare the wall panels, first treat them with a flame retardant, then lay in the background paint according to your design. This can be a solid color, a texture, a sponge treatment, or any combination of things. For my design, I base-coated the panel in white, and then painted it in thin watery coats of two shades of blue, using an almost-dry brush, to create the horizontal striated effect.

When the base coat is dry, and with the panel flat on the floor, lay out a one-foot grid using a long straight edge and pencil, or a chalk line. A word of caution: the pigment that comes in off-the-shelf chalk lines is very strong, so you will want to snap very light lines and dust off most of the chalk on the panel before you paint. Theatrical scenic artists generally dump the chalk that comes in the device and replace it with powdered charcoal, which is available in art supply stores and is much easier to remove.

Step Four: Spray The Design Using The Stencil
The final step is to spray the design onto the wall panels.

Starting at one corner, and using the grid lines as guides, lay the stencil down on the panel and spray through it. Thin coats work much better than thick ones, so, if you want the paint to be opaque, spray two or three thin coats to build it up, rather than spraying a thick coat. This will also prevent the paint from running under the stencil or puddle under the net. Try it out on a scrap first to get the hang of it, especially the angle at which you spray. If you are doing a two-color spray on one stencil, like I did with the ghosts, you can spray one color right over the other, but keep the coats light. Since my design was intended to be seen in a dark room, I turned off the lights often and checked the paint job under a flashlight with a blue filter to make sure I was on track and that the effect looked the way I intended it to before I got too far. Before long the room starts to take shape and provides that eerie feel that I was looking for!

Now you have a custom-made wallpaper effect that will make your haunt stand out, and in only four steps. Design it, cut the stencil, prepare the background, and spray it. Now you can give your patrons that extra little something as they enter your Haunted Attraction and realize that this is a very scary place indeed.

George Ledo is a designer and project manager specializing in the themed entertainment industry. He lives in Clifton Park, NY with his other half and partner in crime Donna. You can reach him at georgefl@capital.net.

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