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Haunting with Black Lights
By Ken Pitek


Just what is "blacklight, and now can it be used in a Haunted Attraction?" Blacklight is a term used to describe light in the ultraviolet or UV spectrum. By definition, ultraviolet light cannot be seen by the human eye. However, when exposed to UV certain substances will produce an ambient "glow," and therein lies its usefulness in the art of Scareology.

There are two basic types of blacklights, incandescent and fluorescent. The incandescent type uses a hot wire filament to produce light and the fluorescent type uses an electrical arc through a gas filled tube to produce the light. Most light bulbs produce some UV light, but the glow effect is not as apparent due to the abundance of light from rest of the spectrum. Just as you create red light by placing a red filter or gel in front of a white light source, a blacklight filter is used to eliminate as much light outside of the ultraviolet spectrum as possible. UV filters are a very deep dark purple, so dark that the bulb looks like it is black when it is turned off. (Hence the name "blacklight!") It takes a very bright light source to produce enough ultraviolet light to get through the filter, and because much of the light produced is held back by the filter, a great amount of heat is created. The brighter the light, the more UV produced and the more non-UV light can be filtered out, but the brighter the source, the more heat that is built up in the bulb. This heat creates both a safety hazard and decreases the life of the bulb. Great care should be taken to ventilate blacklight bulbs for longevity while insulating the bulb and fixture from contact with anything that could melt or burn.

All but the most expensive blacklights available today produce both UV and some non-ultraviolet light. Most of this non-UV light is violet in color, which is only moderately sensitive to the eye. A room lit only with a blacklight source has enough visible light for patrons to get around while still having the feeling of being in the dark. Adding strategically placed items that glow creates a state of uneasiness in patrons, and can be used to set them up for a good scare.

The incandescent blacklight comes in several varieties, from a 75-100 watt bare bulb with a standard screw base for $3.00, to a 400 watt Fresnel (pronounced "fer-nell") fixture for $3,000. A screw base incandescent blacklight is convenient to use, in that will fit in any conventional lamp or ceiling fixtures. Unfortunately, these inexpensive bulbs are not much more than purple light bulbs, producing very little UV light, too much visible light, and way too much heat. The expensive incandescent blacklights are, well, expensive!

For most Haunters, the fluorescent blacklight provides the best effect, quality and convenience at reasonable prices. These can be purchased as bare bulbs (or tubes), bulbs in standard fixtures and sealed systems with non-replaceable bulbs. The sealed system is less expensive than a standard bulb with fixture, but if the ballast fails or the tube burns out, the whole fixture is thrown away. A fluorescent blacklight tube can be used in any fluorescent fixture, provided the wattage rating is appropriate, bulb length is correct and the sockets are compatible. Compare prices to determine which system is more cost effective for your application.

Fluorescent blacklights comes in a wide variety of lengths from 6 inches to 8 feet, and prices too varied to mention at locations all over town including; Spenser's Gifts, Radio Shack, Home Depot and even Walmart (not to mention the seasonal Halloween stores). New in the last few years are fluorescent blacklights designed to fit in a standard screw base fixture. These come in both the 11-inch "ring" style florescent that would fit under a lampshade, as well as a style no larger than a standard light bulb, similar to those high efficiency screw base home lights. Their availability and wide variety of size and shape, coupled with the fact that they are very low in wattage and seldom get too hot to touch, is the reason that the fluorescent blacklight is an industry standard.

Scary Blacklight
So just, how do you go about using blacklight in your Haunted Attraction? This is limited only by your creativity and imagination, but here are a few general guidelines to get you started. Keep in mind that the glow effect caused by UV is most visible in the dark. The darker the better, so keep lighting other than by blacklight to a minimum. If you do decide to use your blacklights outdoors, remember to keep your fixtures protected from any moisture. Rain or even moderate dew can not only ruin your fixture, but can cause an electrical short that could be very dangerous. A sealed system blacklight comes in handy when moisture is a factor. Using blacklight outside over large areas is where those expensive incandescent blacklights come in handy. A standard florescent blacklight will lose effectiveness at 10 to 12 feet away from the tube, while a 400 watt incandescent can create the glow from 150 feet away. In some cases it may be more cost effective to use one high-intensity incandescent rather than 50 tubes and fixtures.

Place your fixtures so that the blacklight hits the object to be illuminated on the side that will be in view from the public, rather than from behind. This generally provides the most effect for any given amount of light, and the closer the light is to the object the brighter the glow will be. Objects that you want to glow will standout better if placed in front of a dark background (a flat black is usually best) rather than a light one. Try to place the fixtures so that no one will come between the light and the prop. Actors or patrons blocking the UV will diminish the glowing effect. Locating the fixture at ceiling level provides the best coverage and minimal interference from people and objects in the room. Place your blacklights where they will not be a hazard, or easily broken. Most electrical codes require a clear plastic sleeve (available at Home Depot) on all florescent tubes within 8 feet of the floor, so that if the tube is broken, the glass and toxic chemicals in the bulb will not rain down on anyone below. When placing the blacklights, plan out how you will get power to them. Fixtures outlets and electrical cords should be secured with wire ties and out of reach of both actors and patrons. Do not place lights where someone could trip over them or their power cord. It is better to forgo an effect than risk having someone injured.

The blacklight looks bright purple when it is on, and many everyday items such as clothing and dental caps glow under UV. The white cotton shirt or bright orange jacket on a patron walking though the room in a may distract the rest of the group from what you want them to look at. Leading your victims into a room lit with blacklight with nothing else in it will give them the opportunity to show each other their shoelaces and laugh at their teeth before sending them into the room with props you spent hours making glow. If possible, try to screen the blacklight bulb from the view of the patrons and the patrons from the effect of the UV.

Glow Stuff
By now you have probably spent a lot of time looking at the first picture, and I bet you are wondering just how I got all those bottles to glow so nicely. The first step is to find some really neat looking bottles. You can always use old empty perfume bottles, or just shop around; many stores have a great variety of odd shaped decorator bottles. But how do you get them to glow? Take for instance the bottle at the lower left (as well as several of the other bottles pictured). All I had to do to make this one glow was fill it with tonic water (on sale $0.79 for two liters). Tonic water glows a very nice whitish blue color when exposed to Blacklight! Make certain that you buy real tonic water, seltzer water will not work. Also, Tonic water is carbonated and can build up considerable pressure under some conditions. You should always use it in an open container or leave the bottle open for a few days before sealing, to let the carbonation escape (an occasional gentle shaking will help speed this up).

You may be thinking that the other colored bottles are just tonic water with food coloring. Unfortunately, using food coloring to change the food coloring absorbs the glow. The same is true for using tonic water in a colored bottle; the only color you will have any luck with is a blue bottle (the closer it matches the color of the tonic glow the better the results).

The other colored bottles are a little more difficult than the ones filled with tonic water. As I mentioned, fluorescent paints look very nice when poured into a bottle of your choice. In this case I used water-based paint and mixed it with water and save some money. I have found that if you use as little as 10% paint (by volume) and 90% water, the glow is nearly as bright as with pure paint. The glow color of the paint is not always exactly as it looks in white light. Always check your colors under Blacklight to be certain the color is what you want. If you are planning to use a colored bottle, try matching the glow color to the color of the bottle; this should give you a fairly good glow.

There are many commercial glow-in-the-dark products available to the Haunter, and while these do indeed glow very well under Blacklight, the choice is limited and the products tend to be somewhat boring, cartoon like and lacking in detail. With a little experimentation and some imagination, you can come up with your own ideas that not only look better, but are also far less expensive to create. Remember that a prop has its greatest effect the first time someone sees it. If you use a store-bought prop it is unique to you and about million other people, but if you build your own prop, it is one of a kind. So, what do you do when you find the perfect prop but it does not glow in the dark?

Almost all laundry detergents contain whiteners, which leave a residue on fabrics. Fortunately for us, these whiteners also glow nicely under Blacklight. If you want your prop to glow in Blacklight, just paint it with liquid laundry detergent. The brands that states they do not contain dyes seem to works best. In the picture above you will see a glow-in-the-dark Petite Pete skeleton; just to the left of it you will see one painted in liquid detergent (I used Tide® Free). On the left side of the picture; just behind the green bottle, you can spot a regular white skeleton without the detergent. The skeleton painted with detergent glows with a very dramatic white color.

Keep in mind that the detergent coat can easily wash or rub off, and after handling, and you could wind up with it on your hands. Be careful with this application, especially around your eyes. To prevent or at least reduce this rubbing off, you can coat your treated prop with several light coats of spray varnish or lacquer; make sure to use very light coats to begin with to avoid washing off the detergent. You will also want to make sure the clear coat you use does not contain any UV blockers, which would keep the UV light from reaching the detergent.

Another item many people use is glow in the dark paint. These work very well under Blacklight, but tend to be rather expensive. I have found that most any paint which claims to be fluorescent or neon will glow nicely under Blacklight. Fluorescent paints are available at any local craft store. There is also a glow-in-the-dark paint, which will hold the "glow" for a short time after the blacklight or white light is turned off. This "Phosphorescent" paint is useful for many effects, but is more expensive than fluorescent paint. Two of the bottles in the first picture have this paint applied on the exterior, (The one with rings just to the right of the green bottle; the other at the lower right).

Another variation of fluorescent paints are those that are invisible in white light and glow only under UV. This gives you the ability to paint ghostly faces portraits in the room that appear when a blacklight comes on. This paint is more expensive than normal UV paint and will have to be ordered. "You can get the same effect using the same color of fluorescent and non-fluorescent paint. Paint the background with the non-fluorescent paint and then paint your message with the fluorescent paint. Use jagged lettering to help hide the edges, and when the black light comes on, the message will appear.

With these effects in mind, there is a "strobing" blacklight available from some manufactuers, that can simulate a lightning strike of UV light. (Note: flashing on and off of a regular fluorescent light fixture will burn out the ballast.

You may start to think, "If all these things glow so well, I'll just mix them all together and have a super glow." Sorry, but it does not work. As you can see from the picture above, they do not mix well, which gives us another opportunity for an effect. If you fill your container part way with tonic water and then slowly squeeze in some fluorescent paint, you can achieve a layered effect. This can be seen in the pink and blue bottle just to the left of the liquid laundry detergent-coated Petite Pete. When first poured in, the paint tends to float on the top. After some time it will settle to the bottom, maintaining some of the layered look (the bottle pictured had been sitting for over two weeks). Try to pour your bottle in its final location, as any agitation will break up the layered effect and just give you a powdery look at the bottom.

I am sure that you have seen the numerous "thing in a bottle" props available at the local Halloween store. These are usually some form of an alien, eyeballs, body parts or whatever, in a jar with water, making them look like lab specimens. By adding some food coloring to the water you can get a ugly color that will definitely add to the effect of the prop. However, if you are planning to use your prop in a Blacklight environment, simply fill your bottle with some tonic water (after you have let it go flat), creating a much more impressive effect.

Another use of tonic water is "glowing gelatin." This is a fun material that can be molded just as you would mold a gelatin desert, only it survives a warm room much better, and of course, your finished product will glow nicely under Blacklight. To make this, you need tonic water, unflavored gelatin and access to a kitchen. Simply prepare the gelatin according to the package directions, but instead of tap water use tonic water. I like to use a little less tonic water than the package calls for (about 25% less); it makes for a more durable finished product. You can add a little food coloring to change the color of the finished product, but it does seem to cut down on the glow substantially.

There are numerous other everyday items which also work well for Blacklight effects. For instance, potato flakes seem to look quite nice under Blacklight (I use Hungry Jack® brand). I have also found modeling clay and cordage that work nicely. I have included a list of some of my favorites at the end of this article; most can be found at your local grocery or hardware store. The list is by no means all-inclusive, I am sure you will be able to find many others on your own. My suggestion to you is try everything you can get your hands on under your Blacklight (especially if it claims to be fluorescent or neon) and see if it glows. Experiment, be bold, use your imagination, and try to come up with an idea no one has thought of before. Then you can have a truly original, one-of-a-kind prop.

One final warning; while most Blacklights sold for home use are safe, there are some commercial models that can be dangerous. These use what is called short wave UV, (as opposed to the more common long wave UV) and are used for scientific and medical use and not meant to be used where there will be any degree of human exposure. Be sure to check the warnings on any lights you may buy. It is also a good idea to expose yourself and others to Blacklight in reasonable doses; even so-called safe UV lights can be unhealthy if one is exposed to them for many hours a day, over a period of many days.

A few things that glow under Blacklight

  • Item Glow Color
  • Tonic Water Bluish White
  • Some Laundry Detergents Bluish White
  • Cheese Cloth Bluish White
  • Ritz Whitener Bluish White
  • Potato Flakes White
  • Fluorescent Paint Varied
  • Some Cosmetics Varied
  • Highlighters* Varied
  • Quinine Water vivid blue/purple

*You can soak your highlighters in water until the ink leaches out into the water to make a nice Blacklight-reactive fluid.

Ken Pitek is a telecommunications specialist with Southwestern Bell and Home Haunter in Northbrook Illinois. Ken's Halloween decorations get more elaborate each year, which has lead him to author the soon to be released book Tips From The Crypt. If you have any questions about this article, or suggestions for the book, feel free to contact Ken at tipsfromthecrypt@ameritech.net.

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