Try This at Home: Halloween Pros from the Mortuary Share Some Special-Effects Secrets

NOLAOctober 20, 2021

The Mortuary Haunted House in New Orleans smells like, well … Hell.

It’s true. And there’s a lesson here for Halloween home decorators.

Mortuary owner Jeff Borne and creative director Christian Stokes have created an experience that assaults the senses, set to the theme of hell-fire and brimstone. One example of their attention to detail is the aroma that wafts through to make the building smell like it’s actually burning. The name of the scent? Hell. Really.

In a recent light-of-day walk-through, Borne and Stokes shared some of their scare tactics, with an emphasis on what might be adaptable to at-home haunts. Use these tips to make the most of your own simple decorations, to create an outdoor tableau, or for a party-worthy interior decor for fright night.

The big picture

The main concept in creating a Halloween-y experience, Borne and Stokes say, is immersion: appealing to as many senses as possible. To do that, they layer in as much detail as possible.

At the Mortuary, the visual effects start at the front door, where projected images send flames leaping from the windows and door for an illusion that visitors are walking right into an inferno.

You can use those effects, too, Borne said.

The Mortuary partners with AtmosFX, a company that creates ominous Halloween videos, as well as some themed to other holidays. Videos can be purchased online and downloaded, then flashed up on any TV, monitor, or projector screen to place the digital scenes on your windows and walls, or on props and in yards.


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Other visual and tactile appeal comes from simple additions such as spider webs and imitation Spanish moss (use the flame-retardant kinds).

To disperse the odor of fire, Borne and Stokes add their special scents to a dehumidifier.

At home, other immersive elements might include fog machines or dry ice (you can both see and feel their presence). Sound can fit your theme: screams, howls, glam rock — create your own play list.

At the Mortuary, the presence of costumed actors adds a whole layer of hair-raising interactivity. But don’t think for a moment that the actors are just winging it. There’s a plan for them, too, at least a loose one.

“I tell actors to work like velociraptors,” Stokes said. “One distracts, then the rest attack.”

Scary history

Borne has long been immersed in Halloween. “When I was a youngster, 10 or 12, I went to the haunted house at St. Clement of Rome in Metairie. It was all Visqueen and spray paint then, but it (his love of Halloween) was on.”

He moved on, from creating haunted carports in Metairie, to directing the old Chinchuba Haunted House in Marrero; creating the popular Psycho Swamp at Jazzland; and running the Scream Factory in Covington. He opened the Mortuary in 2007.

Borne’s day job, however, is as president of PSX Worldwide Audiovisual Technologies, which creates effects for theme parks, museums, and events nationwide, including the Walt Disney Co. and, locally, the WWII Museum and the Caesars Superdome.

“PSX is work. I wanted to find a place to have fun,” he said of the Mortuary.

Stokes has a long résumé in acting and stunt work for film and TV. He’s written and produced live stunt shows for theme parks and performed in and directed a Marvel live-action show based on “The Avengers” that traveled 48 states and 16 countries.

He brings a sense of theatricality to the Mortuary, helping creating cohesive storylines and handling casting.

Experience has taught both Borne and Stokes that real dread is in the details. Here are some of their other suggestions for at-home hauntings.

Try this at home

Lighting: Change out light bulbs with green- or red-hued ones, creating an eerie glow. Strobe lights (for as little as $20 on can create slow-motion or stop-motion effects as trick-or-treaters approach, or simulate motion in a terrifying tableau.

At the Mortuary, Stokes painted the globes of the outside lanterns with a frosted paint, available at big box stores. “It obscures the light source and makes them look like flickering gas lights,” he said.

For those creating more elaborate scenes, Stokes suggests a three-point lighting system. “Lighting a scene from above creates shadows. The higher the lights, the longer the shadows.” That done, add ground-level illumination on both sides.

Reality bites: For maximum effect, start with realistic props. Actual taxidermied birds and fish are used to subtle effect on the walls and shelves of the Mortuary. “It’s all about the detail and looking real. This is a real (mortuary) building, not a car dealership,” Borne said.

A fish on a plaque gets layers of embellishment as well — it’s aged with paint and then decked out with wires and metalwork for a steampunk look.

“Use your old Billy Bass and add some black paint and wires. That will definitely be scary,” said Stokes.

To create a tableau, piles of real junk can be made to exude an aura of threat. Use boxes, old clothing, furniture and the like, but throw in something scary, like a fake disembodied arm. Bloody it up a bit, and make it look old and dirty.

Combining mechanical parts to resemble a control panel or a high-tech weapon can create a lot of tension, too, as viewers’ imaginations will fill in the story lines. Build your own with wire, knob, outlets and old pieces of machinery. To spook things up, layer on a string of Christmas lights, Stokes said. The happy holiday vibe makes the scene feel all the more evil.

Layering: To age walls and other constructions, start with watered-down paint in spray bottles. Add a consistent layer of gray, layer on some brown and add black highlights, Stokes said. An uneven look and drips are good. Dab some with a cloth if you like. And throw on a little dirt. “There’s a fake dirt you can rub in specifically to make things look dirty,” he said. It’s more hygenic than real dirt.

Other tools of the trade include theatrical-grade Perma Blood paint, which dries to keep a wet look. (, $44 for 16 ounces)

Another paint called Wet ($24.99 for 26 oz. at dries looking wet but remains clear, to create an effect such as drool.

Planning: Borne and Stokes collaborate almost a year in advance to come up with ideas for the Mortuary’s annual theme. That way, when they go to trade shows for products, they know what they’re looking for.

“You have to do that at home, too, so that you know exactly what you need (for props and design) and don’t just end up with odds and ends,” Stokes said.

“Start in November,” Borne advised.

Easy scares

Here are some suggestions for easy effects.

  • Hang some plastic chains, especially if layered with other materials. They evoke fear.
  • Stuff a long trash bag with old clothes and tie it to a tree branch to simulate a body.
  • Throw a sheet with fake blood on it over the couch or outside over a bush or table.
  • Put a trash can out front with arms and legs sticking out. To layer on details, break off a finger. Add some dirt and streak with watered-down black paint and fake blood.

The Mortuary’s Inferno Haunted House

What: “All Hell will break loose this year” at the former mortuary turned self-guided attraction with live actors, special effects, and more. A blood drive is on-site with perks for donations. No costumes permitted.

When: Selected dates and times through Nov. 12

Where: 4800 Canal St., New Orleans.

Tickets: Starting at $25.



This article is written by Karen Taylor from NOLA and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to