Back when I was in 6th grade, my parents allowed to have a Halloween party. This was a big deal, since we lived in the country and I rarely got company of any kind. Logistically it was usually easier for me to go into town than for a bunch of people to come out to us. Anyway, for that party my parents hung black plastic dividers up in the garage and created a maze-like "haunted house" for me and my friends. Looking back on it, I am amazed at the work my parents put into that haunted house and the party in general. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to create my own haunted house. Until I become independently wealthy enough to afford to sink $10K into an almost sure money-losing proposition, that’s unlikely to happen. However, a few years ago I got the idea for creating a tunnel over a sidewalk for a short haunted house-like experience for trick-or-treaters. At my old house, the sidewalk was an extension of the driveway so it wasn’t very practical. This year I moved to a new house, which opened a new world of possibilities. This entry serves two purposes. The first is to document the development of the Sidewalk of Horror so that next year I can use this as a reference. The second reason is so that I can share my own experiences with others in case they’d like to do something similar. Commenting has been turned off for pages 1 and 2 so that all questions and responses can be consolidated on the last page.
Shopping / Materials
I started with the basic idea of using some sort of flexible material to create hoops over the sidewalk. This would be the frame from which I’d hang black plastic. After doing a bit of exploring around the local home improvement store, I concluded that 1/2" pvc pipe would be flexible enough yet rigid enough to do the job. The longest pipe the store carried in that size was 10 feet, which, by the time it was bent would not be tall enough. So for every "hoop" pipe I bought, I bought another 10′ section that would be cut down to serve extend the overall length of the pipe and thus the height of the hoops. Plastic connectors (show later) were only 12 cents. I don’t remember how much the pipes were, but it wasn’t outrageous. I bought enough pipe for five frames, and that was pretty arbitrary. I had a pretty good idea of the length of sidewalk I wanted to cover, but I never measured it before going to the store nor did I have a particular plan for how much space would be between each frame. That same shopping trip I bought two other items. I bought a big roll a black plastic. By big, I mean it unfolded to 10′ wide and came in a roll of 100′ long. That item was a little over $20. I also bought ten 36" long pieces of rebar. The rebar is to be driven into the ground and the pipe slipped over it, affixing it in place. (As shown in the photo.)
Design / Construction
The week before the real construction was to begin, I did a quick test to see how well the frame would work. I hammered in the re-bar stakes roughly, slipped on the 5′ sides, and attached the bent 10" top. It worked perfectly! The stakes held the pvc pipe upright, the top pipe bent without breaking, the connecters all worked– it looked like I was in business. At that point my only concern was that it seemed really tall. I started wondering if I needed to shorten the sides or cut back in some other manner. In a quick test, I did away with one 5′ section and bent the remaining 15′ of pipe onto the stakes. This too seemed to work fine, although it meant moving the stake outward a bit since the shorter length of pipe didn’t have as much flex. The following week, it was time to start building in earnest. To be honest, there was less science than art and guestimation in the construction. While our sidewalk is probably only 3′ wide, the pipe would need more width than that to flex. I think it ended up being roughly 6.5′ wide. Again, I didn’t use a masonry string to carefully measure that each pair of stakes were the same width. I just eyeballed it. However, a little more science did go into equidistantly spacing the hoops. At the store I’d bought enough material for five hoops. This wasn’t based on any prior calculation. I just had an idea of the length I needed to cover and five seemed about right. I used a tape measure and found that I was looking at 25′. I divided 25 by 4 (no need to count the end) and came up with a distance of 6′ between each set of hoops. This turned out to be just the right distance. I don’t think it would have withstood the weather (we’ll get to that in part II) if the frames had been spaced at 8 or 10′. Having successfully tested a 15′ hoop the previous weekend, the idea had been to create a smaller entrance followed by an enlarge tunnel. Unfortunately, we forgot that we had to move the stake to accommodate the pipe’s flex. Fortunately, the connector cracked before the pipe did. Since I’d neglected to buy extra connectors, this would mean another trip to the store. But first, with all the other hoops placed, a new issue arose. While the hoops themselves were fairly sturdy, it seemed like they needed more stability. My able construction associate, Jason, wisely suggested that we attach another pipe running like a spine along the ridgeline of the hoops. This would serve to connect each hoop to the other. So in addition to another connector, we’d need another 2.5 lengths of pipe for the spine. After returning from the store (and a pit stop at Sonic for some cherry limeaides) we quickly got the remaining hoop in place. Having broken one connector, we decided to play it safe and make the entrance with the same 20′ hoop as the other frames. We didn’t want to risk a pipe violently snapping while a kid was inside. We attached the spine to the hoops ("ribs") using plastic zip ties. In fact, much of the construction of the tunnel owes itself to plastic zip ties and duct tape. Or both, as was the case with the black plastic we were about to stretch over the frame. We had a quick discussion over the merits of running our plastic lengthways or crossways. Remember, my plastic was 10′ wide, while each hoop was 20′. While we could have run it lengthways, we would have a seam at the ridge of the tunnel and it would possibly be a few inches short on either side. By this point rain was already in the forecast for Halloween, so I was concerned about that seam at the top. While we had enough material for a third pass over the top, it seemed like a better idea to run it over the top instead of lengthways. While it meant we had one seam in the middle of our 6′ trusses, it worked out well and held together so I guess it was the right thing to do. If we had done it the lengthways, I can imagine a greater problem keeping each side from sliding down the pipe into a heap. Our next technical challenge was how to connect the plastic to the pipes. Again, this is where duct tape and zip ties came to the rescue. We were both concerned that zip ties alone would tear the plastic if it was subjected to any kind of stress. To reinforce the plastic, we applied a small patch of duct tape to the area, pierced it, then fed the zip tie through and around the pipe. We connected the seams of each 10′ swath of plastic the same way. We tried to leave at least 6" to 1′ overlap on each section. In the photo to the left you can see a close-up at eye level from the inside of the tunnel. You’re seeing the vertical length of pipe making up one of the hoops, the plastic connector sleeve, a piece of duct tape reinforcing the black plastic, and the zip tie running through it. Shortly after we started attaching the plastic, we saw another problem. While the hoops were holding the plastic upright, it still tended to bulge inward in between the supports. Especially since we were constructing on a windy day. Jason suggested that we run string between each hoop to keep the plastic from invading the tunnel. Having only put up the first of three passes of black plastic, we stopped to run string. This turned out to be another essential part of the design, since before it was through the tunnel had to withstand much stronger winds that what we experienced on Saturday. We saw an instant improvement in the overall uniform shape of the tunnel once we ran three of four pieces of string at varying heights along each side of the tunnel. With the plastic skin in place, the tunnel turned into one big wind-break. With so much surface area, the wind really wanted to push it around. It was actually pretty spooky standing inside, just because the dark black walls were heaving to and fro around you [note: the next page has a link to a short video]. That meant we needed to run some external guy wires to keep the tunnel from flying away or flexing itself apart. I was concerned about this, because I didn’t want anyone tripping over the guy wires in the dark. We overcame this on the side nearest the house by affixing the wires (actually, the same cotton string we’d used to reinforce the inside of the tunnel–this trivia will be important later) from the ridge of tunnel to a tree on one side and a plant hook screwed into the eaves of the house on the other. On the street side of the tunnel we didn’t have much choice. We used heavy, white nylon rope and tent stakes. The next day I would work on decorating the ropes to help them stand out even more. You’ll notice in this photo that it is dark outside. Due to the vagaries of Mrs. Flametoad’s weekend work schedule, I didn’t start construction until about 3 pm on Saturday. Jason showed up around 3:30, and during the course of construction there were two lengthy trips to Lowes (home improvement store) and Sonic (snack/dinner). We put the finishing touches on the tunnel in the dark at around 8:30 pm. Jason was a real trooper throughout, and as you’ll read in Part 2, some of his design suggestions ended up being crucial in keeping the tunnel intact. Whatever the difficulties, the tunnel itself was constructed, and we knew that day 2 promised to be much easier. Page 2 covers the next day’s touch-ups to the tunnel and the decorating. Page 3 relates how it all turned out on Halloween, including some dramatic moments as bad weather rolled in, and "lessons learned" for next year.