Play a classic black-and-white horror film like the 1931 "Dracula" for spooky background. Pick one that contributes atmosphere without drawing guests in to watch, says Bannatyne.
Go for the Gothic look with groupings of votive candles.
Colored bulbs are cheap but effective. A black-light bulb will make the blueing agent in newly washed fabrics glow spookily.
Eerie sound effects are important. Have a tape deck with a recording of a heartbeat hidden under the sofa. Buy an inexpensive tape of scary sound effects at a discount store and play it for background music.
Place ghoulish fake limbs in unexpected places, suggests Bannatyne. For instance, you could stuff striped socks, add black shoes, and you'd have witch's legs coming out of the oven.
Paint dead branches black and cover them with faux cobwebs. Stand them in a corner.
Dry ice is troublesome, but it gives a great short-term effect.
Put containers on the mantel labeled "eye of newt" and "Tom's thumbs."
Name your poison
The best Halloween parties take place after dark, of course, so you won't have to serve dinner unless you want to. If you do, event planners recommend normal seasonal food; people may shy away from anything too creepy. (You could serve black bean soup in a hollowed-out pumpkin, for instance.) You can add atmosphere by giving the food spooky names on a written menu.
Anything made with apples, pumpkins or nuts seems appropriate; and, of course, there should be candy -- this is Halloween. For a quick and easy party mix, Sadler suggests combining Spanish peanuts (with the skins on) and candy corn.
"It's more in the display than any specific food," says Moyle. She likes having dry ice in the punch bowl, for instance. (Use a tea ball or small bowl within the bowl to hold the ice so it doesn't get in anyone's punch cup.) If you don't want to serve punch, Bloody Marys and strawberry daiquiris are alcoholic drink possibilities. "Anything red." And, of course, you'll want to have cranberry juice as a nonalcoholic alternative.
If you have someone passing hors d'oeuvre trays, Bloom suggests offering a little surprise on every third one: pass around a tray of gummy worms, perhaps, or a tray of plastic spider rings after the canapés and before the shrimp.
Fun and games
Your guests are probably expecting a sort of glorified cocktail party in costume, but Halloween is the time to get a little wild and crazy. The best way to loosen things up is to have parlor games and other activities to break the ice.
"It depends on the crowd, but getting people to do things gets them out of the norm," says Moyle. "It livens things up."
A contest for the best costume is a natural, but have lots of prizes: for the scariest, the dumbest, the funniest, the most creative. Again, you have to know your audience; but if your friends are good sports, they'll bob for apples, play charades or do the limbo to the "Monster Mash."
Sadler has had the best luck at her Halloween parties with scavenger hunts.
She divides the party into groups of three or four, and makes sure each group has a video camera. The groups are sent out to complete several tasks, and whichever one gets back to the party first wins the prize. When everyone returns, the group watches the videos together.
One instruction, for instance, was to stand around a horse and sing "Old McDonald." One creative group found a statue in the city park; another used a kiddie ride in front of a discount store.
"It's a hoot when people are dressed-up," she says.
Looking for more ideas? The Internet has lots of sites with Halloween decorating, food and party suggestions. Many are trying to sell you party supplies but offer good advice from event planners. Start with these:
www.halloweenkitchen.com www.hauntedhalloween.com www.earthsands.com/holiday/halloween