Petaluma designer’s tips for throwing your own ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ party

“Nightmare Before Christmas” is a fun theme for your Halloween, with ideas for games and crafts.|

It was the perfect pandemic project for a stylist in lockdown with few distractions — dream up scores of craft projects for themed parties playing off Tim Burton’s 1993 animated cult classic, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Caroline Hall was recruited by Insight Editions, which specializes in cookbooks, cards, calendars, gifts, puzzles and other products tied to popular franchises from “Harry Potter” to “The Muppets,” to collaborate on “The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Official Cookbook & Entertaining Guide.”

Hall had about six weeks to create decorations and projects, activities and invitations inspired by the fantastical tale of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, who wanders out of spooky Halloween Town and finds himself in an unfamiliar world of candy canes and elves. Jack is so enchanted he plots to kidnap Santa Claus and take over his job, with terrifying results.

The film is still a Halloween-to-Christmas favorite 27 years later, which pretty much guaranteed fans would grab up the book for their holiday celebrations. Veteran food writer and baker Kim Laidlaw, who, like Hall, is from Petaluma, was enlisted to create recipes.

The book is already an Amazon bestseller, ranking No. 1 in Halloween cooking and No. 3 in Holiday cooking, and is among the top 1,000 books on the site.

Much of the magic was spun out of Hall’s second-floor office in the 1905 post-Victorian home in west Petaluma where she lives with her husband, Brad Villeggiante, and daughter, Cecily, 5.

Under the tight deadline, she devised projects and prototypes for four themed parties: a “This Is Halloween Party,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas Party,” a birthday party and a “Zero the Dog Summer BBQ Party.” A fifth party will be included in a special expanded edition sold exclusively through Barnes & Noble and set to be released next month.

The pandemic actually made it easier for her to sequester in her office and dive in and let her ghoulish imagination take over.

“It was helpful having it so condensed. You’re in it and focused. Whereas if I had a year to do it, I would have dragged it out and pushed it onto the back burner. It forced creativity,” said Hall, a stylist, art director and interior designer. “I had a full-on workshop in my office. It looked like Christmas and Halloween threw up in there.”

When the fires hit last year, Hall hosted evacuees who took refuge in one of the many rooms in the rambling house that was built as a hospital. They provided extra hands for constructing craft prototypes.

The deadline was crazy but the subject matter was so easy, Hall said.

“I had so much to go off of between Halloween and Christmas. And all the holidays make an appearance at some point in the movie. It’s so visually rich to look at. It’s just yummy and inspiring,” said Hall, whose favorite holiday, fortunately, is Halloween.

These Jack and Sally rag dolls can be made of muslin and commercial fabric and don’t require sewing skills. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
These Jack and Sally rag dolls can be made of muslin and commercial fabric and don’t require sewing skills. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

The projects

She designed templates for many of the crafts using fonts and other tools provided to her. They can be downloaded at insighteditions.com/NightmareEntertaining. Anyone looking to recreate Halloween Town in their home or backyard will find in the book instructions for making hanging shadow shapes of spiders and skulls that can be projected with flashlights onto walls. A “This is Halloween” banner can be made for the wall out of white paper or old sheet music and twine.

One of Hall’s favorite projects is a Halloween Countdown Clock, fashioned after the clock that hung on Town Hall in the center of Halloween Town in the film. She started with a clock kit, painted the face with a spider web design, added the months of the year and glued moss around the edges. For the countdown, she created a small wood sign with chalk paint where the days can be counted down.

“I tried to make it as accurate as possible,” she said, “which meant watching the movie a lot.”

Every good party needs activities and crafts. Some of the easy projects party guests can make and take home include Oogie Boogie playing cards with black-light paint that glows in the dark; glow-in-the-dark pumpkin heads; papier-mâché masks in the likenesses of Lock, Shock and Barrel, three imps from the movie; and vampire-protection parasols, which come in handy for the Dodge the Sunlight Vampire Game.

She also suggests a Jack the Pumpkin King Pumpkin-Carving Contest, Clawfoot bathtub races using inexpensive clawfoot tub soap dishes and a Halloween Town Costume Contest. How about a party favor bag made of burlap in the likeness of Oogie Boogie, the infamous boogeyman from the movie? Fill it with gummy worms.

Hall, who claims she can’t draw, knit or sew, but “crafts” in her exquisitely decorated home, devised the projects to require only common materials and basic skills, so even kids could do many of them.

Among them are the Jack and Sally rag dolls, which are fashioned from muslin and simply tied together with a little batting in their heads and dressed in “Nightmare Before Christmas” fabrics found at Joann’s fabric stores.

“I think I’m a pretty creative person, but I’m a terrible sewer, a terrible painter and terrible at drawing. So I tried to make it accessible to everyone,” she said. “What’s nice about ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is that none of it is perfect. It’s all a little messy. So that takes the pressure off a little bit.”

Hall said daughter Cecily was wide-eyed over the creations that came out of mommy’s twisted workshop. The only touchy moment came when she was making the creepy Christmas toys, which entailed slitting open a teddy bear and pulling out his stuffing, recreating a scene in the film.

“She came into my office when I was tearing this bear apart,” said a sheepish Hall, who has not let her curious little girl see the film just yet. “I’m pretty sure I just scarred her for life for that.”

It probably didn’t help that Hall and her husband rented out the house to an Indie film crew that recently filmed a murder scene in the living room.

A sweet stuffed animal can be turned into a scary toy befitting Jack Skellington’s scary Santa. This looks much like one featured in the movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
A sweet stuffed animal can be turned into a scary toy befitting Jack Skellington’s scary Santa. This looks much like one featured in the movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Entertaining for all seasons

The “Nightmare Before Christmas” entertaining guide can carry fans right into Christmas with recipes and projects for the holidays, such as an electric chair gussied up with Christmas lights, dreadful snow globes, scary snowmen and haunted gingerbread houses.

As for Hall’s own house, it should be haunted, given its age and history and how many people suffered and died there.

From 1917 to 1949, it was the Cherry Hill Sanitarium. A lot of people sickened during the 1918 and 1919 influenza pandemic either recovered or took their last breaths there. Villeggiante unearthed an old newspaper clipping about a poor man gored by a bull who was brought to the hospital that once was in their house. He didn’t make it.

In the 1980s, it was a home for the elderly. By then, it had deteriorated badly but was later rescued and restored. Hall, who is a member of the Heritage Homes of Petaluma board, and her husband, who works in telecom tech, improved it even more, working hard to restore its early 20th century beauty and make it warm and inviting with houseplants, botanical prints and some bright mid-century modern furnishings.

So far, there have been no signs of ghosts. Jack Skellington and the other ghoulish denizens of Halloween Town would find it far too cheerful.

“The house has a real happy vibe to it,” said Hall, who plans to delay her own “Nightmare“ Halloween party until Cecily is a little older. “It was definitely more oppressive-looking when we bought it. But I’ve never been creeped out here even once.”

Caroline Hall’s own 1905 Petaluma home was built as a hospital and sanitarium. If those walls could talk ... Fortunately, they don’t, said Caroline, who has yet to see a ghost. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Caroline Hall’s own 1905 Petaluma home was built as a hospital and sanitarium. If those walls could talk ... Fortunately, they don’t, said Caroline, who has yet to see a ghost. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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