The 'American Horror Stories' Production Designer Shares Spooky Decorating Tips

Jack-o'-lanterns in trees from a set for "American Horror Stories"

Courtesy of FX

With October comes the excuse to pull out all the stops and get as creepy and as crawly as you want in your home decor plans. In anticipation of the spookiest season, we turned to the master of unsettling decor: Eve McCarney, production designer of the premiere season of American Horror Stories, the anthology series based in the world of the long-running American Horror Story franchise.

We spoke with McCarney about her own love for the Halloween season, her experiences designing sets that range from campy to bone-chilling, and her tips for bringing the frightful fun home.

Find Inspiration Everywhere

When it comes to sourcing inspiration for her set designs, McCarney’s inspiration is as varied as the scenes and sets themselves. “I find my inspiration from a variety of sources ... art history and photography books, architecture texts, Taschen’s Decorative Arts series, the Library of Congress (for period reference), Architectural Digest, interior design, Flickr, Pinterest, and classic films," she says.

In episode three of the new American Horror Stories, "Drive-In," McCarney looked for inspiration across decades, from the seventies and eighties to present-day. “I grew up in the eighties and have a special place in my heart for the horror films,” she says. “When first reading the script, I envisioned a vintage aesthetic. It felt right given the main set was a relic from a time past. Employing a primary palette, retro neon, and vintage horror posters aided greatly in cultivating a creepy and stylized environment for our characters.” 

If there's a box of vintage decor tucked away in your parents' attic, follow McCarney's lead and look for inspiration inside. Now is definitely the time to pull that out and take a peek.

Scene from "American Horror Stories" outside theater

Courtesy of FX

Lighting Is Key

On-set, McCarney knows better than anyone that lighting is key. “For Halloween decorating, I’m a huge fan of using novelty lights. I have a set of vintage jack-o’-lanterns that I always hang in my kitchen. It creates this orange glow that always gets me into the Halloween spirit,” she says.

Halloween is definitely a time where more is more. “The main source of my moody Halloween lighting comes from my many jack-o’-lanterns," she says. "I have ceramic and metal ones. I always have them loaded up with candles and light them whenever I’m watching a spooky movie. For exterior decorating, I like to use orange, purple, and black mini china balls on my front porch. It’s classic and simple yet festive.”

Play With Shadows

While lighting is important, to really amp up the sinister vibes, McCarney relies on an atmosphere of shadows.

“[In the AHS "Drive-In" episode], I opted for dark gray aged concrete block walls with a dark blue ribbed metal ceiling and vintage tile floor in the projection room to enhance the creep factor," she says. "In the editing room, I chose a Shining-esque wallpaper that, combined with the vintage film equipment, gave off a subtle air of uneasiness.”

While lots of small lights are great at Halloween, don't bathe everything in light. Be sure to play with the space in between, too.

Editing room from "American Horror Stories"

Courtesy of FX

Create Scaled-Down Versions of Your Favorite TV and Film Sets

As is evident onscreen, the Halloween Carnival in episode two of American Horror Stories was intentionally grandiose. “A huge crane shot was planned for the approach, and it was vital to create an air of wonderment. There are a lot of elements from this set that could be re-conceived into home Halloween decor," says McCarney.

“Black trees, small or large, with Halloween ornaments, fairy lights, and cobwebs are a great element to add to any design,” she says. “Similarly, you can purchase branches, spray paint them black (matte or gloss), add some fairy lights and Halloween ribbon for a spooky centerpiece. To elevate it even further, add some eyeballs, too. Utilizing Spanish lanterns is another [option]—ours were black iron with textured orange glass. These can be used any time of year but are especially appropriate at Halloween given the colors. They come in a range of sizes to fit any concept.”

Set from Halloween Carnival in "American Horror Stories"

Courtesy of Eve McCarney

Don't Forget to Decorate Outdoors

Because the Halloween Carnival takes place outside, McCarney has loads of ideas for how to implement her design concepts in a front or backyard. “Skeletons with corn behind them are a great addition to any trees in your yard or columns on your porch," she says. "It’s a simple yet effective way to add some outdoor spook to your neighborhood."

Another option involves a slight DIY project with maximal pay-off. "The entrance [of the Carnival] consisted of gnarled dead trees adorned with skeletons, and coming out of the hay bales below were the half jack-o’-lanterns surrounded by bamboo stalks," McCarney says. "When we lit them up the effect was fantastic!”

To create the look, McCarney says, "We used plastic jack-o’-lanterns and cut them with a jigsaw, then installed small sockets into the back of them for the lighting effect. It could also be done using real pumpkins. They can be installed in potted plants, garden beds, or directly into the ground. Very creepy and very compelling."

Close-up of jack-o'-lanterns from set in "American Horror Stories"

Courtesy of Eve McCarney

Think Outside the Halloween Box

While there are plenty of incredible traditional Halloween decorations featured in the series—and McCarney walked us through some of the best—she also turned to the script to inspire more nuanced backdrops that were just as unsettling.

“The core aim to create these disturbing and highly elevated environments was meant to reflect the characters and enhance the story,” says McCarney. While this might sound a bit over the top when approaching holiday home decor, there’s something to be said for looking past the usual cobwebs and headstones and getting creative with the things you might already have on hand. 

“I utilized metaphor and subtle nuances in color palette, texture, and tone to foreshadow the coming horrors. An example would be Scarlett’s room in episode two," says McCarney. "I opted for a textured black wallpaper adorned with silver geometric shapes and small faces. It felt so perfect for Scarlet [a character in the episode]—a subtle nod to her emerging dark spirit and inner struggle with her ongoing evolution. The room was further decorated with reflective surfaces, black furniture, and butterfly collections, symbols that resonate with her ongoing metamorphosis.”

Bedroom set from "American Horror Stories"

Courtesy of FX

There’s More Than Just Orange and Black

While you can’t exactly go wrong with black and orange this time of year, McCarney encourages people to add a new spin. “I love the look of black and purple with silver—an elevated take on the classic palette,” she says. “Another favorite is black and white stripes with crimson as an accent color—a nice nod to horror and blood.”

And if you’ve been paying attention to trends (particularly 2022 Color of the Year predictions from places such as PPG, Behr, and Sherwin-Williams) you’ll know that all shades of green are currently very in at the moment. McCarney tells us that Halloween decor is no different: “I’ve always liked orange, dark green, and black, which is unique and very effective.”

Elevate Traditional Pieces

McCarney also encourages people to embrace their favorite Halloween trends and elevate them by mixing in more common, everyday objects. 

“I’m a big fan of the metal jack-o’-lanterns that have been trending for the last several years,” she says, adding that you can mix and match different styles, and add in a few well-made Halloween characters for a full display. “One of my all-time favorites is a 2-foot-tall ceramic owl wearing a witch’s hat and sitting on a jack-o'-lantern. It’s whimsical and retro.” 

But it’s how McCarney enhances her Halloween vignettes that makes them next level—and it’s all with items you can use year-round. “I love the potion bottles that a lot of places sell," she says. "They’re fun and subtle. I [also] love to use mercury glass, metal candle holders, and geodes or crystals to add to the Halloween vibe.”

When All Else Fails, Incorporate Nature

While there are plenty of incredible store-bought decor pieces to be found, McCarney revealed that she used plenty of natural elements in her production designs, too.

“We used a lot of natural elements for the Halloween Carnival—black manzanita trees, dried corn stalks, bamboo, hay bales, and grapevines. We even built wicker men out of dried willow branches,” she says. But her use of natural elements didn’t just stop here. It’s a constant theme throughout this season—and one that can easily be incorporated into your home Halloween plans.

Best of all, many great, spooky natural decorative items are things you may never have considered for Halloween. “In episode five, 'Ba’al,' we used tree branches and a variety of plants in the mansion to illustrate vitality," McCarney says. "For the demon ritual symbol created on the floor, we utilized kosher salt. In episode six, 'Feral,' we created weaponry out of shark jawbones and grapevine for the creatures. Additionally, we built a crown of bones and vines for the feral king. In episode seven, 'Game Over,' black rose petals led the characters up the stairs into Scarlett’s room—a subtle sign of the horrors to come."

It’s All in the Details

As with designing her sets, McCarney revealed that she also turns to small embellishments in her own home decor: “A few years ago, I bought these little wooden ornaments—a witch, devil, vampire, demon—and I hang them from my lamp chains around the house.”

Repurpose Old Items

As McCarney created her production designs for this season, she looked at classic decorations and considered how to reimagine their uses. 

“I was researching for unique ideas to decorate both the neighborhood and the Halloween Carnival for American Horror Stories, and I was inspired by two images I found,” she tells us. “The first was pumpkins in trees. I had never seen that before. We purchased vintage jack-o’-lantern buckets along with paper pumpkin lanterns to hang from the tree adjacent to the house.” This proved to be an easy but incredibly effective way of reusing old trick-or-treat buckets, for a playful pop of color.

Jack-o'-lanterns in trees from a set for "American Horror Stories"

Courtesy of Eve McCarney

American Horror Stories is currently streaming for FX on Hulu.