DIY Halloween Hacks

Trying to liven up your ghosts and goblins this Halloween? Windell Oskay, cofounder of Mad Evil Scientist, shares homemade hack ideas for a festive fright fest, from LED jack-o'-lanterns, to 3D printed candy, to spooky specimen jars.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

It's October. That means, to a lot of people, Halloween. To me, it means the World Series, but that's something else. For the past few years we've been thinking up ways to help you make your Halloween party, your front door, your lawn display, something special, something a bit geekier than your neighbor's. Halloween can be a tinkering geek's favorite holiday.

You've got your haunted houses, pumpkin carving, dressing up as your favorite scientist. It's never too early to get a jump on your sopped-up decorations, like how about turning your pumpkin into a Cylon jack o'lantern or 3D-printing some candy. So we thought we'd give you a little bit of time because we're going to talk about some geeky things you can make on your own, pretty simple stuff if you'd like to try, give you a few weeks to get it all working till Halloween rolls around.

And here to tell us and help us out with some tips is Windell Oksay - Oskay, I'm sorry. Windell, co-founder of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories in Sunnyvale, California, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Windell.

WINDELL OSKAY: Thank you. It's an honor to be here.

FLATOW: Why is Halloween such a good time to make a project?

OSKAY: Well, we love to make things and Halloween is that one holiday of the year that is really focused on making cool stuff. And it starts out when you're a kid and you learn to make your costume and you make decorations for the house. There's a lot of other holidays where you might decorate the house, but Halloween is more about making stuff than any of the others, and we really love that.

FLATOW: Now let's get right into some of these things. You have a robotic snapping pumpkin. How do you make that?

OSKAY: Yeah.

FLATOW: Describe that.

OSKAY: This is one of my favorite projects. So what we have is one of those little mini pumpkins about the size of your palm. And you cut it in half such that it's got a bunch of big, fangly teeth, and the top is separate from the bottom. Using a couple of toothpicks, you can make a little hinge such that the top can open, and it sort of opens and closes if you manipulate it by hand. So that's pretty neat. You have a little pumpkin that has jaws. But now what we do is we introduce a microcontroller, which is a little tiny microchip that you can program - it's like a baby computer - and inside that we put a program and a little tiny motor, and a couple of LEDs.

We put the LEDs up on top to give it a couple of eyes, and we put the motor inside such that it can open up the jaw and close it. Now, the cool part about this is you set it on a timer. The motor and the little microcontroller works like a timer. It sits there for 30 seconds not doing anything. And then the jaw slowly opens. And then it snaps shut all at once. And so this is great because...

(LAUGHTER)

OSKAY: ...we have little kids walk up to this and they look at it and they see it not do anything, and then it starts to open the jaw, and they start putting their finger towards the mouth and it goes snap...

FLATOW: Oh.

OSKAY: ...and they jump back by feet. It's wonderful.

FLATOW: No kids are hurt in this, right?

OSKAY: Oh, absolutely not. And, you know, if they put their fingers in, they'd be perfectly safe. It's just pumpkin teeth.

FLATOW: Yeah.

OSKAY: It's OK.

FLATOW: Where can they see - where can you get the plans on how to build this thing?

OSKAY: On our website, Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, that's evilmadscientist.com. And that's called the Snap-O-Lantern. And we have a bunch of other projects on our website as well that are from very technologically challenging like that one...

FLATOW: Yeah.

OSKAY: ...down to very simple ones you can build at home.

FLATOW: Give me a simple one. How about the LED stuff that you can make?

OSKAY: OK. So the LED stuff is simple to somebody like me that happens to have lots of LEDs lying around at home. And that's the distinction we need to draw, what is simple versus what is simple to make from what you already have at home. So...

FLATOW: But you can get all the stuff on the Internet, just order it.

OSKAY: Oh, absolutely. And that's what we encourage everyone to do. And one of our favorite simple LED projects is called LED ghosties. So you take a little white LED, actually two little white LEDs, you hook up each one of them to a little lithium coin cell, and you just hook it up directly and it lights up. Now, you take these two and you tape them to the inside of an empty two-liter bottle. Now you take that two-liter bottle and you hang a piece of white sheet over it and hang it from a string in your yard. Now you have a floating, glowing ghost that has a sheet, but also glowing eyes mysteriously floating somewhere inside of it.

FLATOW: I love that one. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Windell Oskay.

So that's a simple one. I saw also you had a simple one that will certainly be useful for Halloween, for lighting up the driveway or the walkway or just to your front door using LEDs also, inside a Mason jar, just very simple.

OSKAY: Yeah. So you can do the same thing as the ghosts, but if you forget to put the sheet on, just put them in a Mason jar; it's sort of a temporary garden light. Nowadays it's really easy to get these solar garden lights. They only cost a couple dollars each. So there's not much reason to use a battery instead of just using a solar light now.

FLATOW: Yeah. But you have to give a hacker, a hobbyist, any reason not to do something. I mean they want to do this because they want to do it, right?

OSKAY: Oh, absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah.

You have hacked - you even hacked into a Lego figurine, which was quite fascinating. Tell us about that.

OSKAY: OK. So there's this wild coincidence, which is that the most common size of LEDs that you can get happens to fit like a glove into the head of a Lego mini figure. And that's because the pitch - the little dots on Legos are 5 millimeters across, and so are these LEDs. So if you take the head off of a Lego mini figure, you can just stick an LED inside and light it up. And we did that. But to make it interesting, you don't want just a little glowing yellow head with a smile, so what we did is we took the backside of a head, actually, so you can't see the face, and we carved into it.

And we carved a little jack-o'-lantern face with two triangular eyes and a big toothy smile. And now we have a glowing jack-o'-lantern. And now we take a mini figure, Lego mini figure, and put that head back on it, and now we have a classic headless horseman, you know, pumpkinhead guy, that you can make, and that's pretty easy to make, but it requires a lot of skill with an X-ACTO knife or some very fine motor control in order to actually do that kind of carving.

FLATOW: Yeah. You said on your blog that your fingers were not in good shape. You should've used a drill instead of just the knife.

OSKAY: Yeah. So I didn't stab my fingers or anything. That's the likely hazard when you're using an X-ACTO knife. But I was just holding the little Lego head so firmly between my fingers for the hour or two that it took to carve it that they really hurt afterwards.

FLATOW: You had some really gross-looking - I mean gross in a good way - specimen jars that you make.

OSKAY: Yeah. So besides technological projects like LEDs and things, we also do a lot of food-making. And we try and do unusual things no one has ever done before. So you know, of course our website is Evil Mad Scientist. We are the, you know, we want to do things that are evocative of mad scientist laboratories. And one of those classics is the specimen jars. And sometimes if you go to a museum, you'll see these old sets of preserved things...

FLATOW: Right.

OSKAY: ...you know, some frogs or something really disgusting removed from some animal's intestine. And it's preserved in some yellow sickly liquid and it's formeldehyde or alcohol or something. And whatever's inside has been faded and is really nasty. So we thought, well, let's do that. It looks just like that, except let's make it dinner.

And so, for example, one of the things we did is we took some chicken breakfast sausages, and we perforated them very carefully with a fork in just the right place, so when they cooked, they bent along those perforation lines. And then when they're cooked, they look just like fingers because they have a couple of bends there like knuckles do. We put those in a Mason jar with a little bit of soup, and now you have a legitimate appetizer, but it really looks like you have somebody's cut-off fingers in a jar.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to keep that there.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Very appetizing for your party, cut-off fingers in a jar. We're going to come back and talk more with Windell Oskay. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Windell Oskay from Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories in Sunnyvale, California. He is chief hacker at the website of the same name. We're talking about stuff to make for Halloween. Let's - you talk about those great finger sausages. Let's talk about the Cylon pumpkin you made with a Larson scanner. It sounds like something out of "The Big Bang Theory." What is that?

OSKAY: OK. So Larson scanner is a term that we coined that is named after Glen A. Larson, who is the producer of the classic TV shows "Battlestar Galactica" and "Knight Rider," both of which had the - either the robots or the car with the scanning red light that goes back and forth. And when we wanted to make a Cylon pumpkin, we used that term to describe this set of red lights going back and forth.

And so the idea is you take your pumpkin, you carve it to look like a classic "Battlestar Galactica" Cylon, and then you put this set of red scanning back and forth lights inside. And there's a couple different ways to make that. We've talked about making it using some discrete classic electronics like a 555 timer chip, or using a microcontroller. And we also make a kit that is easy to solder together and put into your pumpkin.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And also, what about the pumpkin? Can you make a costume out of a pumpkin, a real pumpkin?

OSKAY: You can, but I'm not sure you should. So...

(LAUGHTER)

OSKAY: We went to a Halloween wedding last year. And for that, we made a - my wife and I made a couples costume, where we had a pair of pumpkinheads, which were actually literal pumpkins that we hollowed out and wore. And this is very challenging to make it - make the walls thin enough...

FLATOW: Yeah.

OSKAY: ...that you can bear the weight of it. If the pumpkin's big enough to fit over your head, it weighs a lot.

FLATOW: I'll bet. And if you want to see more of your stuff to make, Windell, where should we look, on your website?

OSKAY: Yes. Evilmadscientist.com.

FLATOW: Evilmadscientist.com. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today, and Happy Halloween.

OSKAY: Thank you.

FLATOW: And if you want to see those topics, you can go over to that website.

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