Chris Leiszler is one Lawrencian unaffected by the lack of a Spirit Halloween store this year: crafting costumes in lieu of store-bought ones is his specialty.
Each year, Leiszler creates costumes for his two sons, Harrison, 13, and Bennett, 10. The costumes he makes are next-level — the sort that, to his youngest son’s delight, attract extra candy.
“I think this year’s costume will be my favorite,” Bennett says. “I’m going to be a huge T. Rex, and the head will move, and the mouth will open and close so people can put the candy in there.”
“It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’d say either the Zoltar machine or the one where it looked like Elton John lounging on top of a piano,” Harrison says of his previous costumes.
The costumes gain admiration from passersby.
“I like seeing people’s reactions to our costumes,” Harrison says. “It’s funny to watch their faces as we pass them on the sidewalk. … We get a lot of laughs and people do a lot of double takes. I think they’re always impressed with the creativity.”
From Mount Rushmore to a mad scientist with a missing head, the costumes Leiszler creates require time, attention to detail, and a willingness to work late at night while his sons are sleeping.
“There are so many details, so you gotta start early,” Leiszler advises. “You know, there’s a lot of trial and error …. I didn’t finish last year’s costume for the pirate ship until two hours before we went trick-or-treating.”
Leiszler’s annual goal is to find an idea and stretch it to its limits until he runs out of time. Last year, he made a Jack Sparrow costume for Bennett, but what started out as a pirate became a pirate inside of a ship, and then a pirate inside of a ship with an octopus attacking it.
Leiszler was attaching suction cups to the octopus as a finishing touch on the afternoon of Halloween.
A dentist, Leiszler loves Halloween because it allows him to be creative. Ever since he fashioned his first costume as a fifth grader — a box robot — he has viewed Halloween as an artistic outlet. Once he had sons, he was determined to make them Halloween costumes yearly.
His sons have only ever worn costumes he’s constructed. (When asked what he thought of store-bought costumes, Bennett asked, “What are store-bought costumes?”)
Chicken wire, electrical wire, craft foam, zip ties, Polyfil, and pantyhose — the list of Leiszler’s DIY supplies is immense and surprising.
“I do a lot of wandering around hardware stores and brainstorming,” he says. “The Mount Rushmore costume is made out of papier mâché over chicken wire, and plastic president masks that I got on Amazon. … Just always ask yourself, ‘What’s one thing we can do to make it a little better?’”
Local makeup artist Devra Arkeketa operates by a philosophy similar to Leiszler’s: elevate the costume until it’s time to go.
Arkeketa creates her own costumes, and she hopes the absence of Spirit Halloween will inspire other locals to lean into more DIY costumes, too.
Lover of all things Halloween, Arkeketa is a makeup artist for the Worlds of Fun Halloween Haunt, one of the largest Halloween-themed events in the Midwest. Knowing how to do makeup gives Arkeketa more arsenal to work with when she’s conjuring costume ideas.
“I think makeup always finishes the costume,” she says. “You could have a really good costume, but then when you have some really cool special effects going on with it, it brings it to the next level. Sometimes you don’t even need a costume. Like if I’m feeling lazy, I’ll always just do Lost Boys’ makeup. It works with my regular punk style already.”
Last year, Arkeketa created a popcorn clown costume. She was working at Liberty Hall on Halloween, and she wanted to do something related to a movie theater.
“I did clown makeup, … but I wasn’t quite sure how to make the clown look cute instead of scary … because that’s what I’m used to doing,” she says. “A rule of thumb is (clowns) don’t usually do pointy triangles because it’s a little scary, so I (decided) I’ll just put little dots at the end to make it a little more friendly looking.”
Scary is Arkeketa’s forte. One year, she made a nurse zombie costume that featured bloody syringes sticking from both arms. For that effect, she attached syringes to a pair of imperceptible pantyhose she wore as sleeves.
“People loved it — they hated it because they were like, eww, but they loved it,” she says.
Less scary and more quirky is Felicia Goodison’s style.
Goodison, a communication manager for an engineering firm, says she’s just an “extra” person, and Halloween resonates with that aspect of her personality.
“So I just love … the idea of planning for something … and I also like to be silly. I like to make people laugh,” she says. “I like to make people uncomfortable. In my current job I work with a bunch of engineers, so I show up and I’m probably the only person dressed up and I’m ridiculous and everyone’s just like, ‘Oh God.’”
Nowadays, Goodison’s costumes are often thematic, encompassing her whole family.
“I kind of injected (my love for Halloween) into my kids, where I don’t usually get to look as cute because I’m putting all the effort into them,” she says. “Last year we did ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ The year before that we were able to do ‘Hocus Pocus,’ which was really fun.”
“So if you can kind of see, I’m Penny Marshall, and my husband was in the devil costume. So you find the little abstract characters to go with it.”
Over the years, Goodison has amassed a few insights she’d like to impart to new do-it-yourselfers: avoid store-bought wigs, and instead commission someone, perhaps a grandma, to crochet more comfortable ones; eschew masks for makeup; hit up thrift stores; and buy base outfits you can integrate into your regular wardrobe after Halloween.
“I didn’t buy a scarecrow costume,” she says. “I got a big green shirt, and I got brown pants, things that you could potentially wear again.”
Creating Halloween costumes is a family tradition for Annie Rajaei. She and her daughter Aubrey, 11, decide what they’re going to be after each Halloween, then stick with it throughout the year. Rajaei lets her daughter lead the way.
“For kids it’s usually always what’s, you know, mainstream and what their friends like and … it always warms my heart when she wants something odd and it’s all her choice,” Rajaei says.
Typically, Aubrey gravitates toward the offbeat: Beetlejuice, Nacho Libre, Jack Skellington and Stock from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” are a few of her greatest hits.
“The act of making (a costume) is exciting and it’s therapeutic and it’s fun,” Rajael says. “And then you can be proud that you’ve made something and your kids always appreciate something that you did for them instead of just … buying it at a store and then you can also … do a lot more with it.”
For anyone contemplating a DIY costume, Rajaei says there’s still time.
Leiszler will be using all of it. Over the next several weeks, his living room, and maybe his dining room, will be transformed into a studio space so he can work on Bennett’s 10-foot-long T. Rex costume nightly once his boys are in bed. His wife, Anne-Marie, will look the other way, he jokes.
“It will be nice to have my living room back in the months of September and October one day,” she says. “But these will make good memories.”
We contacted Spirit Halloween corporate to inquire about why the lease for the Lawrence store was not renewed, but they said they couldn’t comment on specific locations.
Want to DIY?
For those who are considering a homemade costume this year, Arkeketa helped us generate a list of easy options:
Materials: mechanic coverall, toy knife, mask or facepaint.
Materials: a brown coat or flannel, toy knife, a hockey mask.
Materials: sweatpants, a sweatshirt, iron-on white number.
“This is a good one for people who aren’t sure what they want to be, that’s easy,” Arkeketa says. “You could hot glue magnets and peeps to your shirt and be a ‘chick magnet.’ You can have an umbrella with like, stuffed animals hanging from it and be, ‘It’s raining cats and dogs.’”
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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.