Making a Hatbox Ghost Costume

When the costume doesn't exist, it's time to DIY

December 5, 2023

Our kid was almost done with Halloween this year. We were days away from October, and he had zero interest in any costume ideas. “What about Star Wars?,” we’d ask, “or Marvel? How about a video game character?” Nothing really piqued his interest, until …

Well, let’s go back a few years. Disney World. 2018. Our tenth anniversary. We decided that he was finally old enough to ride the Haunted Mansion. We waited in the longer queue so he could enjoy all of the fun interactive bits on the way in and get a feel for the unique combination of the macabre and the mirthful. Then we entered the Stretching Room, things went dark, and he was NOT INTERESTED anymore. He went on the ride, and he tolerated it, but it did not bring him any joy afterward.

We were a little disheartened by that, but not entirely surprised. After all, it took a couple visits to get him on Space Ranger Spin and that was when Buzz Lightyear was his favorite character. He’d come around to Haunted Mansion eventually, we reasoned. And he did.

When we went back to Disney World in 2022, we convinced him to try it again. This time, he enjoyed the juxtaposition of haunt and hilarity in the Stretching Room, and when the lights went out briefly, he squeezed our hands tighter but then he was okay. We hopped on, and it was instantly one of his favorite rides. We rode it several more times that trip at HIS request. My heart was full.

At some point in the last year, we watched Behind the Attraction on Disney+, and he insisted on watching the episode about the Haunted Mansion with us. We got to a bit about the Hatbox Ghost, and we were all aghast - how had we missed that amazing illusion? Ahh, it was only in the Disneyland version. (At the time.)

A photo of the Hatbox Ghost from the Disneyland Haunted Mansion attraction
This image was a screen capture from Behind the Attraction.

Well, we got the opportunity to see it when we went to Disneyland this past summer, and it was every bit as delightful as in the show. So when one of us suggested that he dress as the Hatbox Ghost for Halloween … well, it was an instant yes. Great. Oh, now we had to make the costume.

My wife handled the majority of the costume and did an amazing job sourcing various parts. She found a perfectly shaped top hat (expanding slightly outward at the top). She got skeleton gloves, a delightful black Victorian cape, and a blackout full head face mask. At the nearby Spirit Halloween, we discovered a skull-covered overcoat in a kids’ pirate costume and a walking cane with a skull and top hat. The clothing was PERFECT.

Making the Hatbox

I decided to tackle making a custom hatbox with a specter inside. So I started with the supplies:

  • a metal Halloween bucket
  • a black velvet skull (the velvet wasn’t necessary, but the size was perfect)
  • air-dry clay,
  • black and white acrylic paint
  • black spray paint
  • cardboard
  • and a small set of purple lights.

I cut a rectangular hole along one side of the metal bucket (removing the Jack-o-Lantern face that it came with) using a Dremel with a metal saw attachment. This was a first for me and both fun and a bit alarming, with sparks flying. (I was prepared for this and in a safe environment with proper protection.)

The bucket I used had a jack-o-lantern face before I cut that out using a Dremel with a steel-cutting blade.
I cut a rectangular hole about a foot wide and a little more than a foot tall.

I then used my Proxon Hot Wire Cutter to carve off the back half of the skull so I could place it flush against a board inside the bucket. Here I discovered that there was a small concrete ball embedded inside the skull to give it a little weight. This wasn’t a major problem - just a bit confusing as the hot wire sliced through the rest of the skull like butter until it snagged on the concrete.

Once I had just the front of the skull, I started shaping the air-dry clay around the face, building up extra clay around the eyebrows, cheekbones, and chin to accentuate them (as they are in the Hatbox Ghost). I also formed small orbs for the pupils (and put small nails through them to affix them to the skull later). I also shaped some of the nasal cavity outward from the skull and added more defined teeth.

The black velvet skull and a packet of DAS air dry clay
The skull with the clay modeled on top, but unpainted.

Once the clay was shaped and left to dry for a couple days, I painted it, first with a coat of Mod Podge and matte black acrylic to seal it. Then I laid on two coats of white acrylic, leaving the spaces for the eyes, nose, and mouth black (except for individual teeth). Once those coats were dry and settled, I dry brushed on a light layer of dark around the mouth, nose, and brow to give an illusion of stretch marks.

The skull with the first coat of white paint on (the black by itself didn't photograph well, unsurprisingly). The teeth are roughly painted in and there are spots where the black shows through the first coat.
The skull with the second coat of white paint and some light dry brushing of grey around the mouth, nose, and eyebrow to give it a stretched look.

While the skull was drying, I smoothed out the cut edges of the bucket by cutting short incisions from the corners with some steel-cutting pliers then folding the edges inward. I spray painted the outside of the bucket matte black.

I made a lid for the bucket from cardboard by tracing the larger circle of the top of the bucket then cutting a slightly wider circle in cardboard. I cut a half circle arc on one side and folded it upward to function as a lid for the box (my son used the back half as his trick or treat bucket). To make the outside rim of the lid, I measured the circumference of the lid and cut a long narrow strip of cardboard. I curved it by pulling it back and forth over the curved corner of a table repeatedly. I then taped the lid and rim together using short overlapping strips of duct tape, leaving holes between the lid and the rim at the spots where the bucket handle was affixed. I then spray painted the lid matte black as well.

I measured the inside of the bucket and cut out another piece of cardboard to serve as backing for the skull and spray painted that as well. Once the skull, bucket, and lid were dry, I set about putting everything together.

I taped the light strand inside the bucket, wrapping it around the square hole with the last few inches of the strand at the bottom going into a small controller on the other side of the bucket from the hole.

To create the ragged hair, I made several loops of white yarn about 5-6 inches long and tied the loops into a knot at one end. I cut the other end of the loops then proceeded to unthread the strands of yarn to make the “hair” thinner and more wild-looking. I then stapled the knotted ends into both sides of the skull on the back. I affixed the skull to the backing board by screwing through the board into the back of the skull, and then slid the board into the bucket.

I put the lid on top then reattached the bucket handle. My son didn’t like the feel of the plain metal handle so I made a leather wrap for the handle by wrapping it tightly with a leather cord, which also made it look even more antique. Once it was all assembled, I turned on the lights by pressing the button on the controller.

An animated gif showing the lights fading in and out on the completed hatbox.

All in all, the costume was a smash hit. Most of the neighbors had no idea who he was supposed to be. Guesses ranged from the headless horseman to Dracula. BUT the few Disney aficionados we met up with loved the costume and instantly knew. And my son was beside himself.

A final photo of the costume and the hatbox together on Halloween