The Ultimate Grim Reaper Costume
In 1998 we started having Halloween parties for our kids and over the years I had constructed a customized Grim Reaper costume that lasted over 15 years. Even took 2nd place at a major Halloween party in Salem Massachusetts. I’ve always wanted to improve on my Reaper but it was never worth it until I started working for a local haunt in Massachusetts last year. Last year I introduced my old reaper costume to the masses and it was a major hit at this park and I finally had the motivation I needed to build Grim Reaper 2.0. The First Goal: Make Reaper 2.0 extremely intimidating! Some people are just not afraid of the dark so this needs to either intimidate or highly impress the brave souls first. Height – 8 feet tall, 3.5 feet wide, exposed bones, accurate proportions (cannot look goofy, must look like a giant skeleton), make sure there is no human qualities visible. The Second Goal: Make Reaper 2.0 scare everyone else without ever having to make a sound. Yelling and screaming does scare a few but mostly startles people. I want to see FEAR!!! Have to be able to move quickly and quietly with good visibility so you can seemingly appear out of no where. How I achieved this… Planning is critical. You need to determine how to do all of this with what you have lying around your house or plan on spending a lot of money to get the materials you need. Building something like this does take an investment and I budgeted about $500 for this costume and built everything from scratch. THIS is the key! Building something from the ground up is truly unique and you never have to worry about running into anyone wearing the same costume. Download several images from the internet as reference for the ribcage, skull, arms and overall look that you want to achieve. I used a mix of real images and some artist’s drawings that had that scary look I wanted to replicate. Things you will need to
- Alice backpack frame
- PVC pipe 1” and ¾ “
- Duct tape
- Liquid latex – black, 1 gallon
- Aluminum crutches
- Black burlap – roughly 30 yards
- Several other black materials that you want to add to your costume
- Wire hangers
- led lights, battery packs and wiring to enhance this if you want
- Tools used: Drill, rivet gun, hot knife, saws, utility knife, utility brushes, air brush, spray paints
Build a PVC stand to build everything to size. Mount the Alice pack frame on the stand so it is at the same height when it will be worn. Disassemble a pair of aluminum crutches and size up the aluminum poles to be used as extensions on the Alice pack to raise the shoulder level higher than your head. I used the existing poles that have 1” extension settings so the shoulder height can be adjusted up or down by 1”. Attached the PVC pipes to establish the shoulder width and use the flexible PVC pipes to build and shape a frame for the ribcage. This is a trial and error process because you have to plan for how this will fit around you and how you will get in and out of the costume. I used several paper templates to establish the exact size of the ribs, arms, neck and skull to get the exact proportions I wanted for this. I carefully positioned the location for the shoulder joints using ringlets screwed into the PVC. Everything else will be based on this so take your time and make sure you can fit well in this before continuing. This is where you need to have some artistic abilities. I never attempted something like this before so I’m pretty surprised at how well this came out but I just took my time and kept referring to reference images and constantly adjusting. The paper templates make it easy. The ribcage was challenging because it had to be shaped around the frame, be flexible but also durable. There’s probably better materials to use but this is what I had available. I decided to carve the actual ribs out of white Styrofoam and covered it with several layers of liquid latex so I would have something light and flexible. Using the template, I simply shaped the front of the ribs in the foam using a utility knife, rasp and sandpaper then covered the front with latex to hold it together. Next, using the hot knife, I removed the back of the Styrofoam until I got the depth of the ribs that I wanted. A good hot knife is NOT cheap. I own one and it was perfect to make quick work with the foam. It would take more time but the extra material can be removed with rasps, wire brushes and utility knifes. Once I had the thickness of the ribs I wanted, I coated the back with one coat of latex to totally encase the Styrofoam in rubber. I then used duct tape to secure the ribs to the PVC frame and to hold everything in place. Once satisfied with that, I covered the entire ribcage and frame in 3 – 4 coats of latex rubber making the entire ribcage durable enough to take years of abuse.
Carving the Skull
The skull took an entire weekend to sculpt. I started by gluing several pieces of dense wall insulation foam board together. You can use some spray glues or spray foam insulation to glue foam together. At this point I held my breath and hoped for the best. The first thing was to get the basic size of the skull that would work on the reaper. It had to be bigger than any human head but not so big that it looks goofy. This part involved hand saws, rasps and wire brushes. At this point, the skull is still bigger than I wanted but I knew it would be reduced in size as I continued to sculpt the details. Better to start big. The dense foam was difficult to work with and I tried using several tools to figure out what worked best. I found that I had to use a dremel rotary tool to work with this foam. Anything else simply caused damage to the material. I used a combination of small grinding bits and various wire brush attachments for the dremel which worked great. By the way, if you don’t already own a dust collector, it’s a good investment for a project like this. The amount of foam dust is insane and will cover every inch of your body. Here’s some progressive photos of the skull. The final step for the skull was to coat it with a special epoxy coating I ordered online.
Details and Cloak
This was a challenge because you have to put aside any reference drawings and start looking at what will look good in the costume. What you want to show and what you want to hide will determine how much work you put into this. I wanted as much of the ribs to show as possible without seeing a person inside. The construction here involved the same process as above. I used various pieces of foam and PVC to build the shapes and then covered with the black latex rubber to hold all together and still allow some flexibility where it was needed. I also covered all of the bones with a base coat of off white or antique spray paint so all the bones have a uniform color. I also added the lower arms and hands to the frame. I don’t have instructions for these because I had made them years ago using wire hangers, PVC tubes, duct tape, pen tubes and latex rubber. They were the perfect size for this project and with a little paint, they went from monster hands to skeleton hands very quickly. After extensive searches on the internet for the best looking reaper cloak, I settled on a Jedi or rather Sith cloak for this costume. This was a perfect choice because I wanted the cloak to flow in the wind as I moved around. Having a single piece of material wrapped around you looks like you’re wearing a dress and isn’t very scary. There are plenty of plans on the internet on how to create this robe. The hard part was sizing it for the Reaper. At 8’ tall, it took close to 24 yards of black burlap and I had to spread the material out in my driveway to mark it out and make the cuts. Ok, I’m no seamstress and I don’t own a sewing machine so I had to sew this cloak entirely by hand. Buy a large needle and some strong black string and give up a weekend or two and you’ll be satisfied with the results. Under the cloak, I found a great nylon stretchy material that was heavy and hangs like a drape creating a great covering for my body. The stretchiness of the material makes it easy to move around and it hangs so well under the ribs that it almost appears as if there’s no body underneath. Oh, and I had to hand sew this as well so I took the easy way out. I bought 4 yards of material, cut a hole in the center for my head and draped it over my body covering my front and back. Then I only had to stich up about four feet on each side to create a makeshift dress. Yes, I’m wearing a dress and it looks good!
Once I was finished with the cloak and ‘dress’, I removed it to paint the bones. It would be difficult to get a great old bone look without airbrushing this and where I want the bones to show, I had to go into a lot of detail here. I took the approach of making the bones darker than I originally planned so it would look very evil in daylight and even scarier at night. I also mounted some red LED lights for the eyes. Basic setup with a switch and battery and there’s plenty of instructions online for lighting so I’ll leave this to your own imagination. However, while walking through an auto store, I came across some red LED light strips for a car and bought a few to shin up from the collar bone to light the skull from below and the second strip shined down lighting behind the ribcage making it appear there is nothing behind the ribs. These light strips were easy and perfect. They come prepackaged with batteries and a button. I only had to stick them in place and extend the wires so I could press the buttons at will. I also used the handle from the crutches to create a nice grip to manipulate the arms just below the elbows. All the wires ran to the back of the frame and I created some areas behind the shoulders that would fill out the back of the costume and hold the batteries. I have very good visibility inside this costume and I wear a black nylon hood over my face so even when the red lights are on, you cannot see any details behind the ribs creating a wonderful hollow effect behind the ribs. Putting this all together took another weekend because I spent a lot of time tweaking many little details, velcro’ing the cloak to key points of the frame and I even extended a rod up through the PVC neck pipe into the base of the skull. I attached a “U” shaped wire to this rod that wraps around the back of my head when I wear the costume. This allows me to turn the head left and right just enough to look cool. Stepping back and looking at this thing fully assembled simply blows you away. I’m 6’2” and you simply want to step back away from this reaper to take him all in. I recently took him out at the Halloween Event I work at last weekend and this was a major hit at the park. Up close or far away, this costume makes a great impression. I’m standing next to a giant clown head entrance (which I also created for this event) and the wall of that structure is 8’ tall so you can see the size of it. I’m also standing next to two other characters who are 6’ tall and the girl is 5’4”. Hope you like my custom creation and happy Hauntings…