When Bangor artist Ben Layman sees an old porcelain doll, he doesn’t see an old-fashioned plaything for children. He sees a demonic child, possessed by a malevolent spirit.
But Layman, well known to Maine theater fans as a longtime performer and educator with the Penobscot Theatre Company and its Dramatic Academy, is the kind of guy for whom it’s Halloween year-round. So much so, that when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and the lights went dark on the Bangor Opera House stage, he started taking old dolls, dollhouses, discarded toys and homegoods and other upcycled pieces, and turning them into Halloween decor — or decor for anytime, really.
“I live for this stuff. I’m obsessed with horror movies. My house looks like this year-round,” Layman said. “I’ve completely gone down the rabbit hole of spooky crafting. I’m obsessed with it now.”
Layman got his start at first with YouTube tutorials, learning how to use tools and paints to take various items and age them, distress them or otherwise make them spooky. One of his first experiments was to take a skeleton from a Halloween store, wrap it in a plastic drop cloth, and use a heat gun to melt the plastic to the skeleton to create the appearance of rotted flesh. He was extremely pleased with the results, and was immediately hooked.
Not long after, the pandemic struck. Faced with what turned out to be more than 18 months without stepping onto a stage, Layman found that his newfound love of “spooky crafting” became a vital creative outlet for him.
“It absolutely became my pandemic mental health project,” he said. “It just took my mind off everything and let me be creative and not get depressed by, you know, everything.”
Since then, he’s filled his Bangor home with projects, almost all of which are created from items found at thrift stores, yard sales and dollar stores, or gifted to him by friends. Among his favorite projects are the Barbie Dreamhouses he’s re-imagined as haunted houses, equal parts Addams Family mansion and the Marsten House from Stephen King’s “‘Salem’s Lot.” He fills the houses with tiny, creepy furniture and even miniaturized staged scenes, as if from a horror movie.
For the porcelain dolls, Layman paints each of them and dyes their clothing to get the look he wants. Sometimes it’s a vampire bride, sometimes a Victorian ghost and sometimes a possessed child, like Regan from “The Exorcist.” And for the plastic baby dolls, he cuts off their heads, paints them and puts LED lights inside them to create a baby doll lamp or lantern.
“There’s a lot of room for experimentation,” Layman said. “In total, I don’t think I’ve spent more than $200 on everything, and almost all of that was on paint and dye and things like that. These are things that otherwise would get thrown away, but you can kind of turn them into something really unique and creative.”
Layman will be launching his Etsy store in the coming weeks, and has a Halloween sale planned for this Saturday at 160 Ohio St. in Bangor, where he’ll sell his many different Halloween items including dollhouses, dolls, lamps and lanterns, handmade horror movie-themed tabletop caskets and an array of small jack-o-lanterns — which have been sculpted from foam into whimsically spooky shapes and faces, and then sealed so they can be put outside.
Eventually, Layman hopes to offer classes, teaching people how to make their own spooky crafts.
“Anybody can do this,” he said. “It’s just so much more fun to make things than to go out and buy them. And it’s not hard. It’s amazing what a coat of paint can do. It can have a truly radical effect on whatever it is you’re working with.”
As for his first love — the theater — the Penobscot Theatre’s in-person season starts on Nov. 18 with “Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play,” which will be Layman’s, and PTC’s, first live performance in nearly 20 months. He’s also busy with the Dramatic Academy’s fall classes, which, unsurprisingly, are all Halloween-themed and includes a streamed performance of a stage adaptation of the short story collection “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark.”
“I cannot wait to get back on stage,” Layman said. “But the spooky crafting has ended up becoming much more than a hobby for me. It’s something I’ve grown to truly love.”