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Scare up some Halloween party food

Chances are you know plenty of people who'd like to party tomorrow.

Halloween has that effect on folks. So if you're going to lure them out from beneath their rocks, then it's time to warm up the slime and lay out those worms. But leave the dust where it is because it only adds to the mood.

Of course, planning is everything, even when it comes to last-minute get-togethers. A theme helps — for adults, that is. Most kids have their Halloween costumes figured out months in advance.

Adults responding to your special, last-minute theme feel good knowing that just showing up in the appropriate get-up makes a major contribution to the festivities. For last-minute party-givers, it can be as basic as designing a party around a theme of black garbage bags. You'll be amazed at what can be done with them. From a basic, black cocktail dress to samurai warrior, it's one costume idea that won't cost your guests much in time or money. And the cleverness that emerges is a sight to behold.

But if you think your guests can cobble together something beyond Dumpster attire, then consider a theme based on the '60s, '70s, '80s or late 21st century. Or an Edgar Allan Poe or Agatha Christie party. Or a party based on characters from scary books.

Then there's the wide-open theme of a Come As ... party. Here are a few you might not have thought of:

Come as your most ghoulish prom date.

Come as your favorite fantasy.

Come as you wish you were.

Come as your worst nightmare.

Come as a character from a Stephen King novel.

Come as an inanimate object.

Come as your favorite rock 'n' roll legend.

Come as a Beatles groupie.

Come as your favorite action-adventure hero.

And although costumes are entertaining in themselves, to liven up the evening, how about a costume contest (announce the winners at midnight)?

Have at least 5 or 6 categories, ranging from “least comprehensible,” “scariest” and “ugliest,” to “most politically correct” and “funniest.” For prizes, hit your local thrift shop to find the most outrageous and tacky presents you can find, such as matching hula-boy and hula-girl lamps, or jumping-salmon bookends.

Mood is important, too. For starters, give wackiness a boost by making sure you've invited enough lunatics to keep things moving. Of course, there are plenty of ways to improve the atmosphere:

Cheesecloth is an inexpensive covering for your buffet table and just oozes a feeling of creepiness with fake spider webs or fake blood (red food coloring) dribbled all over it. You also can tack up shredded sheets of the gauzy material in doorways.

For a haunted-house effect, drape sheets over your furniture, fill vases with wilted roses and place dozens and dozens of lit candles throughout the house. If you've got silver candelabra, then this is the time to bring them out (and forget the silver polish; it's even more effective if they're tarnished).

Make sure your lights are extremely dim or, better yet, put colored light bulbs in all of your lamps and ceiling fixtures (orange and black lights are the most ghoulish).

Float helium-filled, black and orange balloons (with ribbons dangling down) from the ceiling. For a yucky effect, dip the tips of the ribbons in water just before guests arrive. And if you have some of the balloons blown up a day earlier, they'll be floating at all levels and not just on the ceiling.

A real creepy prop: plastic rats or aliens in mason jars, filled with colored water (like green or red).

Have a face- or body-painting station set up for your creative guests.

Stuff an old shirt and pair of jeans with bubble wrap or newspaper, then place the headless body outside on the limb of a tree near your entryway as a ghoulish greeter.

Encourage low-talking (talking only in hushed tones) for the first 15 minutes of the party.

Have a nonstop selection of scary sounds and music CDs playing. For great Gothic horror, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor is very heavy-duty organ music that sets the stage for all things that go bump in the night.

For visual effect, just play a good, old-fashioned, scary movie like “The Wolf Man” or “Frankenstein.”

If you've got young kids attending your party, then you should plan some appropriate activities. For example, put out bowls of colored frosting, M&M's, chocolate chips and jelly beans, along with a tray of undecorated cupcakes or pumpkin cookies, then let the kids have fun decorating their own treats.

For the punch bowl, make an ice ring with plastic spiders and crawly things in it. And don't forget the instant fog, created by dry ice in a bowl of hot water. Figure on a half-pound of dry ice per quart of hot water (as the water cools down, you'll need to keep adding hot water, or the ice will quit producing fog). Set it out of sight on your buffet table, perhaps behind a spray of leaves or inside a jack-o'-lantern.

Also, garnish drinks with Gummi worms, spiders, flies and other creatures. And to encourage mingling and keep your group of goblins from clumping into cliques, spread out your party fare.

Speaking of party fare, with the witching hour only one day away, you've got limited time to plan and execute a menu or at least the dish or two you've been asked to contribute to someone else's event.

This time of year, and for this kind of gathering, the more informal the offerings — things that can be eaten out of hand, for example — are enjoyed the most. Remember, many guests will be contending with fangs, 2-inch-long false nails or an extra latex body, so forks and knives can be unwieldy.

Bowls of spiced popcorn and nuts are an excellent choice. As are flavorful dips and spreads, particularly when they can be assembled in about 10 minutes, which is the case for the following Chile con Queso recipe, for example.

Consider a batch of caramel apples, which always are a hit. But instead of settling for the instant-wrap stuff, or those little commercial, cello-wrapped candies, go for the real, old-fashioned, sugar-butter-vanilla-cream caramel that you can make yourself.

And don't forget the nose-warming beverages. Hot, mulled cider is a seasonal must; hot, mulled wine — or some other adult-style concoction — a civilized necessity.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country: the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.