OK, so Halloween arrives in three days, weekend parties start tonight and you're still searching for a costume.
Don't let your Halloween horror scare you into settling for a T-shirt that says, "This is my costume."
Instead, take some inspiration from suburban experts who know a thing or two about creating an enviable alter ego -- even on a budget. With their help, you can create a look that would make even Lady Gaga seem dull.
'Bring it to life'
Speaking of Lady Gaga, celebrities and pop culture costumes are among the top-sellers this year at retail chains such as Halloween City.
Officials from the store, which has 24 locations statewide including Schaumburg, Lake Zurich and Batavia, said they expect this weekend to be a mad rush for popular looks.
Angry Birds costumes have been a hit with both adults and children, along with looks from the TV show "Glee," store spokesman Don Rose said. Adults also are gravitating toward morph suits and Charlie Sheen gear in hopes of scoring a "winning" costume, while children are sticking with classic staples such as Super Mario Brothers, Thomas the Tank Engine and the princess look.
Rose said this weekend becomes "a madhouse" at the store, especially since Halloween City only stocks for the season.
"When the costumes are gone, they're gone, unfortunately," Rose said.
But he also encourages shoppers to take advantage of the store's staff. All of them know how to bump up ordinary costumes by using accessories, prosthetics, makeup and more.
"They know how to take a standard costume and really bring it to life," Rose said.
Thrift shop thrillers
For many stores, Christmas is their busiest holiday. But at Goodwill stores, the peak comes at Halloween, spokeswoman Cheryl Lightholder said.
In fact, most stores have dedicated Halloween sections that include packaged costumes, as well as items that might lend themselves to '50s sock hoppers, '70s disco dancers, zombie brides or Johnny Depp-style pirates.
Lightholder said many parents prefer the packaged costumes for their children, but plenty of adults prefer to create their own with clothes, old prom dresses, hats and costume jewelry discovered at the stores.
"They're being creative," she said. "They may be buying some new accessories like boots or makeup. But it's a one-time shot wearing that outfit, so why spend an arm and a leg?"
Professional storyteller Carolyn Finzer of Naperville said she buys most of her costume materials at thrift stores such as Goodwill or the Treasure House in Glen Ellyn. She's designed costumes that include a spider, a monarch butterfly and a character she calls "Gourdelia" who -- you guessed it -- is covered in gourds.
She's also discovered ready-made costumes for her young grandson, including a dinosaur, a tiger and Winnie the Pooh.
For her own looks, Finzer says accessorizing is key.
"Crazy socks help with all of my costumes," she said. "People need to really, really think out of the box. Anything can be used for a component."
Because secondhand has become such a popular costume strategy, the stores offer tips and ideas on creating your Halloween look at amazinggoodwill.com.
Oh, and don't forget your shopping helps Goodwill serve people with disabilities by providing training, employment and support services.
'Raid your closet'
Ken Spriggs of Frankfurt has been, as he says, "creating thousand-dollar costumes from the thrift store" for nearly two decades. Spriggs is the operations manager at Dream Reapers haunted house in Melrose Park, which has been voted among the top haunts in the state for nearly a decade on hauntedillinois.com.
But Spriggs says it's easy to create costumes even with clothes from home and just a bit of store-bought makeup.
"Raid your mother's closet, your father's closet -- I'm sure they have many clothes they should have thrown away long ago -- and look for old work uniforms, military uniforms or any sporting attire," said Spriggs.
All of these can be turned into classic costumes or zombified, he said.
A trench coat, for example, can be turned into a Jack the Ripper coat by adding a wider sleeve with some tears and shredding. Or keep that trench coat intact, sew on a piece of black fabric to create a half-cape, and you've got a Sherlock Holmes look.
Brightly colored clothes also can be layered for clown effect, as the traditional stripes and polka dots aren't necessary, Spriggs said.
As for makeup, creating a zombie or skull look needs a base that can easily be created with inexpensive makeup from the Halloween aisle.
The trick, Spriggs said, is to blacken the eye area, then follow your facial structure to highlight cheekbones with light makeup and shadow underneath. Next, create a dark line at each temple and shadow in back toward the hairline. Finally, find the ridge in your forehead, shade that, then highlight the top of that shading to create a sunken-in look.
Ultimately, he said, creativity and originality always impress at Halloween.
"If you walk into a party and you're a Freddy Kruger, a Jason or in a generic sexy costume, you're run-of-the-mill," he said. "And remember to think in terms of opposites, too. Sometimes the 350-pound man in a little, pink tutu is just as good."
Transforming make-believe into reality is Dee Korby's business. As Elgin Community College's costume coordinator, she's re-created a 1950s aesthetic for "Guys and Dolls," turned her adult actors into small-town students in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and will be revisiting the roaring '20s this spring in "The Drowsy Chaperone."
When it comes to costumes, Korby says hair is key.
"It pulls it all together," she said. "You really don't need that much makeup if you have a hairstyle that complements it. Hair changes you completely." If you're unable to create a hairstyle yourself, Korby recommends an inexpensive wig, especially for period looks such as a 1920s flapper's bob.
Even if you're the type who prefers a modern or spoof costume, such as the cast from "Jersey Shore," that Snookie poof and Pauly D. hair gel look will make your costume memorable.