What happens at Hollywood’s best Halloween party? Vampires drink cocktails brimming with blood, contortionists twist themselves into human serving bowls and a mad scientist passes around a science-lab beaker of human brains in lieu of an hors d’oeuvre platter. At least that’s how it goes when actor Neil Patrick Harris and his fiancé, the chef and E! News correspondent David Burtka, throw their annual Halloween bash. “I am ravenous about Halloween,” says Harris, one of the masterminds behind these shocking yet weirdly delicious stunts.
Harris’s elaborate Halloween parties are the stuff of Hollywood legend. When he and Burtka started dating eight years ago, he says, “David discovered that my backyard haunted houses involved six fog machines, buckets of fake blood and two weeks of preproduction. He realized, ‘Oh, I better learn to like this holiday. Quick.’ ” Jeff Probst, host of Survivor and a regular guest at these parties, says, “You’ve got to be pretty serious when you go to Neil and David’s for Halloween—they throw it down. Dressing up as Zorro doesn’t cut it.”
When Harris and Burtka met, they were both actors in New York City; Burtka impressed Harris by cooking for him and expanding his horizons beyond fast food. The couple relocated to Los Angeles when Harris was cast as the lecherous Barney on the hit CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother in 2005. There, Burtka turned his professional focus to food: He attended Le Cordon Bleu school in Pasadena, then wrangled a sought-after internship at Babbo back in New York City and finally opened an L.A. catering company, Gourmet M.D., in 2008 with his classmate Molly Hanisee.
Today Harris and Burtka are both so devoted to Halloween that they rent a large storage locker to hold all their ghoulish decorations and props. In recent years, their annual October blowout has evolved from full-on nightmare—like a woman with her mouth sewn shut behind a sign with “speak no evil” painted in faux blood—to a party that balances scares with other thrills. That could mean a sideshow performer escaping from a straitjacket and dancing on broken glass, or barbecued ribs arranged on a platter to resemble a cadaver’s rib cage. “People are so used to the same old Halloween stuff at parties, like pumpkin soup served in the pumpkin,” says Hanisee, who works with Burtka on the evening’s food. “We want to do something different.”
Their most recent Halloween fest featured contortionist Bonnie Morgan, who at one point folded herself on the dining room table as guests helped themselves to Bat Wings (crisp fried chicken wings coated in an inky glaze of black-bean and soy sauces), Mini Brains (wontons filled with gingery pork) and Monster Slime (a creamy, herb-packed Green Goddess dip). “Usually, we try to make food look beautiful,” says Hanisee. “At Halloween, it’s also about all the gags we can come up with.”
The overall effect is a trompe-langue—the brain tries to reconcile the conflicting information it gets from the eyes and the mouth. “You allow your mind to play games with you on Halloween,” says Harris. “When a guy comes charging at you with a chain saw, you know it’s not real, but you can’t help but scream and run. I’m really enamored with the conceit that you can create absolutely delicious food that looks”