By Jody Mace
Two years ago, in early October, I found my husband, Stan, in the garage, fondling a pair of chicken wire breasts.
“Do you think these are even?” he asked.
For a moment I thought maybe we’d gone too far.
But the feeling passed. I examined them with a critical eye. “I think they’re perfect.”
The chicken wire breasts were part of a chicken wire bridesmaid, who was part of a wedding party constructed of PVC pipe and wire. The wedding party ended up dressed in thrift store formal wear as part of a “Haunted Wedding.” The bride, her groom, and two bridesmaids created an eerie scene in our front yard. In the darkness of Halloween night, their frames were almost invisible, so the dresses and suit appeared to float in the air. Earrings dangled from an absent head. A gloved hand held a champagne flute high in the air. The scene captured the bride throwing a bouquet in the air, while bridesmaids waited with outstretched arms, invisible except for the long white gloves.
The year before that, our Halloween decorations were uninspired. Severed arms protruding from the bushes. A tombstone that shrieked when trick-or-treaters approached the front door. The usual stuff.
But two years ago we upped our game. I don’t remember why we decided to become That Family in our neighborhood. Maybe it was because our kids, at thirteen and sixteen, were (arguably) aging out of trick-or-treating. Maybe we just craved some kind of creative expression. I know that it started when I said, “What if…”
I’m an idea person. I don’t know how to actually do anything, but I have a whole lot of good ideas. Stan knows how to do things and what he doesn’t know, he can find on Youtube. He’s also obsessive and focused. While I was off looking for bargains on candy, he was laboring over what weight of chicken wire to use and how to secure the groom to the ground. (A tent stake through a hole drilled in the heel of a dress shoe, in case you were wondering.)
Between my ideas and Stan’s resourcefulness, the wedding scene was just the beginning.
First I came up with the back story about the doomed wedding. A quick synopsis: A jealous ex-lover of the groom plotted to kill her rival and the bridesmaids with poisoned tarts, which she carried around on a tray, having disguised herself as a waitress. However, the groom ate a tart as well. When she realized that she had unwittingly murdered the object of her affections, the jilted lover offed herself by eating the last tart.
Running with that theme, we made a video of one of my son’s friends, dressed as a bride, walking back and forth, forlornly, in a darkened room. Stan edited that video and punctuated it with a found video of a scary woman screaming. On Halloween night, he projected it onto wax paper, which was taped to the window of a room on the second floor of our house. From the street it looked like a ghost bride was pacing in an attic.
Next, I wrote the story in verse and recorded Stan reading the story. He then applied some kind of video editing magic to make his face look spooky. But that wasn’t all. He built a booth out of wood and set up what’s known in the “haunting world” as the Pepper’s Ghost Illusion. It involves special lighting (a lightbulb), careful angling of the video monitor and a sheet of plexi-glass. The result is the appearance of a floating head in the booth, telling the story. It was spectacular. The “special lighting” did cause the booth to catch fire early in the evening, but that was really the only glitch.
Maybe the best thing about our Halloween preparation was how it allowed Stan and our son to experience some real father-son bonding. Forget fishing or throwing the ball around in the backyard. Nothing can compare to the first time a father and son build a coffin together.
When our neighbors walked up our driveway, they generally just wanted to go to the front door to get candy, but I’d have none of that. They had to stand and watch the floating head tell the story of the haunted wedding before they could proceed. Besides, at the end of the video, another of our son’s friends jumped out of the coffin.
Some parents didn’t seem too happy because our display was too scary for their young kids. I have to admit that I didn’t really care. Every other house on the block was fine for little kids, but ours was the only one that had a line of teenagers. The little kids could skip our house. I’d even walk to the bottom of the driveway and give them candy.
The end of Halloween was sort of melancholy for us. It was over. There’s always something sad about dismembering your chicken-wire ghost bride and putting her into the attic.
Then, of course, we had to conduct a post-mortem analysis. What worked and what didn’t? It turned out that my rhymed narrative about the poisoning was a little bit long, despite the impressive special effects. People don’t appreciate literary efforts on Halloween. They really just want to be scared, and scared fast. The kid jumping out of the coffin was more effective.
“We need more of a shock effect,” I said. “Next year we should have props that move.”
I had no idea how to make props that move, and I was already walking away, but Stan was on it. “We’d need an air compressor, pneumatics…”
He discovered that there was an online community of “haunters,” as they called themselves. For years I’d been the one with the online life. When our kids were little, I discussed pressing matters like toilet-training with faceless names on the computer screen.
Now Stan had discovered the social aspect of the internet. Only, instead of discussing how to get kids to eat vegetables, he and his new friends talked about things like “corpsing,” which is making something look like a decaying cadaver, and recipes for fake blood. Instead of discussing the best places to buy diapers, the haunting boards explode when the cheap skeletons arrive at Wal-mart. The haunters fell into one of two camps, those who preferred electric motors (“smoother action,” they claimed) and those who preferred air cylinders (“more force!”) As you might imagine, the arguments could be fierce. If you’ve ever seen the anatomy of a breast vs. bottle flame war, you know what I’m talking about.
Stan talked to me about his new friends by name, or handle. When he spoke of “Mary the Scary” (name changed) it was with reverence. She knew how to weather Styrofoam stones, how to animate props through a computerized controller. She created tutorials and attended haunting conventions.
“She has a lot of authority,” Stan said.
With the support of Mary and the other haunters, last year our Halloween display was more interactive. Gone were the static displays in the front yard. Instead, Stan turned the garage into a haunted house.
I came up with the theme of The Plague. I recruited actors to play the part of plague victims and doctors, as well as some witches, for good measure. I got out the sewing machine that I hadn’t used since my ill-fated stint at a sewing class as the local community college. (I had left in disgrace after an extended bout of uncontrollable laughter when the elderly instructor kept calling asterisks astronauts.) This time I got a friend to show me how to use the thing and I created tunics for the actors. I never sewed anything other than tunics but I sewed a lot of them.
I also was responsible for the pustules. Here’s how I made them. I’d take a little piece of a cotton ball and put it on a plate. Then I’d cover it with Elmer’s Glue. When it dried I dabbed red and green paint on it with a Q-tip to suggest oozing blood and pus. When it was all dry, I peeled it off and adhered it to the plague victims’ faces with either more glue or something called spirit gum. But don’t go by what I say. You can probably find a Youtube tutorial on this if you want to try it yourself. My memory is fuzzy. I’m not good at crafts. We had a big problem with pustules falling off people’s faces.
Stan did the rest. The props he created were mechanical wonders. There was the corpse that jumped out the coffin, the “hanging man” who writhed around and screamed, the guy who pulled apart the bars of his prison cell and stuck his head out when trick-or-treaters approached.
This is the third year of our haunt. It’s more elaborate than ever. I can’t say much more because I’ve been sworn to secrecy. I’ll say that some of the props that Stan’s been working on in the driveway have drawn concerned looks from our neighbors. There’s a certain look they give us. People walking their dogs just stop and stare for a long time. They say nothing. Then they walk away. Nobody ever says anything.
Bicycles, electric fans and ice cream makers lie, torn up, in our garage, cannibalized for their motors and wheels. A structure that looks suspiciously like gallows stands next to a tree in our front yard.
We are not ideal neighbors.
There’s a certain point in our planning when we question ourselves. Why are we doing this? In a way it all seems so…stupid. To spend all this time on an event that’s over in one night? It’s as if once the intense years of child-raising were over, we had to find a new project. A new way to express our creativity. And for reasons we can’t understand, we chose mechanical corpses jumping out at screaming children.
Maybe this will be the last year. Maybe next year we’ll sit on the stoop like normal people, compliment kids on their superhero costumes, and hand out Tootsie Rolls.
But on the other hand, I’m prone to good ideas.
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The links in this essay will take you to actual footage from Jody and Stan’s extravaganzas. I seriously recommend clicking. —Ed.