Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. As a kid, I would continually urge my mother to put up our few decorations as soon as Labor Day was done. She, of course, resisted until October. I can still remember spending what seemed like hours in the front yard after dark, looking lovingly in through the bow window at the prize of our “collection”: an orange blown-plastic light-up affair, of a painted black cat balancing a jack-o-lantern on its back. Naturally my mother tossed the thing about thirty seconds after I moved out, and it was the enthusiastic reclamation of a childhood obsession when I much later acquired one, an original from that time period, though not “mine”.
Mom coulda saved me fifty bucks there if she’d just asked if I wanted ours before throwing it out, but you know. I think, with her fundamentalist protestant perspective, she was a little conflicted about my love for “the devil’s holiday,” which also held fond memories for her from her own childhood, but which was preached against mightily in our church.
At any rate, those few items, the cat-pumpkin light, a small plastic scarecrow candy holder, an equally small hooded ghost candle carrying a jack-o-lantern, a foot-tall jointed paper skeleton and a set of Beistle die-cut paper Halloween images, was the extent of our family decorations while I was growing up. They say that whatever we’re deprived of as children, we spend a lifetime trying to reclaim, and I’m here to tell you, at least as far as Halloween décor goes, I’m living proof that’s true!
My own collection started in the early ‘80s, with a small glass tea light holder from Hallmark, of a cat on a fence, full moon behind, which I sat on a coffee table in my first apartment, my lone decoration that first Halloween on my own. I still have that piece, but it’s no longer lonely. I stopped counting awhile back, but my collection today is estimated to run to about 5000 items.
Obviously, they don’t all go out on display every year. I keep back a few hundred. I’m going to attempt to portray this visually as I describe my collection, but I assure you, pictures just don’t do it justice. You have to experience it firsthand, immersed in the wonder of it all.
Which I do for a few lucky souls each year. My All-Spooks festival, which runs annually from October 13 through November 10, features guided tours of the house in all its Halloween finery. This will be our 26th year, and it gets bigger all the time. I’m in the process of scanning photos from the early years, to have as complete a digital record as possible, but for our purposes here, you’ll be getting the most recent version.
Originally, my Halloween was a mishmash of styles, themes and iconic images, all clumped together any which way. But as the collection grew, it became obvious that I needed a way to organize the insanity.
And so I began to group items by theme or style, or specific scene. The collection still has areas where the lines are blurred, such as the six graveyard or haunted village scenes, in scales ranging from mini to life-size, where various denizens of the traditional Halloween populace mix and mingle. But generally, things are classed by iconic image.
That is to say, there’s an area that focuses on skeletons, as the visible remnants of our mortality, and another highlighting ghosts, our spiritual remains. As memento mori, reminders of death, these are the earliest images that are associated with the holiday, going back as far as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.
By the Middle Ages, we’d added witches and black cats, their supposed familiars, to the Halloween lineup, and these remain among the most identifiable signs that the holiday is on its way. As vampires and bats became more poplar at the end of the 19th century, with the publication of Bram Stoker’s gothic horror novel “Dracula”, these elements, too, became an integral part of Halloween, though there really is no direct connection between them and the holiday per se (in fact, “Dracula”’s opening Transylvanian sequences take place on Walpurgisnacht, April 30th, Halloween’s polar opposite on the calendar).
Of course, the jack-o-lantern is the premiere Halloween standard-bearer, but I don’t have an actual section for them. Rather, they are everywhere! I used to have a party game for my Halloween dinner guests, “Count the Pumpkins”, and the one who came closest (no one ever got them all!) got a very nice prize. But if I did that today, it would have to be a weekend sleep-over contest; no single evening would be enough to count every one!
These then, are the principal sections of the collection: skeletons, ghosts, witches, cats, vampires and bats. There’s also a considerable amount of spiders and a rat or two, mostly gnawing on all those bones that litter the floor. There are also some random theme areas, such as my recreation of the headless horseman and his Sleepy Hollow cemetery, an homage to Washington Irving and America’s first true ghost story; and a period rendition of a 1950’s children’s Halloween party, complete with furnishings and food.
But Halloween is also a harvest festival, from its earliest inception. And so, as backdrop and support to the creepies and crawlies, there are tons of autumnal elements – gourds, uncarved pumpkins, apples, Indian corn, colored leaves of every conceivable type, and an army of scarecrows. (Incidentally, none of these items are included in the Halloween collection tally, lest you think I’m padding those numbers with mere autumn entrants.)
Decorating for that begins August 15th, and takes about two weeks. I enjoy that on its own for a few weeks, and then after the Fall Equinox, the Halloween decorating begins in earnest, and takes about two weeks more, before All-Spooks opens its doors on October 13.
But let’s begin at the beginning – the exterior. There is a small postage stamp backyard accompanying the property, and come October this is transformed into a full-scale graveyard, complete with skeletal residents. I purposely allow some of the autumn-blooming weeds, goldenrod, stiff aster and boneset, to thrive and become overgrown, to lend a creepy ambiance to the yard. As September wanes these have withered into truly grotesque and fantastical relicts, supplemented by chrysanthemums in full flower, ostensibly left at the various gravestones by the occupants’ bereaved mourners.
Strings of orange lights snake throughout the yard, illumining tombstones and skeletons alike, and garlands of small skulls hang from the golden-leafed birch tree, swaying eerily in the breeze. The steps and stoop sport a dizzying variety of fresh pumpkins and gourds, as well as more bones, a zombie cat or two, and additional mums (the vast majority of the pumpkins, etc inside are artificial, but I cannot resist the wonderful new types of ornamental gourds available nowadays, there’s just no room for them in the house!).
The door is simple, but evocative: ringed with garlands of skulls and crossbones and more orange lights, it’s topped with a gargoyle quoting Dante: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Once inside, guests assemble in the kitchen, and I go over the ground rules: keep together, touch nothing, and if you should become separated from the group, follow the bats. “They will lead you out; for a price…”
And with that, the tour is off. There really is a line of bats which continues in unbroken succession from the front door mat, zigzagging across the ceiling, swooping around the stair landing and up the flight of stairs, resuming in the second floor hallway and leading on to the final destination, the Bloodsucker Parlor, where they congregate in great, large-as-life (and larger!) numbers.
Our first stop is the kitchen window, where the majority of the votive candle holders reside. At least, those with a Haunted House theme are all there, a leitmotif echoed in three nightlights that ring the sink and stove. Above the main cabinets is my collection of Beistle reprints, and here I was able to recapture some of those childhood decorations, still faithfully reproduced by the Beistle company: a set of witch flying over the moon, witch in her cottage, cat by a lamppost, a hoot owl with the moon, and a scarecrow head. Also here are other vintage styles I wasn’t familiar with as a child, but retro Halloween décor of the ‘30s through ‘50s has become something of an obsession of mine, albeit I own only one original piece from that period, the aforementioned cat-pumpkin light.
The refrigerator boasts my collection of Halloween-themed magnets, including a growing number of headless horsemen. Sleepy Hollow has been a frequent destination for me over the years, always a treat in the autumn, but fun at any time of year.
So it’s only fitting that we continue our tour with the Sleepy Hollow cemetery, populated with ghosties and ghoulies of all sorts, led by that preeminent American spook himself, the Headless Horseman. Many of the tombstones in this cemetery were hand-crafted by myself from modeling clay, based on classic New England grave marker styles from the 1800s. A Headless Horseman action figure, movie memorabilia from the 1999 Tim Burton film “Sleepy Hollow”, dominates this landscape.
Right next door is Batwing Lane, a collection of black metal haunted houses and trees, including my homage to Ray Bradbury’s “Halloween Tree”, a spooky, twisted metal tree strung with several strands of mini jack-o-lantern necklaces, which look like so many pumpkins hanging in the branches.
Next is the first of the major collections, the ghosts. Like each of the categories, the individual pieces in this grouping are made from a variety of materials: resin, plastic, metal, wood, paper pulp, fabric, ceramic. There are pumpkin-headed ghosts, scary ghosts, funny ghosts, and trick-or-treaters in ghost costumes. Some of them are intended for candles, and these are now wired with a strand of white lights.
A set of white LED ghost lights rings these shelves, to provide further illumination for the scene, and a pair of small orange pumpkin LED light sets is woven throughout, completing the mood. Also here is a set piece based on “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” with the whole Peanuts gang, my homage to a favorite holiday classic.
Skeletons, skulls and Grim Reapers dominate the following section, which take up most of one wall, in its various segments. The main collection is housed on a narrow bookcase, and includes a few Day of the Dead-type items, plus a skeletal cat.
The walls here are hung with additional pieces in theme, a large stuffed Reaper guards the closet door, and a full-scale cemetery abuts the shelving, with two skeletons, cats, and another Reaper with glowing eyes.
Witches and cats go together, of course, and this is another extensive section spilling out over the shelving, centering on a free-standing life-size witch named Nicnevin, after an old Scottish goddess of witches.
The range of witch images is truly astounding, and can be further sub-classed by such iconic aspects as witches with red hair, green skin, carrying brooms or stirring cauldrons. There are three life-size witches in all, each with her own pet feline familiar, and a fifth life-size skeleton shares a drink and nosh with one at the dining table (every witch needs a party escort, after all!).
Atop the china cabinet is my first small-scale cemetery, dubbed “the Creepy Crèche” by an old friend twenty years ago. This has working street lamps that line the trails between the tombs, “wrought iron” fencing (actually molded plastic), and a plethora of spooky inhabitants. Two smaller annexes extend the cemetery in both directions, one featuring a vampire mausoleum, complete with custom-made metal fencing contributed by a metalsmith artist friend. Just below this is a farm scene, which has become an open-air witches’ coven meeting place.
The wall adjoining showcases most of the signage in the collection, with a wide variety of retro and vintage-styled plaques and wall hangings. I love the retro feel of these pieces, and can’t get enough of that style.
Then it’s on to the stair landing, where two shelves display the smallest haunted house collection, and a parlor scene hosting a vintage 1950s children’s Halloween party. The houses are lighted, with miniscule figures populating the urban landscape. The party scene is well-furnished and includes snacks such as popcorn balls (made from exploded Styrofoam). Costumed children (there are 10) bob for apples, read fortunes from a pack of playing cards, play with cats (there is one for each guest), sample the buffet and try to scare each other.
As the stairs turn to ascend to the second floor, a dramatic curtain of skull garlands and black plastic steamers grants access to the horrors above. The staircase itself is lined in spider web “wallpaper” (really a clear plastic tablecloth liner with cobweb design), garlands of the ever-present bats, and skeleton/skull images on one side; and a row of grinning jack-o-lantern and spider garlands, as well as a line of 3-D jack-o-lanterns, one per stair, on the other side. Before I had cats, these were lighted with tea lights, but it’s too dangerous now, so the stair illumination comes from a set of small white lights wrapped about the stair rail, which is also festooned with maple leaf, metal pumpkin and skull garlands, hung with apples.
The second floor is largely the province of things that go suck in the night: spiders, bats and vampires. But on the landing is the smallest scale graveyard scene, mini figures and tombstones with a mausoleum and stone fence. I made the fence myself, of stones collected at the railroad tracks near my old home, assembled with hot glue, and also crafted the mausoleum, a combination of cardboard, chicken wire and papier mache. A set of minute purple LED bat lights swirls up from the mausoleum and circles the graveyard, with another LED set of orange jack-o-lanterns illumining the tombstones.
Also on the landing is a bookshelf with three decorated levels, the first of painted metal haunted houses which is nestled among tombs, with a set of Universal Monsters figures (Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein), ostensibly the “homeowners.” Below this are the vampire crypts, which house my collection of Bela Lugosi Dracula action figures, as well as an assemblage of the skeletal remains of their victims. Most of the backdrops for these two levels were crafted by myself, including a “stained glass” window depicting a dragon, its mosaic-like “tiles” formed with egg shells preserved from dyed Easter eggs. (The name “Dracula” in Romanian means “son of the dragon”, sometimes translated as “devil”, so a dragon motif is perfect for Dracula’s crypt).
Even the bathroom is decked out, with a skeleton- and coffin-themed shower curtain, a black cat bathmat, and jack-o-lantern-patterned toilet tissue! The beginnings of the spider collection are here as well, massed on the windowsill, with spider or cobweb-themed candles and candle holders lining the top of the toilet tank and the sink.
But the star of the second floor is the aptly-named “Bloodsucker Parlor”, which features the vampire collection, supported by bats flying across the ceiling or suspended from the realistic apple garland, and a huge cobweb populated by enormous spiders, as well as a newly-hatched brood of babies. These emerge from their egg sack nest, some to crawl along the thick ropelike web, others repelling down to the end table below on gossamer strands, where they form a marching line amongst the collection of Halloween candy holders and tins.
A family of stuffed vampires, daddy and his three boys, snuggles in an easy chair, while the figure collection itself commands three shelves of another bookcase. The prize of this is a small wind-up vampire, with yellow hair, the only blond vampire I have ever seen. The vampires, as with all collections, vary from tall to small, with the smallest barely an inch in height, and the tallest scraping the top of the 9” shelf. There are many with blue faces, the origin of which is in Slavic cultures, which depicted them this way to reflect their decomposition, as rotting corpses. No suave Lugosi or Frank Langella for that crowd!
There is also a scene of a witches’ Halloween party, with four papier mache and fabric witches playing hostess to their four skeleton escorts, appropriately garbed in costumes for the occasion, crafted by myself: a bat, a ghost, a jack-o-lantern and a cat.
Also here is the extensive owl collection, which makes its appearance with the autumn decorations in August. Owls were a popular Halloween motif in the early decades of the previous century, and are still common today.
This concludes our tour for All-Spooks 2017. Please follow the bats to find your way out, and don’t forget to collect your treat bags!