Business is BOOOO-ming

Americans now spend close to $3 Billion a year on their Halloween hauntings. So much for a cheap thrill . . . .

By Julie Vallone
South Bay Accent Magazine
October/November 2004

For Brent Ross, it all started with the simple skull and black light his parents bought him for Halloween when he was 12. Little did Ross' parents know they had created a monster, or more accurately perhaps, many monsters. Ross was fascinated by the ghoulish gifts. He placed the skull on a fake corpse sitting in a cauldron on the front porch to welcome trick-or-treaters. Then he set the mood with the black light and began what would become an 18-year obsession with Halloween haunting.

With the help of family members and friends, Ross expanded his demonic display each Halloween at his Mountain View home, spending an additional $100 a year on new props like gargoyles and mutilated torsos. After five or six years, Ross realized he had essentially cleaned out area Halloween stores of all their best stuff, and started making his own props. They ranged from talking tombstones and skeletal organists to a screaming mourner and an 8½-foot grim reaper who welcomes visitors. With its host of horribles, the display eventually oozed out of Ross' black-tented porch and onto the driveway, finally taking over the entire yard. By Halloween of 2001, the fiendish extravaganza, dubbed the Devious Concoctions Cemetery, could no longer be contained by his family's double lot at the corner of Bush and Castro, and, with permission, spilled over onto part of a willing neighbor's yard.

Nearly two decades after receiving the fateful skull, Ross' spooky spectacles have become a widely anticipated Mountain View event -- as well as a major investment for Ross. He now spends upwards of $11,000 per year just on materials for props, not to mention the time commitment.

"I pretty much build year round," he says. "But July through October are my crunch months. I'm out there every night building or welding something."

At this point, his Halloween haunts are much more than a hobby; they could be a ticket to his dream career. A systems administrator who majored in industrial design in college, Ross would like to one day work on prop design for a Halloween company or movie set, and he considers each new animatronic apparition a welcome addition to his portfolio.

But career goals aside, Ross considers his weird work a labor of love.

"People come up to me on the street and say, 'Hey, you're the Halloween guy; aren't you?'" says Ross. "I love doing it, seeing everyone so happy. It makes the stress of putting it together all worthwhile."

In his Halloween-happy obsession, Ross is hardly alone. The National Retail Federation reports that, last year, Americans spent $2.96 billion on Halloween decorations and festivities. Although that translates to about $40 per family, don't be fooled -- it's about $1 billion more than what Americans spend on dental products every year. Thousands of families across the country now splurge on creating elaborate outdoor sets, costumes and accessories, making Halloween the second largest holiday after Christmas in dollars spent. Holy cider! It's also the third biggest party day after New Year's and Super Bowl Sunday.

Alan and Bonnie Aerts can account for a blood-curdling $20,000 of the billions spent each year. Their Monte Sereno yard is famous around town for its extravagant, otherworldly Halloween exhibit. The Aertses are well-known locally for their generosity -- contributing to the Special Olympics, Guide Dogs for the Blind and seniors programs, among other philanthropic gifts -- and as any of their Halloween visitors can testify, they know how to throw a party for goblins, too. Their production has been known to include such attractions as an animated Pirates of the Caribbean ship with skeletons rowing the boat, trolls and ghouls jumping out from stumps and gravestones, bloody Jurassic Park dinosaurs and mysterious hologram ghosts appearing in the window.

The Aerts display attracts between 2,200 and 2,500 trick-or-treaters a year, a number measured by the amount of candy given away. But providing candy is the least of Alan Aerts' worries or expenses, considering he owns Custom Vending Services in San Jose, and has been informally proclaimed the Vending Machine King of the Bay Area. In addition to candy, he also offers a toy table for children; they can choose from six different toys, including Beanie Babies, stuffed animals, rope lights and other kid favorites

"My wife and I open the front door of the house, and invite people into the hall," he says. "People wait for a half an hour in line to get in, and some of them say things like, 'We don't have any kids, or want any candy. We just want to thank you for doing this.'"

Aerts may invest inordinately big bucks into his holiday festivities, but in doing so, he takes the easy route to decorating. Unlike Ross, who spends the entire year building most of his characters himself, Aerts gets most of his display items from various Internet sites, and needs to spend only a few days putting his exhibit together.

Unfortunately, visitors will not get to experience the Aerts' Halloween extravaganza this year, as he has no plans to erect a new display. In previous years, a couple of his neighbors complained to the city council that his productions created a nuisance. Although Alan Aerts had plenty of defenders among other neighbors and frequent visitors to his exhibit, the unhappy neighbors persisted in their case for several months, complaining at each council meeting. Eventually, the Monte Sereno City Council passed an ordinance requiring Aerts to purchase a $1,250 permit for each new holiday display.

"That kind of permit is really meant for business districts that have parades and events like that," Aerts says. "That's what [the city council] modeled it after, but Monte Sereno doesn't have a business district." He points to editorials by a local writer who called the new measure "ridiculous" for that reason, and said the city might as well name it the 'Alan Aerts' ordinance. Aerts adds that the neighbor who led the charge against him is now moving.

Aerts doubts he will erect his display again, unless the ordinance is changed. "It would be nice if enough people realized we weren't here, got upset about it and wrote letters to the city council and paper to get it changed. We do this for the community," he says. "It's not for us."

Not everyone wanting to send shivers up and down the spines of delighted fright-seekers can shell out five figures, of course. But, how about four? In San Jose, Shawn Higgin and his family manage to run up a $3,000 to $4,000 annual bill that would send most people screaming all the way to the loan officer. Higgin, his sister, Becky Schmal and brother-in-law Mark Schmal, their fathers and about 20 friends start pulling together their spine-chilling production around late August, and work up until Halloween. Rich with sophisticated pyrotechnics and animatronic creatures, the show has in past years included a host of graveyard ghouls milling about and jumping out at visitors, rolling coffins, an animated, skeletal grandmotherly type taunting visitors from a rocking chair, and lots of music, screams and eerie voices. The highlight is Clyde, a 16-foot, pneumatically powered, caped monster who rises up above thrilled spectators, and is ultimately blown up by a human wizard with a fireball shooter. (Imagine if we could do that with all the monsters in our world. What a release!)

Higgin's funky friends, dressed as ghoulish tour guides, lead visitors through the haunted house (which is actually more of a haunted garage). In the meantime, Higgin, Mark Schmal, and crew operate just about every detail of the show from a control room packed with computers, cameras, sound equipment and other sophisticated paraphernalia. It's no surprise that, in real life, Higgin and Schmal are network engineers.

Higgin says the haunted house receives about 2,000 visitors, and the line to go through it can take two hours. To date, the show has inspired no complaints from neighbors.

"Our neighbors are all into it," he says. The people who live across the street s throw a party on the night we're opening. Then we have a few little boys in the neighborhood who bring their whole school class over, and a church group that pulls up in a big bus."

Like Aerts, Higgin and family will not be hosting their show this year, but for a very different reason. Becky Schmal was due to give birth in late July, and the family is devoting all its energies to that exciting production. However, Higgin is quite sure the Halloween show will go on in 2005 and beyond.
But fear not (or fear a lot, depending on your perspective): the witches, goblins and ghoulish greenbacks will be out in full force this year over on Tait Avenue in Los Gatos.

Cat Griffin has already started making the tombstones that will adorn the yard of her Queen Anne Victorian cottage. On the much-anticipated holiday, a stream of fog (blown in by professional fog machines) snakes its way around the headstones, black torches, and creepy characters crawling around the yard, while a decomposing skeletal bride hangs by her neck from an oak tree.

"Over the years, Tait Avenue has developed this reputation, so people come from far and wide to experience it," says Griffin, who played hostess to about 2,100 trick-or-treaters in 2003. "It was surreal last year. I walked out onto street at one point, and in each direction, I saw a mass of orange haze just hanging over this shadow of black figures lined up as far as the eye could see."

Police now block off the street and also participate in the fun, bringing in the K-9 unit, so the kids can see the police dog. A fire engine also shows up, so the little goblins can play on that for a while.
Griffin, an office manager by day, says she prefers to live in her left brain; her fun side comes out after hours. "Work just gets in the way of fun!" she quips. She devotes about a full month to crafting her Halloween creatures and props, and spends more money each year. Over the past few years, she's probably spent about $1,000 on her creative outlet.

"Halloween is my favorite holiday. In my childhood, there were certain houses we'd go to each year, and we'd really look forward to that," she recalls. "I wanted to create memories for kids so that when they're older, they can tell their kids, 'Oh, when I was little, we used to go to this neighborhood, and there was this really crazy lady with this cool graveyard setup.'"

Long-time Los Gatos resident MarLyn Rasmussen, better known as the Tait Avenue Hostess, has also spent about $1,000 gathering ghouls and other items for her Halloween festivities. She decorates her home in flying witches and talking skeletons, and throws an annual Halloween open house party that has become a neighborhood tradition. "One year I went away, and everyone thought I died!" she says with a laugh.

Rasmussen gets 1,500 to 2,000 trick-or-treaters yearly and says the Tait Avenue celebration brings people together and creates a sense of community. "All the houses are decorated. Some are really scary, and some are really funny, while others are cozy and cuddly." She has three kids and nine grandchildren, several of whom help her decorate her house for the holiday. "Everyone in the neighborhood takes part in it," she says. "It's really a family event, and we haven't had one bit of trouble."

Rest assured: the Bay Area's Halloween havoc doesn't stop in Los Gatos. Those brave enough to investigate farther south, following the dark, twisting Highway 17 over the mountains and down to Santa Cruz County, will be treated to a heavy helping of Halloween spirit. The downtown area especially turns into a festival of freaks, with characters ranging from giant puppet-people to sexy, but scary showgirls roaming the sidewalks.

"Santa Cruz is a just a very Halloween happy place. We sell wigs, makeup and other dress-up things year round," says Cherie Robideaux, owner of the 31-year-old Woodworm party store in Capitola. "In Santa Cruz, we're a little different than the rest of the world. We're just not afraid to have fun. Where else can you see someone just walking down the street in a purple wig on any day of the year?"

Thrill-seekers cruising over to Capitola's Cabrillo Street on Halloween night will certainly happen upon the home of the Gonzales family, decked out in a display inspired by Mexican and Southwestern traditions. The centerpiece is La Lllarona, or the weeping woman, inspired by a legend of a lady who drowned her children in a river, then, out of grief, drowned herself. The veiled, skeletal figure floats in a crypt, surrounded by piped-in fog.

"It's a story my grandmother used to tell me to make us behave," says Betty Gonzales, whose mother was Mexican. "You can ask any Spanish family, and they'll all know about La Llarona. The mothers would say 'Stay close to me! Stay close to me! La Llarona will get you!' "

In other parts of the yard, a bloody head is perched in a fountain and a tree blooms with skull lanterns. There's also a realistic-looking graveyard with ghouls that come alive on Halloween night. The static creatures are replaced by people dressed exactly like them. They stand as still as their non-living counterparts, until they have the opportunity to scare the bejeezus out of an unsuspecting visitor with a subtle tap on the shoulder.

Unlike many modern Halloween haunters, Gonzales has no reservations about including gobs of gore. But, she points out, that's only one side of the house. The other side is kid-friendly. "It has bales of hay with pumpkins all over it, a scarecrow and non-threatening, kid-appropriate props coming up from the ground. We have the little kids approach from that side," she says, "so they won't get scared."

Gonzales, who has three grown sons, says she's probably spent about $6,000 over the past decade building up her elaborate Capitola haunt, usually adding about $500 in new props every year. "But that was after Halloween," she adds. "We go bargain-hunting the day after."

Halloween is more than just a one-night celebration for the family. They make it last, drawing it out over the whole month. "On Oct. 1, we put out our first decoration; then we put out something new every day, and people come by to see what it is. It takes us 31 days to get completely ready. That's our tradition," she says.

Last year, about 500 visitors showed up to view Gonzalez's ghouls. The influx of new people, drawn by the Gonzales haunt, has exhausted the neighborhood candy supply, so Gonzales plans to buy extra candy for her neighbors this year.

There's also the issue with her sound system. It's set up near a drain, causing the music and screams to resonate down the street for about three blocks. Chances are, it wouldn't fly in Monte Sereno, but Gonzales says her Capitola neighbors love the display.

So why do they all do it? Why pony up hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, and spend days or months in the company of creepy creatures (no, we're not talking about your workplace here)? Why carve out tombstones and fuss with lighting, fire codes, visitor access and permit issues for what used to be a simple kid's holiday? Big-time Halloween haunters throw out a wide range of reasons, from community spirit to career aspirations, but most ultimately zero in on a common draw: the thrill of seeing their spectators' reactions.

"The most fun thing is when we're all done setting it up; we put the dog on a leash, and just go out there to blend in with the crowd," says Aerts. "Kids are pointing things out to their parents, and getting all excited. Adults are happy. Nobody knows it's our house, so we can just stand back and listen to them enjoy it -- that's what it's all about."

Ten Tips for Happy Home Haunting

To host your own fun, safe and hassle-free Halloween extravaganza, here are a few suggestions:

1. If your display or tour is particularly gory, do a non-scary, kid-friendly version, and direct young children to it.
2. Use only battery-powered lanterns or chemical lightsticks in place of candles in decorations and costumes.
3. Review your homeowner's insurance policy for liability concerns, especially if you're leading tours through your house.
4. Take extra effort to eliminate tripping hazards on your porch and walkway. Check around your property for flowerpots, wires, garden hoses and other items that may prove hazardous to young children and others. Use good lighting and reflective tape to guide visitors around pathways.
5. If you plan to use many animatronic or pneumatic creatures, consider gating off the display to keep visitors out of harm's way.
6. Check with local police to see if permits are needed for your type of display.
7. Be considerate of your neighbors. Let them know about your display well in advance, and offer to give them an advance showing. You may not win over everyone, but a responsible approach will probably earn general neighborhood approval.
8. If you have crowds of people viewing your display, be sure to clean up the candy wrappers and other trash after they leave.
9. Keep excitable pets away from visitors.
10. Save big bucks by showing up at the after-Halloween sales to purchase decorations for the following year's celebration.
Compiled from interviews and multiple sources

Spooky Shopping Sources for Your Fiendish Festivities

Tap into these Bay Area and online sources for decorations and props, costumes and other Halloween paraphernalia.

Aladdin's Lamp Company 1
Costume rentals and sales
2090 Lincoln Ave.
San Jose, CA 95125

American Musical Theatre of San Jose
Group costume rentals from 100,000+ item inventory
1717 Technology Dr.
San Jose, CA 95110

Closet Capers
Year-round costume rentals
121 Soquel Ave.
Santa Cruz, CA 95062-2107

Halloween decorations and mostly kids' costumes
Multiple Bay Area locations

Debbie Lyn's Costumes
Year-round rentals
954 West El Camino Real
Sunnyvale, CA 94087

Party supplies, Halloween decorations, props and accessories
10171 S. De Anza Blvd.
Cupertino, CA 95014

Used clothing and plenty of prop possibilities
Multiple locations throughout the Bay Area

Halloween Headquarters
Costumes, decorations, props and accessories
Multiple locations throughout the Bay Area

Halloween Store
Costumes, decorations, props and accessories
Multiple locations throughout the Bay Area

Woodworm Party Store
Decorations, props, costumes and more
827 Bay Ave.
Capitola, CA 95010

Site calls itself the largest retailer of Halloween masks and props on the net
Halloween costumes and accessories
Type in Halloween, and you'll find nearly 2,700 matching items, from costumes to props
Movie quality props and special effects
Costumes, accessories and lots of fun props
Offers a comprehensive shopping guide for all your Halloween decorating needs