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Halloween ghouls prepare for their favorite holiday

Why spooky season is their favorite time of year

Halloween ghouls prepare for their favorite holiday
Halloween ghouls prepare for their favorite holiday
Halloween ghouls prepare for their favorite holiday
Halloween ghouls prepare for their favorite holiday
Halloween ghouls prepare for their favorite holiday
Halloween ghouls prepare for their favorite holiday
Halloween ghouls prepare for their favorite holiday
Halloween ghouls prepare for their favorite holiday
Ashton Wendt, 11, adjusts the costume on an animatronic clown Halloween decoration Oct. 10 at his family’s home in Marion. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)
Conor Larson, 20, sets a spider into giant fake webs all over is family’s home Oct. 10 in Marion. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)
Ashton Wendt, 11, poses for a portrait in front of his Halloween decorations Oct. 10 at his family’s home in Marion. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)
Jan Harrington and her husband, Clancy, pose for a portrait in their homemade Halloween pirate ship on Oct. 10 at their home in Cedar Rapids. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)
Kara Larson poses for a portrait in front of her “skeletons vs spiders” home Halloween decorations on Oct. 10 at her home in Marion. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Everyone knows someone who goes big for the warm and fuzzy holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s or Easter. But who goes all out for Halloween, and why?

Around the Corridor, Halloween fanatics build intricate yard displays for a variety of reasons. See who gets the brightest joy from the darkest holiday of the year.

Making spirits bright

For most, the collection put out in October is amassed over years of celebrations. This year, some residents are running out of space.

On C Avenue NE in Cedar Rapids, Tamsin McAtee’s yard is starting to overflow into the neighbor’s driveway with inflatables, animatronics, and all things that light up.

“My husband is obsessed with filling the yard with things you can see from space,” she said at one of the only houses on the street that decorates for the holiday. “It’s about filling every single space without breaking my neck on guide ropes.”

The more animatronics, the better — and she still hasn’t gotten used to them, still scaring herself when she gets the mail every day.

A native of England, McAtee said the collection is a reflection of the community culture that the holiday embraces — a collection they’ve built since they got married on Nov. 1, as close to Halloween as they could. In the UK, that type culture doesn’t exist around the holiday the way it does here.

“I love seeing the kids come up and looking at everything in the yard,” she said. “That’s a real community thing, and I like that about American culture that they have this sense of community around the holiday.”

With a 10-foot dragon, 12-foot archway, dinosaur, animatronic Pennywise and skeletons, Halloween isn’t about morbidity for her family — it’s about making spirits bright before the “holiday season” as the weather grows dull and dreary.

Starting young

For other families, the haunting starts young.

Sarah Wendt’s house has worked for a couple years to earn the title of the “Halloween” house on her block of Rolling Glen Drive in Marion, all thanks to efforts from her son.

Now with 20 animatronics in their yard, 11-year-old Ashton keeps the spirit alive after a transformative visit to Spirit Halloween.

“At first he was completely freaked out,” said Sarah. “But now we’re there every week. He just kept wanting to go back and buy them.”

Ashton’s taste for scaring others has gotten to the point that all his Christmas and birthday gifts are now Halloween animatronics. His favorite, Mr. Dark, is a motion-activated, 3-foot skeleton that jumps to 9 feet in an instant.

The preteen is already desensitized to being scared, he claims — but watching others jump still is a thrill.

“I like watching other people get scared,” he said. “It just makes he happy.”

Think of the children

Children are the reason Kara Larson, 46, started decorating her yard 14 years ago.

With different haunts and attractions in her front, side and backyards, it takes her family up to two weeks to decorate for the holiday on York Avenue in Marion. Her yard is more than light bulbs and blowup decorations.

“We started doing it because we had a huge corner lot,” she said. “We had kids and I didn’t want them to be scared of stuff — I wanted them to have fun with the scary stuff.”

So she started with a spider tree, and the web of decorations — many of them built by hand — got bigger and bigger.

To her, each season is a chance to build new stories in the yard with anything she can imagine. This year, spider webs made of beef netting are catching some of the spookiest bugs in her October yard along with monsters ranging from a 14-foot skeleton to a 2-foot spider.

“You can take anything and make it into something. It’s just bringing something different to everybody for a couple nights,” Larson said. “That brings me joy — seeing other people immersed in it.”

In past years, her haunt has received upward of 500 trick-or-treaters. With signs pointing different directions “for the candy” or “to be scared,” trick-or-treaters can visit the creepy day care yard complete with an assortment of dolls on a playground or attend a deranged clown birthday party in the garage.

“It’s almost like a seek and find book,” she said. “(Watching children) try to pick out all the little things.”

Skeleton crew

Jan and Clancy Harrington on Falcon Drive NE in Cedar Rapids use skeletons to get into the spirit each Halloween, with a new theme for each display they build. Themes each year vary between the scary and sweet side of Halloween.

Using wooden pallets to build a large ship in the front yard, this year’s theme is pirate skeletons. Previous years featured alien themes, skeletons in paradise, and the coronavirus using Corona beers in containers and balls that looked like COVID-19 under a microscope.

“Christmas is great and all, but it’s so much work and then it’s over,” said Jan. “It seems like when you decorate for Halloween, it’s a whole month long.”

The theatrical couple, who also love ghost hunting, uses the holiday to get into a new character, too.

“I’ve always loved Halloween, I guess because I used to love theater so much,” Harrington said. “This thing about being someone else is a fun idea to me.”

Early bird gets the scare

Matt Ford on Willowwood Drive in Hiawatha gets started early each year, with about seven 15-gallon tubs of decorations.

“We start decorating as soon as school starts,” he said. “And on Nov. 1, we immediately start on Christmas.”

His childhood obsessions has persisted through adulthood, and now he loves passing on his passion for getting scared to his children. His wedding anniversary is also on Halloween.

With a love for horror movies, he started his own theatrical prop and costume shop as a teenager — recognized in the late 1980s as one of the youngest business owners in the state by Gov. Terry Branstad.

Since 2013, he has run Heritage of Cedar Rapids Theater Co., a small company that specializes in occasional horror-themed films like “The Rocky Picture Horror Show.”

“I always had to make my own fun (as a child),” he said. “Halloween is my favorite holiday, so we go a little crazy.”

Kara Larson and her son, Connor, have a laugh while adjusting spider web decorations Oct. 10, at their family’s home in Marion. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)
Ashton Wendt, 11, poses for a portrait in front of his Halloween decorations Oct. 10 at his family’s home in Marion. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)
Clancy Harrington fastens down the head of a pumpkin Halloween decoration to protect it from wind Oct. 10 at their home in Cedar Rapids. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Comments: (319) 398-8340; elijah.decious@thegazette.com