CEDAR RAPIDS — When Kat Armstrong started dating the man who is now her husband, William Armstrong, he would often bow out on Sunday afternoons, in order to keep up his weekly tradition of screening his favorite classic horror film, “House on Haunted Hill.”
That was right up Armstrong’s alley. Ever since she was a kid, she’s loved all things spooky.
At the Armstrong’s northwest-side Cedar Rapids home, that love is on full display for the neighborhood throughout the month of October.
Handmade tombstones, skeletons and cackling animatronic witches fill the front yard, leading visitors up to the spider-web-festooned door.
“I like the fact people stop and say, ‘Hey, this is cool,’ and then I get to have conversations with people I would never have met otherwise,” Armstrong said.
The family moved into the northwest-side house in 2014 and have been developing the front yard haunted scene since then
“It just grows a little bit every year,” Armstrong said. “It’s a labor of love.”
Many of the tombstones in the yard came from House on Blood Hill, a local haunted house that closed after 10 years in operation.
Animatronic witches and skeletons are scattered among homemade props, including tombstones.
As head prop-finder for Circle of Ash Haunted Attraction, Armstrong is adept at finding and building unique spooky pieces for the macabre display. Her dining room table disappears in the weeks leading up to October as she finishes up props for the annual haunted house at the Linn County Fairgrounds. In addition to helping decorate Circle of Ash, she and her daughter Aubrey Curtis, 14, are character actors at the attraction.
“It’s really fun. People don’t really view you as yourself. People view you as a completely different person,” said Curtis, who is a freshman at Washington High School. She has created a character named Alice, who was possessed at age 11 and does back bends in a contortionist act to scare haunted forest visitors.
“You do get into the head space of being a little crazy,” she said. “It gets out energy, a lot of energy. I love it.”
She said she enjoys watching people’s reactions, both at Circle of Ash and as they walk or drive past her family’s front yard, which she helps decorate.
“People usually slow down and look at what you have, and it really shows the effort you put into it,” she said.
When Armstrong is not holding craft parties to turn thrift store dolls into creepy haunted house props or leading paranormal investigations with her husband — another of their passions — she works as a web developer at Ruffalo Noel Levitz.
Armstrong’s father Robert Thomson also gets involved and helped build many of the props.
“He loves this stuff, and he loves passing it on,” Armstrong said. “A lot of this was a project with my dad.”
The passion for Halloween continues inside the house, where a red light casts a pallor over the front entrance and large spiders dangle from light fixtures. Spooky dolls line the stairs up to the second floor. An alter to the macabre in the dining room stays up year-round.
“I’m kind of goth crazy to start with,” Armstrong said.
Her passion for Halloween actually started out by being scared. She grew up in California and remembers being terrified while trick-or-treating one year when her neighbor set up a full-sized coffin in his yard and popped out when children approached for candy. The next year, her brother and a friend, inspired by that performance, started wearing black robes and haunting their own porch. Later, she helped her brother and father run a haunted attraction in Memphis, Tenn.
“I’ve loved it ever since,” she said. “We’re a family that does Dungeons and Dragons together. I’ve always been into horror movies. It’s just always been my thing.”
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