Home haunters scare up Halloween fun

Home haunters scare up Halloween fun

Strobe lights pump and flicker in time with eerie piano music; pneumatic monsters spring out of the dark; a coffin bangs open to reveal a bloody corpse and your heart races as you can't help but wonder if you might be next.

While most content themselves with carving a jack-o'-lantern and dressing up as a witch to hand out candy on Halloween, a few intrepid homeowners take it several steps further by converting their yards and homes into full-fledged haunted houses for the entire neighborhood.

Jeff Brennan's been doing it since 1998, most recently in his Haunted Plainfield home. He certainly makes local trick-or-treaters earn their candy they venture behind a curtain and through a gauntlet of terror before claiming their sweet prize from an actor lying inside a coffin a real coffin, on loan from a local funeral home.

From the other side of the black curtain, all you can hear are screams and an air cannon. "There are adults who refuse to go back behind that curtain!" Brennan says.

Jason Tatum, who operates Drury Lane Cemetery at his Arlington Heights home, started spooking his neighbors as a teenager when he'd run a fishing line connected to a skeleton that would pop up to startle passersby. Ever since, he's steadily increased his technological game.

"When I replaced the lights in my home with smart lights, I discovered you could do an animated light show," he says. Tatum wrote software to customize it for a Halloween theme, and continues to sell the software, Light Show Master, to other home haunters.

Tatum entertains about 400 visitors a year, and despite his high-tech lighting flourishes, most of it comes down to building props and presentation. "Everything I make is really stuff that anybody can do," he says. "You need a little bit of creativity, but there's no shortage of that online."

A haunting hobby

Toby Wrolson, born in October, says he's been a Halloween lover since he was 10. Haunt 31 winds through his yard, garage and into his Lake in the Hills home. "As a kid, I would use garbage bags to decorate the carport," he says. "With minimal time and effort, you could put on a good show. The simplest thing would be scary."

The elaborate display takes three weeks to set up and operates throughout the month of October. Dozens of mechanical and pneumatic scares attracted about 10,000 visitors in 2009. "It's a hobby that's become an obsession," Wrolson says.

He and his friends tear it down in one intensive day. "By Nov. 1, my neighbors have put up with it long enough," he says.

He's also a founding member of Haunt Club Chicago, which is one of numerous ways home-haunt aficionados can hone their craft. They gather in informal clubs or online to trade tips and hints, and frequently visit Halloween trade shows to check out the latest innovations.

Some homes are haunted in more ways than one. Diethard Beyer and partners Kurt Beyer and Keith Nicholls live in a Joliet home that is not only a former funeral home, but some believe it's truly haunted.

"We've had things happen constantly since we moved in here," Diethard Beyer says. "Several paranormal groups have investigated the house. Some learned that I may have lived here in a former life, and some of the spirits are happy that I'm back."

The trio has always loved Christmas decorating, and they've expanded that love to include Halloween. They erect large tents outside, recruit friends as actors and assemble a spooky spectacle that attracts more than 1,000 visitors on Halloween.

For the love of the season

None of the four homeowners charge for their haunts. "I do it because I enjoy it," Brennan says. "If someone gives a donation, it goes into the fund for next year."

Although it's all fun and games, they also take it seriously, especially given the inherent dangers of large crowds. "We hire people to keep order, and keep people and traffic moving," Wrolson says. He also checked with his insurance company to be sure he was protected from potential liability.

Amy Rubenstein, owner of highly rated Creative Celebrations in Wheeling, says she's seen the popularity of Halloween grow in prominence over the years. Customers call her to design elaborate garage-based haunted houses for parties.

"People love Halloween, and they love decorations," she says. "Kids and adults alike go nuts when they walk in."

Some home haunters focus their efforts on friends and family. Angie's List member Aimee Derylo of Downers Grove transforms her home into a Halloween theme such as a haunted mansion or mad scientist's lab for her annual party. "We really enjoy the levity of taking a lighthearted poke at scary things," Derylo says.

The home haunters agree that while it can be a draining experience, it's worth it in the end. "The weather sucks, everyone's beat and exhausted and asking, 'Why the hell do we do this?'" Diethard Beyer says. "But the reaction from the kids and parents makes it all worthwhile."

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