Welcome To Halloweentown
"All our times have come
Here but now they're gone
Seasons don't fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
(we can be like they are)
Come on baby... don't fear the reaper
Baby take my hand... don't fear the reaper"
-"(Don't Fear) The Reaper"
Blue Öyster Cult's hit (circa 1976) blares on Tillson Street near downtown Romeo, from a home where a witch stirs a tree-trunk cauldron in the middle of the lawn. A bit yonder the Not-So-OK Tillson Corral is manned by a skeleton crew and a wolf clad in cowboy's clothing. A tuxedo'ed wild boar twirls a shell of a princess under a crystal chandelier at the Corpse Masquerade Ball – and, hell, this home costuming isn't even the half of it.
Two dozen manses on a two-block slip of a street are artfully dressed for All Hallows Eve, with hundreds of gawkers jamming the sidewalks on a rainy Saturday night in late October.
You see, it's possible to do a diagonal hopscotch across the metro area from Macomb County to Washtenaw county, Romeo to Berkley to Ann Arbor, and walk vaunted residential streets offering free Hallowe'en look-sees that rival any commercial attraction. These streets are open to trick or treating and popular enough to be closed off to cars on October 31. It's not haunted houses, hayrides, corn mazes, or pay-to-play in purgatory the residents are after here, but a real homespun All Hallow's Eve.
And it sounds like something many Americans are craving this year. The National Retail Federation projects that Hallowe'en spending in the U.S. could reach $5.8 billion in 2010, up from $4.75 billion last year. That's more than a 22 percent increase. The tab per person may reach $66.28, compared with last year's $56.31.
"We don't compete," Vicki Lee, a 30-year Tillson Street resident and originator of the decorating tradition, says of this highly unusual neighborhood collaboration. Many of the homes, which sit tight together, celebrate Halloween with gusto. Tillson
was even featured on network TV news in 2009. "We're all friends, kind of watch out for each other. You don't see those kinds of neighborhoods anymore."
And how! No House of Usher here, no "iciness" or "sickening of the heart" as Poe so narrates. Décor runs from an elaborate rendering of a tipsy pirate ship to a porch-top spectral orchestra with fog roiling the ground à la Phantom of the Opera
, to traditional, innocent, pun-filled displays. Signs like "For Saken by Owner" bedeck lawns. Ninety percent of the decorations are handmade, Lee says, with heavy use of black paint, fishing line, and dollar store tablecloths. The Beistle Company
, a purveyor of Hallowe'en novelties since 1900, must have envisaged a street like Tillson, lined as it is with 19th-century homes.
While an official count is elusive, Lee guesses visitors number in the tens of thousands during the two weeks preceding the holiday. They come from as far away as Australia and Germany. Nota bene
: The Dairy Queen at the head of the street "does quite well in October," Lee says. Tonight, 50 people wait in the drizzle for pumpkin pie and brownie batter blizzards.
The undertaking is not commercial, she stresses. "We aren't associated with any other groups in town. We've just done this on our own." This year a 500-recipe cookbook and T-shirts are for sale, with all proceeds going to the charitable Buzz Lee Memorial Scholarship fund. Homeowners cover their own decorating costs and much of the candy comes from donations, she adds.
Lee reckons that 2,000 trick or treaters came down Tillson Street in 2009. "The last several years I don't think there's a child that goes through here that doesn't say, 'Thank you', and they're very polite and they have so much fun," she says. "It's a free family night." Hollowed Bods
The Berkley Boneyard
, at the corner of Edwards and Cummings Streets in leafy Berkley, is the midway stop on the Tour de Terroir
. Hundreds of props and vignettes, tending towards the pasty stage of life, litter the yard at 3713 Cummings Street.
Here a skelly named Theodore tick-tocks in a rocker, spewing tales from a tattery book. He tells of the love of his life, a gal with thin shrunken lips and a face molded from wax. In a clash of the eras, though, the story is sadly drowned out by a shadowy figure with a chainsaw.
Any piggybacking or mimicry from the neighbors – a Hallowe'en doo-wop headlined by the Berkley Boneyard?
"Surprisingly, no," propmaster Don Weiner says matter-of-factly. It's true. While throngs of people wrap the property on a breezy Sunday evening, the surrounding homes are subdued. But the neighbors approve. "Some of them actually loan us electricity," he says. The display uses over 2,000 watts of lighting. "They all love it. They all have their Hallowe'en parties at their house and then they have all their friends over to check it out and enjoy it."
Weiner, whose parents own the home, starts on the Boneyard in mid-September and does 90 percent of the assembly and prop connection himself, he says. Neighborhood children gather about 900 gallons of leaves used to cover the wiring. And in a complete touch, even the bungalow home's facade is clad in insane asylum-style gray brick wrap.
In 2003 the Boneyard was featured in a British documentary, How Americans Celebrate Halloween
. At least 10,000 visitors show up every season, Weiner says, and his crew passed out 120 bags' worth of candy last year. Gazing is gratis, but donations towards the next year's display are always accepted.
The Boneyard, Weiner says, is known for its air-powered pneumatic props, which he and his helpers activate from a control center behind the display. "We can activate the props right at the right moment," he slyly says. I go incognito but take the corner too tightly. My bad. A skeleton with a bejeweled skull leaps overhead (tee-hee).
But, yes, serious analysis is to be had in yardside attractions too. The most emblematic scene I spot? A teeter totter! Pushing off against each other sit a holy figure clad in angelic robes and a dark shrouded ghoul.
Clear across the metro area, there's an Ann Arbor one-home show equivalent called Brandywine Cemetery
, a haunted installation long on tradition and short on gore. It is the spawn of ex-Disney animator Robert Beech and can be found at 2727 Brandywine Street. Read more about it here
. "There he is! There he is! It's the Great Pumpkin! He's rising out of the pumpkin patch!" - Linus
On Granger Street in Ann Arbor's Burns Park neighborhood sits the domaine of Linda Lampman and Jim Smiley, of Great Pumpkin fame. For years, the couple's front lawn pumpkin patch has sprung a pair of ginormous jack-o-lanterns, the largest weighing in at 849 pounds, Lampman says. The couple buys these heroes from a Dundee grower, post-competition. (To save on weight and harvest seeds for next year's breeding, the farmer guts the pumpkins before the couple carts them off.) Smiley then carves with a jigsaw, appropriately, a smiley face in the 3-4 inch thick rind, Lampman says. The globes are lit with a florescent utility lamp. "Candles wouldn't do it," she chortles.
Lampman expects the rising of the gourds this Friday, October 29, in time for the children in the elementary school parade to see. There is also a steady parade of parents and drive-bys, she says. "Apparently a lot of families around the city bring their children over to this side of town, partially because there's so many houses that are close together. You can get a lot [of candy] in a short period of time."
Lampman thinks about 500 trick-or-treaters darken her door for full-size pumpkin-stuffers including M&Ms, Twix, Sour Patch Kids, and Pixy Stix. "We're finding that younger kids like the sour things now, and females like the chocolate."
Having swilled many a Pixy Stix, I'm pleased to learn they offer not the puny gone-in-a-lick paper straws, but those bodacious 18-inch sugar batons.
Ann Arbor city councilman and Burns Park resident Christopher Taylor has seen the Brandywine Cemetery and the jack-o-lanterns, which he calls "very impressive". Taylor's own residence has "limited" decorations, he says. His eight-year-old daughter "likes to put drawings and cutouts of pumpkins and ghosts and bats and things in the window. That, in addition to a stuffed man on the Adirondack chair, is about as far as we go."
Taylor expects about 400 trick-or-treaters on his street this year. Neighbors one block away estimate as many as 600. "I think it's a close-knit neighborhood that takes a lot of pride and pleasure in the event. I'm looking forward to it and I know other people are as well."
Whatever is in the Metro Detroit water (a fiendish mind-altering elixir, perhaps?), there's little doubt our community has a deep fondness for ghouls, ghosts, and things that go bump in the night. Call it civic pride or neighborhood pride, but it's hard to argue that notorious Halloweening isn't a block booster.
As Lee tells it, when people recognize her "I Hung Out On Tillson St." shirt, "they say, 'Oh my gosh, is that the Hallowe'en street?'"
Long live Samhain!
Tanya Muzumdar hopes to find Pixy Stix in her treat bag this weekend. She is Metromode's
and Concentrate's assistant
editor. She's also a freelance writer and editor. Her previous article
was The Vinyl Truth.
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All Photos by Dave Lewinski
All Photos Taken at the Berkley Boneyard