Every Halloween, the tidy front yard of a purple-hued Victorian house on Harper Avenue in Hyde Park transforms from charming to charmingly creepy. Skeletons hang from the fence, ghosts float from trees, and the front lawn “cemetery” is dotted with around a dozen gravestones (one labled “You?” and gripped by a faux severed hand, one for Elvis, another for Jim Morrison and one dripping with Mardi Gras beads). Susan Weingartner, cheekily dressed as a “cougar witch,” plans to hold court over it all while sipping wine beside a table of (faux) skeletons on her front porch this Halloween.
“We negotiated to move into the home by October 28 so we could be here for Halloween,” says Weingartner, a New York transplant who bid on three houses on this street before she, her husband and her now college-age son and daughter nabbed their Painted Lady in 1991.
Like many of her neighbors, mostly academics and professors at the nearby University of Chicago, Weingartner spends the last few days of October decorating her home and front yard in order to dazzle the more than 2,000(!) trick-or-treating area youngsters who she estimates visit the festive block each Halloween—including President Obama’s two daughters when he lived nearby. “We’re used to spending $250 on candy each year,” Weingartner says. (She likes treating her costumed visitors to fun-size Milky Way bars, plus other “good stuff.”)
But Weingartner does up her digs more than most. A self-described “reuser” who loves transforming castaway finds into quirky home-decor statements, she has turned much of her creative energy toward hunting for spooky props and accessories such as masks, wigs, costumes, mannequins, glow-in-the-dark rocks and skeleton candles. She and her kids have found all of that and more, mostly by scouring alleys, flea markets and thrift stores. “At least a third of the storage space in my basement, much to my husband’s chagrin, is my Halloween stuff,” she says. Here’s just a taste of the spooky loot: faux crystal goblets with spider decals; goth-ish magenta-hued tablecloths for her front porch “tea party;” a cauldron to hold candy; gnomes; strings of colored lights for draping on the porch and in the trees; plus wigs, costumes, hats and scarves for the skeletons and extra plywood for adding gravestones to the cemetery whenever the mood might strike.
Up in Highland Park, Vicki Mecklenburger and her four kids (a 16-year-old daughter, 14-year-old son and twin 11-year-old daughters) have dedicated as many as eight weeks to setting up their Halloween extravaganza in the front yard and first floor of their home. “I’ve probably spent $10,000 on Halloween over the years,” says Mecklenburger, who estimates the family can get their haunted house set up in about two weeks now that she’s meticulously organized the decorations into 40 large orange bins in the attic.
The tradition was born out of another Halloween ritual: hosting a party for her friends and her kids’ friends every October 31. “There were just too many people. It was getting to be almost 100 guests,” Mecklenburger says. “About ten years ago, I had to come up with a way to see all of our friends without putting them in one room at the same time.”
Although it was never small, the setup has gotten bigger and better over the years with souped-up details such as two fog machines used to eerify the front yard’s footbridge, a balcony running the length of the house that’s bedecked with dozens of ghosts and bats, professional speakers blaring scary sounds, and a hologram of a gory screaming head (sans body) in the family room.
Inside, the first floor is overtaken by about 15 friends and volunteer student-actors who dress up as witches and vampires and act as tour guides taking 12–15 trick-or-treaters through the home at a time. (Doughnuts, cider and other delicious treats are served in the garage while folks wait for their turn.) Other helpers bring in props and decorations to set the scene in each individual room, which they personally oversee. Like a fortune-teller’s room. Or the mad scientist’s headquarters, which is manned by a local science teacher who showcases her lab artifacts: mice, bones, spiders, plus food reimagined as guts, brains, worms and more stomach-turning props.
Mecklenburger says there’s no jumping from behind corners or loud noises to scare guests, yet, “a kid cries every year.” But it ends with a warm and fuzzy farewell: Candy awaits all who are brave enough to exit via the kitchen. There’s also a box where guests can leave a donation—the Mecklenburgers donate any funds they collect to a different charity each year—past examples include the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Orphans of the Storm and the University of Chicago Pediatric Cancer Research Fund.
“Between the crowds and the scary music and the fog machines, I call my neighbors to warn them each fall,” says Mecklenburger. “I say, ‘Listen, we’re those Halloween crazies. Sorry about that!’ ”