There were virtually no Halloween trick-or-treaters when we moved into the old “Viets Homestead,” as people called our house in Vienna Center, in 1993. Located across from the Williams IGA, Shevie’s Pub, Brothers Pizza, and Viets Chevrolet, there simply were few families with children nearby. This was the way it would be for about eight years.
I am a long-time fan of amusement parks and co-founded in 2000 the Darkride and Funhouse Enthusiasts (www.dafe.org). About that time a contact at Kennywood Park informed me that the Park was scrapping some old ride figures. A deal was struck and I brought home a few loads. I had no idea what to do with them.
A sleeping old man first found his way to the front porch “temporarily.” For those who know my house, you quite likely waved and said hello to him at some point. Many people were surprised to learn that he was not real. (The police responded at least once to calls about the old guy sitting on the porch in the middle of the night in the winter!)
Creating Happy Valley Cemetery
In 2001, my wife Sue and I converted a few of the former hillbillies into Halloween figures. A witch, the Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, a woman running from Dracula, a guy rising from his grave, and a guy eating a leg comprised the first Halloween scene in our front yard. The lady running was the only figure that wasn’t modified. The guy eating a leg was originally a harmonica player in a hillbilly band. The one rising from the grave was the band’s conductor. The witch was a housewife in a robe and the bride was actually a hillbilly bride in the scene. The motions of another ride figure reminded me of Dracula and he was the inspiration for all of the conversions and was the first figure to be modified. With the addition of this first Halloween scene, trick-or-treaters finally started coming to the house.
In 2002, Frankenstein and the preacher joined the Bride to complete the scene. The preacher was the preacher in the original Kennywood scene as well. That year, I donned a simple Grim[m] Reaper costume and I stood motionless with the other figures in the yard. Unlike today, there were no lines of trick-or-treaters waiting; they were few and far between so what I describe below worked well.
As the children waited on the front porch to receive their candy, I would silently move behind them striking the same pose that I had in the yard. The parents watched with delight as the kids turned to leave, seeing me, and then screaming as they flew off the porch.
The year 2003 was also the first in which the 1970 Miller Meteor hearse made its appearance. To keep the kids guessing, the Grimm Reaper again appeared, as a still figure, as I assumed a new role in the yard.
The first few years, we noticed children tripping over the spotlights—not the cords, but the lights themselves! In 2004, the Gothic-style fence went up in the yard for the first time, surrounding only three sides, in an effort to keep the kids out of the yard. We soon discovered that the dads would bring them in any way to walk around!
This was the year the cemetery appeared for the first time. Tombstones started popping up. This was also the first year fog was created for the yard. The Egyptian god Anubis made its first appearance as did a “ticket booth” with a mysterious image that floated inside. (It seemed to baffle adults more so than the children.)
The only additions for 2005 were a couple of skeletons and some rope lighting to create a path around the cemetery.
For 2006, my wife Sue took on the task of creating a scene with the additional skeletons that moved into the cemetery. Two skeleton kids on a teeter-totter took a spot this year, too. This was also the year that high winds toppled the front fence and broke several tombstones. It was also the year that a few of my friends started getting involved with acting in the yard.
The cemetery was named Happy Valley in 2007, and bats began flying between two trees in the front yard. (Due to constant problems, I abandoned the gag after a couple years.) The skeleton family enjoyed the view of cemetery from a park bench this year as another was trying to escape over the fence. (“Could you give a hand here, my muscles aren’t what they used to be!”) New props this year included a skeleton trying to get out of a jail cell and a cat confronting a giant rat on a wooden barrel.
This was also the first year that several scenes had audio for the first time.
Building a Haunted House
Our first haunted house appeared in 2007, an inflatable structure that was installed in the path around the cemetery. We soon learned that the small children were afraid of going into it to get their candy! It was the first and last year for the house.
We added a few new props in 2008: a skull throne and a monument that contained the strobe light for the thunder and lightning effect. The very popular animated electric chair was also new this year.
Despite the failure of the inflatable haunted house, my friends Rich and Tim Grimm and I had been discussing building a small haunted house, off to the side of the path. Unfortunately, my wife Sue and I were spending much of our time with her sister in the Cleveland Clinic. Sadly, she passed on just before Halloween. With several nice days left until Halloween, Rich, Tim, and I decided that we could hastily construct a small haunted house in a 10’ x 20’ carport. Armed with a supply of plywood, 1” x 4”s, and some animated props, we managed to build it in just a few days. Personally, I was not happy with what we built, but our guests seemed to love it!
In 2009, we started getting serious. There were few changes in the yard – a skeleton picnic scene, the animated outhouse and then end of a path around the cemetery – but we started planning for the future. This year was the beginning of a haunted house designed to be modular so it could be changed every year. Since its permanent home was not finished yet, we used an even larger carport to create a 12’ x 24’ structure. Gone were the flimsy plywood walls, replace with standard sized panels in two-, three- and four-foot widths. The “drop panel” and the laboratory appeared for the first time in addition to several animated props.
As we were building the haunted house, someone stopped by asking if we entered the contest. Contest? We learned that WKBN was looking for the area’s “Most Spooktacular Haunted House.” After emailing them a few photos, I received a phone call saying that they knew about our place, but didn’t know how to contact us.
On a Thursday morning at 6 am, WKBN’s Greta Mittereter arrived to tape the “live” spot for Friday morning’s morning show. I was congratulated for having the first, and probably last (which turned out to be true), Most Spooktacular House.
With the new garage built, we had more time to plan and build the haunted house in 2010. For the first time we could ignore the weather. The haunted house also received a name. After pondering it for a while and taking suggestions, we decided that it should be the opposite of Happy Valley. Grimm Manor worked well in two ways: it completely contrasted Happy Valley and it served as a tribute to my two best friends, Rich and Tim Grimm, who have devoted many hours over the years helping be create our haunts.
The spring and summer was VERY busy, as we needed to construct not only new wall panels but also a façade—not to mention the time needed to assemble the walls, set up and light the scenes, and determine the sounds and music for everything. That year, a rousing game of croquet kept the skeletons busy in the cemetery with the exception of one walking his dog.
WKBN returned to actually do a live spot this year, but problems getting a signal back to the station nixed that. Instead of doing four promos (two for WKBN and two for their Fox sister station) and two live spots, they only had time for one promo and one “live” segment. Greta Mittereter also exposed a few of our “surprises” on TV, give those that watched a heads-up before they visited.
The Fire Chief appeared just before we opened Grimm Manor. Apparently, our “fame” had attracted some attention. Actually, I had been expecting it. Over the years, the attention the fire department had given the professional haunted houses has been trickling down to the “home haunter” as we have become more than just pumpkins and tombstones. As our Chief was discussing Ohio’s rules, I was pointing out that we had emergency exits, fire extinguishers, low voltage lighting, and radios. More
importantly, we were (and still are) less than 1000 square feet, the point at which sprinkler systems are required. He left happy. I have invited him to inspect the haunted house each year since, not to mention providing a diagram showing the layout with exit and fire extinguisher locations.
Each new actor receives a safety briefing and tour of the haunt before they can do anything else. While we want to have fun, the safety of our guests and actors comes first.
Many of the improvements in 2011 occurred behind the scenes in the areas of sound equipment and wiring, including a radio-controlled switch that could kill all audio and special effects in the haunted house in case of an emergency. As usual, the layout of the haunted house would change: the entrance offered a choice of going left or right, to safety or doom. In actuality, both paths led to the same place: an Egyptian room, appearing for the first time. The “Kids’ Room” was new this year, too, with plenty of monster children and their nanny.
The skeletons in the cemetery this year were in a hot and heavy poker game while in the background the young boy was trying to rescue his cat from a tree.
Unfortunately, we had never counted how many people that have visited each year, something that we would start doing in 2011. Over the three days, 748 toured the Manor in 2011.
2012: The Year of Zombies and Storms
For 2012, two of the skeletons joined the wedding scene as best man and maid of honor in Happy Valley Cemetery. The massive storm that destroyed much of the Atlantic coast also wreaked havoc on Happy Valley. High winds toppled the front fence for the second time in five years, breaking tombstones and damaging one prop. The damage was repaired in two hours, but the prop was beyond repair.
This was also the year of the zombie. Zombies overran the Manor and could be seen popping in many of the scenes. A radio message gave visitors a warning as they entered.
Two surprises greeted guests this year. The first was the zombie at the window (becoming a bit more high-tech this year, a video of zombies banging on the “window” was playing on a disguised flat screen TV.) This seemed to interest adults more than the kids.
The second surprise was the casket room. Guests entering found two wooden coffins and a full-sized casket with an animated prop. They soon realized that the room had no apparent way out! “This room, such as life, only has one way in … and one way out!” The upright coffin was a secret passage into the next room, and the next fright.
Interestingly, the casket room baffled most adults, but children seemed to know instinctively to push through the back of the coffin. Several male adults walked into the casket and turned around expecting something to happen. While that would have been interesting, they just ended up standing there. Several groups, either not listening or not believing their host, turned around and returned to the first room, finding an opening in the wall—which led to a dead end. (It was a place for an actor to hide.)
Unfortunately, all the work we put into the haunt for 2012 went unnoticed by many people. The storm kept many people at home on Saturday and Sunday. Thankfully, Halloween night was much better. We had around 300 fewer guests this year for the three days, about three-quarters of them coming Halloween night.
Contributor: Rick Davis, Owner and Creator, Grimm Manor and Happy Valley Cemetery