For many families, preparing a Halloween night haunt in a garage consists of little more than carving a few pumpkins, hanging a few cobwebs and pretending like a bowl of peeled grapes is actually a bowl of eyeballs.
For Jeff Zolkiewicz and Greg Keller, two Mount Airy neighbors who team up to create a garage and front yard haunt each year on Crimson Cloud Court, planning their walk through requires 10 months of planning, mechanical expertise, robotics work and a lot of latex.
Their latest haunt, "The Contagion," opens its doors Friday to those looking to be scared.
The displays started out as a simple friendly rivalry between Zolkiewicz and Keller, as each tried to impress the other with their spread of Halloween decorations. Soon, Keller said, they realized if they worked together, they could have something truly spectacular with less work.
For nine years, they've created elaborate walk through haunts, complete with animatronic spooks, live actor scares and a healthy amount of creepy atmosphere. The two decided to alternate houses each Halloween to give each family a rest from the huge production of the haunt.
As soon as the Christmas lights come down, Keller and Zolkiewicz start kicking around ideas for the following years Halloween haunt. Once the general plan is figured out, the two begin construction of walls and the larger props in early spring.
"It's not really a time many other people are thinking of Halloween," Keller said. "We need to start that early though, because by August, September and October we're meeting every weekend and on evenings to get this set up."
As the holiday approaches, they begin work on the finer props, layout of the haunt in general and costuming and positioning of participating family members so as to make for optimum scares.
This year, the haunt will feature a "scare cam" inside the walk through so as children go through, their parents have a live feed of their reactions to each scare. Keller cautioned that this if the first year the two have put a parental advisory on the haunt, as it may prove to too scary for younger trick-or-treaters.
In the past, they've done themes ranging from an evil circus to a mystery meat butcher shop where, instead of candy, the two families handed out hot dogs. This year, they're generating a zombie-inspired haunt. The name, "The Contagion," relates to the infection that results in the animation of the living dead.
Despite the engineering techniques required to make a chattering skeleton, 17-foot raising phantom and pre-programmed trap doors, neither Zolkiewicz nor Keller have any mechanical experience in their day jobs, as Zolkiewicz is a veterinarian and Keller is a HR consultant. Keller said the pair have just lucked into knowledge each year as they experiment with new techniques.
"We're totally out of our league," Keller said. "We've had lots of circuits blown by figuring out what can handle which loads."
The haunt is loosely based on the Garrett Sanitarium, a facility that existed in Mount Airy from the late 1800s. They use the facility as a starting point each year. Keller said it's fun to tie actual local history into the scares.
Last year, they skipped doing the haunt, because Keller said they needed a rest from the months of work. Following their hiatus, Zolkiewicz said he was shocked by how many people came up and asked what had happened to the haunt. He said the public reaction encouraged them to double down for this year's display.
He said the inspiration combined with the year off has led the crew to be the freshest they've ever felt. He said they've finished more this year earlier than ever before.
"I think it sounds schlocky, but the thing that keeps us going is the feedback we get from the neighbors," Keller said. "I'm sure there are some that just want to shoot us, because they really have to unload the candy, but other than that, we've gotten great feedback. I think they get as enthused as we do."
Growing up, Zolkiewicz and Keller had very different experiences with Halloween. Zolkiewicz was born on Halloween night, and he said it was easily his favorite holiday growing up. Each year, his father would build him an elaborate costume. One year he was horse, another McDonald's french fries. He said his proudest costume was that of a giant papier mache foot, complete with band-aid and bunion.
Keller, by contrast, said he was never enamored of the Halloween season, since the monsters and ghouls often scared him.
"I think that's why I do this now. I was so scared as a kid. Then I learned, that if you can be a monster, nothing can scare you. You're the apex predator," Keller said. "Now I stay behind the curtain and let everyone else deal with the scares."
If You Go
What: "The Contagion"
When: 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30, Saturday, Oct. 31
Where: 1002 Crimson Cloud Court, Mount Airy