Twenty-one years ago, Craig Schuelke cut a ping pong ball in half, drilled holes in each half for eyes and put a nylon stocking over his head. He stood on the porch above his front door and spooked kids as they trick-or-treated.
“And it just snowballed from there,” the Forest Hill resident said.
Every year since, Schuelke has been trying to outdo the previous year when it comes to the Halloween display in his front yard at the end of Cannery Court in the Spenceola Farms neighborhood.
His are not the typical Halloween decorations of inflatables and a few pumpkins in the yard. This yard is full of scary, moving pieces intended to frighten visitors — the windows are boarded up, the blade of a guillotine moves up and down over a shaking body and a heart beats red inside a grave in the ground.
Orlock the Undead wanders around — Schuelke wearing a silicone mask that responds to every move he makes. He likes to frighten his visitors — “it is Halloween, after all," he said — and holds remotes in his hands to set off the different noises. A fire alarm bell goes off behind parents on the sidewalk and as they walk away a commercial building alarm sounds. A hand dryer sits on the walkway to the house and is triggered by little feet walking by to blow hot air at their legs.
It’s “Scary Mr. Craig’s House” at 316 Cannery, an all-out, one-night Halloween fright fest that can be heard from streets away.
The neighborhood loves it — "We haven’t had one complaint,” Schuelke said.
Neighbors enjoy the show of watching visitors’ reactions, not only the children, but the adults as well, because Schuelke has devised ways to scare them, too.
The neighbors set up their bonfire pit in the front yard, have a few drinks and watch the entertainment. “They think it’s a great show,” Schuelke said.
Other neighbors have jumped on the bandwagon. Many of the houses on the court also have decorations and while none is as elaborate as the Schuelkes, a few have more than the traditional items.
Schuelke and his wife, Melanie — but mostly Craig — spend most of October getting ready for Halloween.
“My wife says she gets irritated, the garage is in shambles, my only focus is on this,” Schuelke said. “But afterward she says ‘No matter what I say, don’t stop doing this.’”
They have been scaring trick-or-treaters for 21 years, before they had children of their own — Tyler, 13, and Parker, 11.
In fact, they started because the Schuelkes thought they couldn’t have kids, and Halloween gave Craig something to do. It started small but each year Schuelke added something new to the display.
Then he went to a Halloween convention in Chicago and saw all the things he could do.
“We took it to another level,” he said.
He bought some decorations at the convention at a price much lower than the Halloween shops. And he started looking around online at other set-ups.
“I saw things that caught my eye and put them together with my ideas,” Schuelke said.
A commercial construction superintendent, Schuelke built a number of the pieces himself, like the guillotine, the coffin, the hangman and the window boards.
He tries to change up the scene a little bit every year. Two years ago, it was the window boards. This year, a 3-foot illuminated moon will hang 10 feet over their house — it was up late last week, but high winds bent the pole and Schuelke had to take it down; he said it’ll return on Halloween night.
Every year, the neighborhood kids start asking Schuelke when the Halloween stuff will come out, and they help him carry it from its storage container under the deck around to the front, where he starts to put it all together.
It takes Schuelke about 40 hours to set up the display (and eight hours to break it down and put it all away) with the help of his older son, Tyler, an eighth-grader at Bel Air Middle.
“I do it all with him,” said Tyler, whose favorite decoration is the windows.
Melanie likes the beating heart in the grave — “it’s not a whole lot, but it’s one of my favorites.”
Craig Schuelke said the coffin is his favorite prop, “because it’s the first one I built."
Schuelke takes off work on Halloween because he still has so much set-up to do before trick-or-treats come out.
A projector will be set up inside one of the front windows, where the board are broken, to look like hands trying to get out, and cornstalks will be put up behind the coffin to give a “Children of the Corn” feeling.
The moon has to be hung and three more fog machines set up. The skeletons have to be propped in the truck, the strobe lights put inside and turned on, the witch’s cauldron moved out into the driveway and more fishing line added.
That night, he’ll take down a few of things he doesn’t want to “walk away,” but so far “no one has ever messed with our stuff,” Schuelke said.
The Schuelkes estimate that 400 to 500 people trick-or-treat at their house each year — and they don’t give out candy, they give each person a ring or necklace that flashes.
“We want to see the lights as they’re walking away,” Schuelke said.
“And they don’t get one if they don’t make it to the front door,” Melanie Schuelke said.
This year she will stand on the front step, dressed up for the first time, as one of the Witches of Spenceola, she said.
They compare counts with their neighbor, who gives out king-size candy bars, which makes it a house everyone wants to visit, Schuelke said.
The difference between the number of candy bars the neighbor gives out and the number of lights the Schuelkes give out is usually about 5 percent — those too spooked to make it to the front door.
In 21 years, Halloween in Spenceola has never been rained out — one year it looked like it would be postponed, but there was a break in the weather at just the right time, Schuelke said.
The forecast for this week doesn’t look good, however, with the forecast calling for a 70% chance of rain.
Schuelke is undeterred.
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“I’ll be out in my rain jacket, doing what I can do,” he said.