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House of horrors builds family togetherness for Columbia residents

The Ryan family annually turn the outside of their home into a free haunted-house attraction that Gene Ryan says is suitable for all ages.
The Ryan family annually turn the outside of their home into a free haunted-house attraction that Gene Ryan says is suitable for all ages. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

One sings a haunting melody from a decrepit swing set, another moans from a sparking electric chair, and a third menacingly entices visitors to try their luck at a carnival game.

The young girl, convict and clown are but three of the 50 sound- or motion-activated animatronic ghouls whose soulless eyes light up and zombie body parts twitch and turn in a Columbia family's free front-yard fright fest.

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Gene Ryan, a Washington paramedic and firefighter, has devoted 800 hours over the past two months to creating nine scary scenes and a dramatic two-story facade at his family's Kings Contrivance home, transforming it into what neighbors affectionately call "the Halloween house."

The undead populate most of the elaborate displays at 7414 Weather Worn Way, which officially opened to the public Friday and will run each day through Nov. 2 from dusk to 10 p.m.

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"Nothing jumps out at you I don't go for that kind of stuff," said Ryan, a married father of four and the mastermind behind the attraction that he says is suitable for all ages. "What your imagination makes you think you see often excites you more."

With the deadly Ebola virus in the news, a poorly run biohazard containment facility, with ruptured pipes oozing neon green slime, provides its own brand of ripped-from-the headlines chills.

In between working 24-hour shifts, Ryan crams his days off with the many handyman tasks it takes to get, and keep, the attractions up and running. The children contribute to family brainstorming sessions that result in storyboards to help visualize the concepts, which change each year.

"It's hard-core, but it's really cool," he said of the amount of time he invests. "I don't like to dress up, but I love the creativity of the set-design side of Halloween."

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The outdoor decorating started eight years ago in New Jersey and continued when the family moved to Howard County in 2011, but it really exploded into "The Haunting of Nightmare Manor" last year.

About 1,000 curiosity-seekers, many of whom discovered the attraction on the Internet at columbiahalloweenhouse.com, came from as far away as Baltimore to check it out. Ryan hopes to top that number this season.

The 200-foot driveway the Ryans share with their congenial next-door neighbors is lined on both sides with nightmarish scenes — from a campfire gone awry to the Grim Reaper in a cemetery — that lead up to an eerie petting zoo on the front porch and two unnerving bedroom tableaux in the garage, under a two-story foam facade painstakingly hand-carved to resemble cinder block.

Since the home backs up to woods, the driveway's sloping descent away from the street and into darkness adds to the experience — as does the 60,000 cubic feet of fog made per minute.

"The kids serve as helpers and as impromptu tour guides," Ryan said of Jack, 11; Quinn, 9; Mackenzie, 8; and Keara, 4. "But what we all love the most about all this are the people. We do this so people can enjoy it."

Jack said he likes observing the visitors, many of whom show up while the displays are under construction and come back more than once.

"I like watching the reactions of the kids and the adults because they have such different perspectives — some kids cry and some adults laugh, but everyone admires the work," he said. "My dad is one of the most determined people I know, and he puts 110 percent of his energy into this."

Ryan and his wife, Sue, a special-education teacher in Montgomery County, don't permit their children to watch horror shows or movies, by the way.

"Sue is very restrictive about what they see," Ryan said. "No gore is allowed."

But she's onboard with Nightmare Manor as a family project that centers on the spookier side of Halloween. After all, the couple has been to the re-enactment of the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, and just recently took Jack to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios in Florida as an early birthday present.

"I like it a lot," Sue Ryan said of both Halloween and the togetherness and teamwork the family project promotes. "It's been 17 years [since our first date on Halloween], and Gene still outdoes himself."

Ryan grew up in the one-square-mile town of South Amboy, N.J. — a place he said resembles the fictional Mayberry from "The Andy Griffith Show" — and organized a high school fundraiser around the holiday called Halloween Happenings.

"It was all good-natured fun," Ryan recalled. "I had five brothers and, in a town that size, if we tried anything, our mother knew about it in record speed."

Ryan said he and Sue have landed in the perfect spot for their family, calling their neighborhood of Dickinson "a Norman Rockwell kind of community," where neighbors wave to one another and pull their kids in wagons.

Denise Taylor and Christopher Battisti, who live around the corner on Setting Sun Way, have been bringing their daughter, Sarina, to check out the display for the past three Halloweens. Now 5, Sarina began insisting this year that their daily visits take place before dark.

"We tried coming at dusk with flashlights, but that didn't work, so now we come before dinner," Taylor said. "This entertains her so much, but I think the line has begun to blur between [make-believe] and reality."

Joe Haugh, who stopped by with his 2-year-old daughter, Bridget, said seeing the attractions evolve over time is definitely beneficial to younger visitors.

"It takes a little of the shock value out of it for them," he said.

Larry Norcutt, a retired electrical engineer, offered free advice this year to Ryan, whom he affectionately called "a mad creator."

"This is a really healthy activity for reinforcing children's imaginations," he said on a recent visit to view the display's progress with his wife, Lynne Aronson.

Norcutt said the spirit behind the project is infectious, and he is already thinking about his future contributions. He's considering how he might use an optical tracking device to cause pairs of lit-up eyes in a bush to eerily follow the movements of passer-sby.

Ryan is pleased with the way Nightmare Manor has drawn the community together and made his family feel at home.

"I like to think of this as an immersive experience," Ryan said. "I want you to be surrounded and feel like you're in a different world, an awesome place where your imagination runs away with you."

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