Every neighborhood in America has that one house you have to visit every year on Halloween. In my town, that house was mine.
Year after year my dad transformed our front yard into an open-air haunted attraction that drew in every family in a five-block radius, and even a few from neighboring towns.
His reign as the local king of Halloween started with a modest collection of homemade gravestones (Dad didn’t fuck with store-bought). He cut the gravestones out of sheets of plywood in his garage, then spray-painted them gray, adding touches of brown and black to make them look old and worn. For a guy who sold telecommunications systems for a living, he was pretty nifty with a spray can.
The “inscriptions” on the tombstones were corny dad jokes, such as “R.U. Next,” “M.T. Tomb” and “Here Lies Gus, Hit by a Bus.”
Neighbors loved the display, and their responses ignited a passion in my dad. He started adding new graves each year. There was one for Elvis, which my dad thought was hilarious. He created a grave for Barney, every kid’s favorite purple dinosaur, and made a “2003 Cubs” headstone after they were knocked out of the National League playoffs in devastating fashion. He was a masterful troll like that, but thoughtful, too — he made a headstone for Beetlejuice when he realized how much I adored that movie.
“What was cool was I use the graves year over year,” my dad says now. “And I put cobweb decorations on them. And the cobwebs would collect leaves, so the graves really looked aged versus what you could buy from Target.”
Soon, we had full-fledged cemetery. The local newspaper published photos of our front yard a couple of times, but my dad wasn’t content. He wanted to grow the attraction, but there wasn’t any lawn space left for new graves.
That’s when he turned our front yard into a more immersive Halloween experience. As with the graveyard, he started small. He dressed himself up to look like a scarecrow and sat motionless on a chair on our front porch. On his chest was a “PLEASE TAKE ONE” sign, and in his lap was a bowl of candy. Kids stood in front of the bowl contemplating whether to obey the sign or succumb to temptation and take a handful. Whenever they opted for the latter, my dad would spring to life, sending them running down the block, screaming. And my dad would laugh his ass off. Every time.
“I set the bar high and I always had to do something better and unique,” he says. “I would have start thinking about Halloween in the summer, because a lot of times I would have to take the time to MacGyver something together.”
He cut the bottom out of a table, put his head through it and bit at kids’ fingers when they reached for a fun-size Snickers. Another year, he lay in a casket in the yard and rattled around when trick-or-treaters approached. Most kids brushed it off as some elaborate store-bought effect; when he heard such comments, my dad would pop out of the casket, inspiring abject terror. One year he hid underneath the porch and used a baby monitor to make it seem like the skeleton above him was talking. Trick-or-treaters were terrified to discover that the skeleton knew their names. Another year he reused the fake scarecrow bit, but this time he leaned against the tree and chased after unsuspecting kids as they approached the door.
After a few years, people started asking him weeks in advance what he had planned for Halloween. Neighborhood dads would spend their Halloweens camped out one yard over from ours just to laugh at my dad spooking kids. “I would have to tell all these people, who were friends of mine, they have to go because you’re tipping the kids off,” my dad says.
Like so many dads, he just loves Halloween.
“Halloween provides a context and excuse for fathers to focus on their children and bond over holiday fun,” says Ramon Hinojosa, professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida and an expert on fatherhood. “It may well be the ultimate men’s holiday,”
I agree. Halloween is the most man, and definitely the most “dad,” of holidays.
That doesn’t mean Halloween is the holiday most beloved by dads. Many dads will say Christmas is their favorite because it brings the family together. But if dads were a holiday, they would be Halloween, because Halloween is chock-full of dad activities: DIY projects, bad jokes, lighthearted trolling, being scary, corniness.
Between wiring Christmas lights and buying gifts, Christmas is a stressful, often thankless holiday for dads. All the focus is external. They’re either competing with other dads for the best light display or trying to satisfy their unappreciative kids.
But Halloween is the rare holiday dads get enjoy for themselves, either by embracing their utmost dad-ness or by using it as an excuse to act like a boy again.
“When he was little, my son and I turned our front garden into a graveyard, everything handmade, just as my dad and I had done,” says Michael Kimmel, executive director of the Center For the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University. “Christmas decorations are often competitive and calculating; Halloween is an opportunity to be yourself: goofy, expressive, not afraid to look stupid.”
My dad agrees: “I liked doing it because it was a day I could kind of get goofy and be a kid.”
But it was unlike my dad to have that kind of fun. He was an intensely serious man most of the time. His idea of a good time usually meant admiring his garden while drinking a Busch Light, or screaming at Sean Hannity through the car radio. But Halloween brought out a boyish joyo that otherwise lay dormant.
Despite progress in recent decades, our ideal image of fatherhood is still the hands-off, emotionally distant dad, Hinojosa adds. “This can make overt expressions of love challenging for some men. But elaborate Halloween decorations fall in a cultural space that makes such displays of love acceptable and appropriate.”
Indeed, my dad’s scares, like his trolls, were all for love. He only stopped his Halloween tradition when a young married couple moved into the house next door, and he was worried about overly frightening their young, shy children. He wanted to spook people, not traumatize them.
The 2012 Michael Stephenson documentary The American Scream follows three Fairhaven, Massachusetts households that are so obsessed with Halloween they make my dad’s efforts seem quaint.
Unsurprisingly, the film prominently features dads. The movie revolves around two dads and their families and one father-son team, all of whom transform their yards into full-fledged haunted houses each Halloween. (My dad was satisfied doing one pop-out scare.) These dads erect walls in their backyards and fill the hallways with costumed actors; they have lines down the block and solicit donations.
Their projects are far grander than anything my dad ever did, but they’re rooted in the same desire to bond with their kids and community.
When asked why he goes to the trouble, Manny Souza, one of the subjects in the film, says, “This haunt is my legacy. I think the [visitors] are going to remember this a long time. … They had fun, and I caused it.”