Back when our boys were about 6 and 8 years old my wife and I went out on a date night. At that time we routinely engaged as a sitter a young man named David, the son of a cousin of mine.
Our boys were not at all upset that we were leaving them for the evening. In fact, they seemed overjoyed when they learned of David's impending visit. They really seemed to like him.
We had scarcely left the place when we discovered that we had forgotten an important item. Retracing our tracks, we found our house completely dark! From the basement there arose giggles and squeals.
We threw open the basement door and switched on the lights. David looked up at us sheepishly, his arms extended before him in a Frankenstein-like pose. Our boys soon emerged from their hiding places and said, "Da-ad! Go away! We're playing zombie!"
This was a revelation! Who knew that our boys liked to be scared?
Our sons have since grown into young men. But somewhere along the line Paul, our oldest, transformed from being the frightenee to enjoying the role of frightener. Indeed, for the past couple of years Paul and a loose group of roughly a dozen friends have constructed and performed in what is known as a yard haunt.
This year's Halloween yard haunt will happen on the lawn of the home that belongs to Josh and Stacy, who live in an ordinary-looking house located at South 4th Avenue and 26th Street in Sioux Falls.
"There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but nobody's really in charge," said Paul of his hobgoblin hobbyists. "But Sean is our main idea guy."
"I've helped with yard haunts for the past 14 years," said Sean. "It started when I was living in a skeevy neighborhood and noticed that there were no trick-or-treaters out on Halloween. So, a bunch of us got together and constructed an outdoor haunting experience for neighborhood kids. That first year our yard haunt was pretty lame, with cardboard headstones and such. But it was still a success; a lot of parents thanked us for giving their kids a fun and safe Halloween event. We've done a yard haunt each year ever since."
Planning for a yard haunt begins almost as soon as Halloween is over and construction will consume several months' worth of weekends. Their creepy urban theme park is built of inexpensive or scavenged materials that have been MacGyvered into something that is truly fright-inducing.
"We're constantly scouting for stuff we might be able to use," said Paul. "Rummage sales are one of our biggest sources of material."
This year's theme will be Haunted Carnival. Gory signs have been painted to help direct people to the "CarnEVIL."
Visitors will be confronted by a ghastly marionette who will seem to float across the lawn. This crazed, out-of-control puppet will actually be Josh bouncing on bungees attached to a zip line. Josh is the only guy I know who has a zip line stretched across his yard.
Stacy, the operation's head seamstress, is in charge of constructing the grisly garb that will be worn by the actors. "Last year I also made cake eyeballs to give out to the kids," she said. "That was fun, but it got to be a lot of work. This year we're simply giving out prepackaged candy."
I asked Stacy how many visitors they entertained last year.
"We estimate that we had about 500," she said. "My mom even stood out on 26th Street with a sign directing people to our place! We - all of us - see this as a way to give back to the community and provide kids with a memorable Halloween experience."
"Plus it's really fun!" said Josh.
One of this year's scary features is a jack-in-the-box that's large enough to contain an actual jack - except in this case, it will be a guy named Joshua Supik. The crank on the side of the box - constructed of PVC pipe - will mysteriously turn, driven by a can opener obtained at a rummage sale.
Visitors will also encounter chained wild beasts, a carousel that has gone horrifyingly wrong, and a scarily spinning tunnel.
Perhaps the creepiest feature will be a 12-foot-tall clown. The gruesome jester will leer down at visitors with a vicious, jagged-toothed smile and fierce yellow eyes. Operating this monstrosity will be Jason, perhaps one of the kindest and most soft-spoken members of the group.
It's great to see that Paul and his friends are enjoying Halloween every bit as much as when they were kids. It's also nice to know that those zombie lessons we apparently paid for have been put to good use.