ROXBURY, NJ – You might think Nov. 1 would be a day of rest for Craig Heard, the Succasunna man who amazes visitors every year with jaw-droppingly elaborate front-yard Halloween displays.
The day after Halloween is a pretty busy day for Heard and his family. That’s the day when plastic skeletons go on sale.
There’s no way the Heards are going to just sit back and relax when they can go buy animated zombies, fake blood, phony Frankensteins and other macabre merchandise at half-price. So each year, after thrilling thousands of people with their Halloween extravaganza, the Heards don’t rest. They hit the stores looking for discounted props for next year’s production.
Then comes the dismantling. Taking down the Heards’ “Halloween House,” a display that took five weeks to build, isn't an overnight job. Every synthetic spider, tortured torso, glaring ghoul and made-in-China monster gets carefully packed into a truck. The focal point of the whole thing, a huge pirate ship, gets stuffed with scary stuff, sealed with shrink-wrap and towed to the parking lot of a church where it waits until next Halloween.
Heard, the owner of Gateway Outdoor Advertising, said he has no idea how much he’s invested in the annual production that’s graced his neighborhood every year for a quarter-century. “I wouldn’t even guess how much,” he said. “For me, it’s the fun of it.”
As he spoke, Heard – dressed in white – stood just inside a small section of his house that was open to Halloween Night visitors. He handed out bags of chips to every child who entered. On his right was a small room converted, by Heard's daughter Kristen into a creepy “Complimentary Childcare Service” straight out of a Steven King-induced nightmare. Across the way was a grotesque horror movie operating room where the healthcare cost an arm and a leg and was clearly unsuccessful. From a piano manned by a dead guy came strains of “Tubular Bells,” the theme song of “The Exorcist.”
Having walked an outdoor path that led through scenes of gore, dizzying strobe lights, animated figures telling tales of doom and campy creepiness that would make Alice Cooper feel at home, the children – all in their Halloween costumes - politely took their bags of chips and told their host he was amazing.
“You do an awesome job every year,” said one youngster.
“Is this house just for this?” asked a wide-eyed kid in a super-hero outfit. “No. I live here,” said Heard with a smile. He said he expected about 3,000 people to visit before the night was through.
Meanwhile, Heard’s 34-year-old son, also named Craig, was on top of the towering pirate ship out front. He and some friends were “shooting” the ship’s cannons – spraying, with loud bangs, confetti across the yard. A giant waterwheel rotated slowly, driven not by an electric motor but by real, splashing water. An animated figure told a sad tale of untimely death. Skulls and tombstones were everywhere, with tongue-in-cheek epitaphs displayed in DayGlo color by hidden blacklights.
Heard came to own the massive ship in a way that’s almost as bizarre as his Halloween display: He bought it on eBay.
The ship was built by families in Boulder, Colo. who wheeled it around their neighborhood to have parties, said Heard. He said he was initially outbid by a fellow in England who backed-out of the deal after realizing the cost of shipping the ship from Colorado. It came to Succasunna on a 16-wheel trailer, said Heard.
Plans for the Halloween display begin each year in the summer when the Heards gather to share ideas. Since (unlike most families) they own a pirate ship, one thing about the Heards’ annual display remains constant: The presence of pirates. “We’re tied to that pirate ship,” said Heard. “There’s always going to be pirates out there.”
Given the amount of planning, creativity and passion that go into every year’s creation of the Heards’ display, one might assume Heard was a Halloween buff as a youngster. He said he wasn’t. Actually, the effort began when his daughters, Kristen and Melissa, placed three pumpkins and some dangling skeletons at the house’s front door when they were young. Each year, the family added a little more.
“That’s how it all started,” Heard said. The effort gained in potential when Melissa married Rusty Fagan, a builder, who got excited about lending his skills. Soon, the yard had itself a handmade hearse.
Heard said he doesn’t publicize the display. He wants it to be a local treat, a pit-stop on Halloween Night, not a big tourist attraction. And every year, after he finishes shopping for clearance-priced cadavers, Heard throws a private party for neighbors to thank them for indulging his Halloween hobby.
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