Practically every neighborhood has one: A house that stands out each October for its ghoulish grandeur. The front-lawn displays require weeks of careful preparation and a commitment to the uncanny.
We checked in with four Chicagoans whose enthusiasm for giving trick-or-treaters a good scare has made their addresses some of the most visited at this time of year.
W. Wilson Avenue and N. Francisco Avenue, Ravenswood Manor
A self-taught costume designer, Kevin Byrne first picked up a needle and thread over a decade ago when he inherited his grandmother’s sewing machine. He soon turned to making Halloween costumes for his partner of 16 years, Dop Troutman. “‘Can you be an Oompa Loompa?’ And then the next year, ‘Can you be Shrek?’” Byrne remembers asking his husband. “He’s a good sport.”
Eventually, Byrne wanted a bigger challenge. So he began decorating the couple’s house.
“It was just a better canvas, a bigger thing,” Byrne said. “And I could do it for a whole month as opposed to just a one night deal with a costume.”
The first project, built in the couple’s previous front yard in Lincoln Square, was a towering Grim Reaper made of wall insulation. Then, there was the cast — the entire cast — of Nightmare Before Christmas. Now, he’s moved on to the 12 zombies (soon to be 13) Byrne made with duct tape.
These are no ordinary zombies either. Byrne recruited family and friends to serve as real-life mannequins for his zombies — mummifying each person in plastic wrap and more than 90 yards of duct tape to create the zombies’ bodies. He then taught his parents in Virginia how to make a zombie, so that Byrne’s dad could FedEx his zombified mom to Chicago. You’ll find her walking up the steps of the side porch. Byrne’s husband is hanging from the roof in a blue suit. (For those who’d like to make their own zombies, Byrne offers step-by-step instructions.)
All month visitors have gawked at this masterpiece of the walking dead, but Byrne has a final flourish in store for the big day: His 12-year-old nephew, Griffin, is flying in from Virginia to star as the 13th zombie.
For Byrne, it’s all goodhearted fun. “I think anytime you can add some levity to people’s daily commute or just their daily routine, it’s nice to do,” he said.
N. Damen Avenue and W. Birchwood Avenue, Rogers Park
Every year Jessica Bernardi’s husband, Jacob Smith, jokingly tells her not to add to the already sprawling Halloween decor that blankets the front lawn of their Rogers Park condo each October. But when inspiration strikes, there’s no stopping her.
For one, Bernardi knew she wanted to add a “Haunted Pumpkin Patch” to this year’s presentation, so she asked her family for concrete tubing — last Christmas. Fortune struck: Home Depot came out with its 12-foot Inferno Pumpkin Skeleton. Obviously, Bernardi got one.
“It started out with dollar store tombstones when my kids were really little,” Bernardi, mom of three, said. “Now we have seven different sections and a lot of the stuff I try to make myself.”
Even though her kids have grown up, Halloween is still a family affair. Bernardi’s neighbors know to expect the unexpected in the weeks leading up to Halloween — like her teenagers hauling tree branches through the neighborhood for the “Voodoo” section. This year, Bernardi has also persuaded the family to dress as live scarecrows for her new pumpkin patch.
Last year, some of Bernardi’s treasured decorations were stolen and the display ransacked. The neighborhood sprung into action, raising enough money through GoFundMe for replacements. The gesture inspired Bernadi to throw a COVID-safe Halloween block party.
She plans to have a similar celebration again this year, complete with hot apple cider, chili and Chicago-style dogs. The party, on Halloween from 3 to 8 p.m., is free and open to anyone. For those who are able to give, Bernardi will be collecting donations for the Epilepsy Foundation of America, a cause important to the family.
“Spirits on Sproat,” 91st Street and Sproat Avenue, Oak Lawn
For longer than his son Neo has been alive, Erik Martin has transformed his Oak Lawn home into what he calls, “Chicagoland’s Favorite Halloween House.” That’s 17 years of meticulously adorning his property with characters from Hollywood’s best horror films and TV shows, famous literary figures and even some mythological beasts.
“It’s like a ‘Who’s Who’ of horror,” quipped Martin, who estimates that he spends about five weeks building the complicated assemblage. (In his spare time, he hosts a film podcast called “Cineversary” and writes a film blog.)
Inspired by his neighbors in the southwest suburbs, where animatronics and thousand-dollar budgets are not unheard of, Martin achieves his elaborate decor using mostly homemade props and effects. Growing up in Rogers Park, he said his parents couldn’t afford to spend a lot on Halloween and, because the family was religious, tamped down the holiday.
“The inner child came out when I was an adult,” Martin said. “I had more time, more resources, and more determination to make up for some lost childhood things.”
Today, “Spirits on Sproat” is very much a family — and community — affair. Neighbors who visited the house as teens are now bringing their own children to partake in the festivities. Martin’s extended family makes the trip to see the haunt each year, and his 24-year-old son Rocky once had a stint as live-scarer called “Blue Phantom.”
Last year, according to Martin, the extravaganza attracted more than 3,000 visitors, the largest crowd to date.
This Halloween Martin plans to dress up as horror icons Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, while his wife, Carla, greets visitors in less scary attire. But while an ardent fan of Halloween and Friday the 13th, his all-time favorite film is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. And, yes, he has a whole area devoted to the classic in his garage.
“We’re just so thrilled we’ve been able to do it for as long as we have,” Martin said. “And there’s no end in sight.”
19th Street between Throop and Loomis, Pilsen
For members of Chicago’s Latino communities, Halloween collides with Día de los Muertos, a holiday that’s celebrated in Mexico from Nov. 1-2. In Pilsen, Isabel Hernandez came up with a way to integrate the celebration into the holiday that comes right before it: Using 178 milk crates donated by neighbors and local food banks, she constructed a seven-level, 15-foot tall ofrenda in her front yard. No small feat for someone who is roughly a third as tall. Hernandez built it from bottom to top over three weeks, climbing each new level of the pyramid-shaped ofrenda to add the next.
“Día de los Muertos, the day of the dead, is [for] remembering our friends,” she said. “This is a celebration for them, they are a part of us.”
Back in August, Hernandez wrote to neighbors on Facebook asking them to send photos of members of the community who have died over the past few years. The response was overwhelming — she’s added 250 photos to the massive ofrenda.
Hernandez has lived in Chicago for 40 years. She moved to the city from Mexico when she was just 12. Although it is not as common for people to celebrate Día de los Muertos in the northern part of Mexico where Hernandez is from, she grew up making ofrendas to remember loved ones.
An ofrenda — Spanish for “offering” — is a central part of Día de los Muertos. Traditionally, people make the altars to honor family and friends that have passed, adorning them with photos, food and drinks, candles and perforated colored paper called papel picado.
Hernandez is a gardener known for her ornate law decorations, which have drawn attention from the media and attracted visitors from all over Chicago. Last year, when COVID-19 shuttered most museums and gatherings, Hernandez decided to build her first community altar so that her neighbors would have something to visit.
The outpouring of gratitude she received inspired her to do it again this year, only bigger. She reserves the space at the top for her own family: A grandmother, aunts and uncles. Hernandez plans to put enchiladas and stuffed peppers, her grandmother’s and aunt’s favorite foods, at the base. This year’s ofrenda also has a spot for pets. “Pets are also part of the family,” she said.
“You don’t have to be Hispanic or Mexican to make an altar to celebrate your loved ones and remember them in not a sad way,” Hernandez said. She said celebrating loved ones is how you keep their memory alive.
Madison Muller is a part-time digital producer for WBEZ. Follow her @g0ingmad.
Manuel Martinez is a visual journalist at WBEZ. Follow him @DenverManuel.
WBEZ’s multimedia and audience engagement intern Penny Hawthorne also contributed to this story. Follow her @penny_eleanor_.