2014 Update: This Wauwatosa home is up for sale and not decorated this year.
Original story from 2013: Every Halloween, one home in the Washington Highlands neighborhood of Wauwatosa stands out as a truly "haunted house.”
It’s decked out with ghoulish creatures, gravestones galore and even spooky lights and sounds.
“We always kind of decorated a little bit, but we didn’t start to get a little crazy until about 7 years ago,” says homeowner Kyle Chen.
The dad of three says after the family moved to the Highlands, he was impressed by his neighbors’ dedication to the holiday. With special neighborhood Halloween events like nighttime trick-or-treating and even a bonfire, Chen knew he was going to have to step up his game.
“A lot of houses go all out and decorate and so it was kind of the spirit - no pun intended. The spirit of Halloween was really big in the neighborhood,” he says.
Chen, who works for the tire company Bridgestone, says he didn't want to use fake-looking - or expensive - decorations, so he decided to make them himself. Not knowing where to start, he went where all enterprising dads go for help: the internet.
“The stuff that I found on the internet that people are making, it’s part techie and part art,” he says. “I always enjoyed art. I like to tinker and create things.”
In online communities, he found detailed instructions on how to build his creepy displays and paper mâché creatures.
“The thing I did this year that I really liked…was kind of this grim reaper ghost guy that’s in the front yard. He’s holding a flickering lantern, and he’s pretty creepy looking and I think he’s pretty good,” Chen says.
Many of his decorations are on their second and third iterations, as Chen improves his designs. Meanwhile, the rest of the Chen family – mom Susie, Tosa East high schoolers Christina and Michael, and UWM student Elizabeth –don’t have a choice but to go along with dad’s Halloween plans.
“I’m the mad scientist in my garage for the months of October and September, trying to finish some of the creations and they just kind of tolerate it,” he says. “'Don’t bother Dad - he’s working on his monster.’”
When it comes time to set up the yard, Chen says the whole family helps. And this year he’s passing on one tradition to his son.
“We have a 12-foot-tall grim reaper that I used to put on and strap to my back. This year, my 16-year-old will put it on because I’m getting too old for that,” he says, with a laugh.
Halloween historian Lesley Bannatyne, author of Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night, says Chen is part of a growing movement of “home haunters.”
“(It’s a) burgeoning nationwide explosion of people who decorate their lawns and porches over the top,” she says. “I’m sure you’ve seen them – the fog, the monsters that move, zombies that pop out of trash cans.”
She says these homes end up becoming Halloween destinations in their communities. That’s certainly true of the Chens’ house.
“That's a can't-miss stop for us every year,” says Elisabeth Witt via Facebook.
Judi Anderson Widen lives a block away from the Chens. She says theirs is the best Halloween house in the area. But apparently the Chens’ artistry extends beyond autumn; Widen adds the house is also beautiful at Christmastime.
And Kerrie Helmer Quirk is thankful for the entertainment her neighbors provide.
“My boys make me drive by it every day,” she says. “We love this house, and it gets better every year.”
Chen says it’s great to hear how people in the Milwaukee area appreciate the effort he puts into decorating for Halloween. But it just means he’s got to get back to work.
“It kind of creates an expectation then, so I have to keep tweaking it and making it better each year,” he says.
You can check out Kyle Chen’s photos of preparing the house at chengallery.smugmug.com.