When an avid Halloween-lover hits high school, he or she has limited options: attend a friend’s haunted house party and try to score with that promiscuous ghost between the sheets, or continue trick-or-treating and hope that their height/beard/tattoos/piercings pass as all part of the costume. Unsatisfied with these choices, Rachel Brown decided instead to begin her own hallowed tradition. Ten years ago, she became a “Haunter,” working year-round to transform 164 Old Forest Hill Road into the Haunt on the Hill, selected last year by Global TV as Toronto’s scariest house.
“When I was in grade ten I was in a drugstore and noticed a few cool Halloween decorations,” 25-year-old Rachel remembers. Who knew that a few ears of Indian corn would serve as the gateway drug to elaborately hand-crafting a whole garage full of ghoulish displays? For some, decking the halls (or porch) for Halloween means racing to scribble a felt-tipped smiley face on a pumpkin as that first clumsy kid in a cardboard robot costume stumbles up the driveway. Rachel, however, begins constructing her scare-tractions in earnest during the summer months. Additions this year include a vibrant new sign that counts down the days remaining until All Hallows Eve and a blood-red kennel, complete with a skeleton dog (representing what happened when the Charles Schultz estate neglected to keep bringing Snoopy his Kibbles ‘n Bits).
While Rachel purchases some of her display pieces online (there’s a burgeoning web community of e-haunters), she prefers the hand-made touch. “I learned how to use tools and build everything myself,” she explains. “I don’t want to spend a lot of money on a display and then see the same thing on a lawn down the street.” With Rachel’s gruesome ingenuity, there seems to be little danger of that happening. She has a knack for taking household appliances and demon-ifying them, including BBQ grills, aquarium air pumps, and an oscillating fan turned swaying skeleton (to paraphrase Mitch Hedberg, it looks like the skeleton is saying “no” to things).
This year Rachel will be terrifying kids for the greater good, collecting money for the Hospital for Sick Children. She hopes to raise at least $300, a modest goal considering that she had close to five hundred visitors last year. But despite her notoriety, Rachel’s documentary (above) shows that she’s not the only scare game in town. It charts her rivalry with the Orbachs of Briar Hill, an elderly couple of veteran haunters whose interactive mannequin tableaus bring in more than one thousand children a year. This competition gives Rachel something to strive for, although, as she nervously confesses, “I’m running out of room on my lawn.”
As imperative as it is to give children nightmares and vanquish senior citizens, what’s most important to Rachel is perpetuating a holiday in danger of waning. Our culture’s continued search for decency, political correctness, and dental hygiene is causing more and more people to frown upon this death-obsessed Wiccan sugarfest. In fact, according to yesterday’s National Post, a new handbook has been issued to TDSB teachers, outlining ways to sidestep Halloween’s pagan roots, including calling it “Black and Orange Day” (but what about children who would rather celebrate different colours?). Especially since September 11, some parents are apprehensive about sending their children out to accept mystery goodies from masked strangers. “Right after September 11, I definitely noticed that there weren’t as many kids about,” Rachel admits. “But I think people are starting to get into it again. Even if they don’t necessarily go as far out as I do.”
Photos by Rachel Brown.