For more than 10 years now, Arlene Hitchens and her daughter Lori have been turning the family home into a haunted house masterpiece. This year, tours begin Friday night.
It all started in 2002 with a trip to the pop-up holiday store, Spirit Halloween. There, Arlene and her daughter Lori came across some wall paper that looked like the stone walls frequently seen in the haunted mansions of old Halloween movies.
"I always loved Halloween," Arlene explains. "I always put witches in the windows but I would think to myself, 'is this all there is?'"
Finding that wallpaper confirmed that there was indeed more than window witches and pumpkins when it came to home decorating.
"We started doing it for fun but we put so much into it that people would say, 'you should charge for this,'" Lori said before Arlene added that she just never felt right about charging people for money.
Over the years, one room has turned into more than six, with narrow spooky hallways, fake walls, animatronic props and a cast of more than 50 college kids from the University of Delaware's Alpha Phi Omega, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Gamma Gamma Sigma.
Friends, extended family and neighbors have also gotten involved. Five years ago, Randy Ristine, a creative father living five houses away came down to check it out and knew he had to be involved.
"My daughter Alyssa is good friends with Lori's daughter Katie and she was down here all the time helping so I wanted to check it out," said Ristine, while sitting at the dining room table that also doubles as the haunted house's séance table. He doesn't hesitate to say that he loves every minute of it either. "When you get it just right—the dialogue, the buildup, the effects timing and the scare and you can tell you've actually drawn the audience in and triggered a visceral shock— it's a great feeling. It's like you've created movie magic."
Arlene and Lori are quick to agree, adding that they consider Ristine a permanent part of their creative team. The trio annually attend the National Haunters Convention in Valley Forge, Penn., where they mix and mingle with other like-minded souls, attending workshops and learning the latest tips and cost-effective tricks for home-made haunted houses.
"You learn a lot. There are seminars on creating atmosphere, storywriting and more," Arlene said. "This year, thanks to what we've learned, we are venturing into scent."
As she points out changes and leads a tour through the house, she also wants people to know that she and her family are not weird, morbid people who eschew Christmas and Easter.
"People always think we don't like Christmas but we're not some kinky family who keeps this stuff up all year long," she explained, saying that everything goes back up in the attic over the garage in the weeks following Halloween. "It's a lot of stuff and we have to be organized so it doesn't come down overnight. But, it does come down."
It is a lot of stuff. She, Lori, Randy and their crew start pulling stuff down at the beginning of September. This year, though, they are behind. Lori got married on Sunday, Sept. 22, went on her honeymoon and then came home and spent a week more than a little under-the-weather.
"I haven't been able to help or contribute as much as I normally do," Lori said. "I know it's put us behind and stressed mom out."
Arlene shrugs it off, happy for her daughter. She looks around, though, turning serious for a moment. "We still have a lot to do but I know we'll get it done."
It's not just the stress of the weekend's deadline looming. Arlene has changed her tune on charging an entrance fee.
"One of the things we learned at the convention is that it can be beneficial to team up with a non-profit that you believe in," Arlene said. "So, now, we charge a small fee of $4 and it all goes to CompAnimals Pet Rescue."
Last year, the fees helped them raise more than $1,000 for the pet rescue organization. Arlene, the owner of five pets herself, likes what the organization's founder Leslie Hunt does, rescuing animals from other kill-shelters.
"I'm a big animal person and I show dogs in obedience training," Arlene said as one of her Welsh Corgis snuggled up next to her. "We lock them up in one of the upstairs rooms while the people come through and sometimes they just bark and bark. There's already so much noise, though, it actually just adds to the atmosphere."
Lori's daughter, Katie, is the lone voice of dissension, saying that she hates being asked about it and doesn't approve of it. In the next breath, though, she offers up a suggestion for making things run smoothly on tour nights and it's clear she helps out whenever she's asked, showing up in many photographs from previous years.
After several hours of talking and touring, the group has to get back to work. If Arlene is stressed about it, she's not showing it.
"Oh, it's very stressful," she said. "But, I love seeing it all come together. And, it's all worth it when people come through and you can tell they've bought into it and are scared."
Everyone nods in agreement before Lori adds, "We haven't done our job if somebody doesn't run out of the room crying or screaming."