Annual event benefits CompAnimals in Landenberg
For the past 14 years, a Hockessin family with a love of a certain spooky holiday has transformed their home into a house of horrors to benefit some needy four-legged friends.
But if you ask Arlene Hitchens to pin down her love of Halloween, she can’t do it.
“People say, ‘oh it must be your favorite holiday,’ but it isn’t, really – I love Christmas, too,” Hitchens said, seated at a table in her kitchen of her Village of Manley home, surrounded by a bizarre array of Halloween décor.
Her childhood memories of the holiday are average ones – trick or treating in store-bought costumes, with no particular focus on decorating the home. Her daughter, Lori Hawk, enjoyed similar experiences as a kid, but again no big deal was made to celebrate the increasingly popular holiday.
There just doesn’t seem a reason why there are fake skeletons piled in her garage, and a wooden coffin in the corner of the front parlor that stays up all year round – unless you count the animals at CompAnimals rescue in Landenberg, Pa.
“I do it all for them. I do it for the dogs,” Hitchens said. “That’s my love.”
The all-volunteer CompAnimals began as a senior pet rescue, with two senior cats left abandoned when their owner died unexpectedly.
Years later, the nonprofit has gone on to rescue hundreds of pets, with a focus on “unadoptables,” or pets that are ill, deformed, or “any animal that just needs a little extra TLC before finding that forever home,” according to their website.
While Hitchens isn’t sure how much she’s raised over the years for the rescue, it’s well into the thousands, with last year’s production bringing in $1,800 alone.
And “production” is the operative word for what goes on at the Hockessin Haunted House, with some of the scenes as sophisticated as ones found at the big for-profit Halloween attractions in the area.
Much of that comes from the brain of neighbor Randy Ristine, an electrical engineer with Siemens who helps Hitchens accomplish tasks like a levitating séance table and a feature new to the attraction this year – the “Hellovator,” based on a popular YouTube prank video.
This year, the attraction has over a dozen rooms of ghoulish terror – and we mean terror: creatures leap from the walls seemingly out of nowhere; brutal killings are recreated; and an electric chair waits for the culprit in the basement.
Each season’s event also has its own theme and story, with this year’s yarn based on an actual event (although not one that happened in Hockessin), where a stranger murders the entire Williams family with an axe.
Visitors will hear the details of the story, and see the results of the massacre as they tour Hitchens’ home.
Some of the effects and characters the Haunted House uses have been there from the start, and all the characters have names – like old-timer Raul and newcomer Angus.
Hitchens and crew build on their decorations each year, and even attended a convention for “Haunters” – the term used to describe home-based Halloween enthusiasts.
Ristine said that opinions in the village vary on the decade-old attraction, with some folks loving the decorations and effort, while others decry the traffic and noise the event brings.
“Despite everything we have going on here, we still keep it relatively low-key,” Ristine said. “It’s only three nights, from 7 to 9, so we try not to make too big of a disturbance.”
He also said they don’t seek any special permission from the county or the Home Owners Association at Manley – another reason the event doesn’t expand its days or hours of operation.
“It’s been, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Ristine joked.
It also takes significant manpower to pull everything off, with Hitchens using her University of Delaware ties (she retired from there last June) to solicit talent and behind the scenes action from the university’s fraternities and sororities.
On average, it takes over 50 people to make everything work each night, with most of the volunteers getting a crash course in neighborhood spookery just before show time.
“We get them in about two hours beforehand, get them into makeup or go over their duties, and then we turn them loose,” Ristine said.
Guests are brought in in small groups, starting at the front of house and touring several rooms before descending into the basement for more horrors.
There’s also quite a bit going on outside, with more scenes and characters – although that’s the last stuff to go up, to lessen the impact on their neighbors.
It’s a labor of love, to say the least, with months worth of effort and planning going into the event, and Hitchens becoming a blur as she rushes to complete all the ideas she has in store.
“I’m actually on vacation until after Halloween,” Hawk said. “I even move back in here for a while – my husband won’t see me for weeks.”
“We were up until 4 a.m. doing this the other night,” Hitchens said, as she toured the not-yet-completed basement.
She stops in front of a green-lit room with stone looking walls. “Oh, we still need to put up a door here!”
“You decided no door,” Ristine said with a tired smile.
“Really? When did I decide that?”
“About 4 a.m. last night,” Ristine answered. “You were delirious.”
Volunteers are still needed for Halloween night at the Hockessin Haunted House. For more information about the event, visit hockessinhauntedhouse.org. For more on CompAnimals, visit companimals.org.
IF YOU GO Hockessin Haunted House
WHEN Friday, Oct. 23, Saturday, Oct. 24 and Saturday, Oct. 31 (rain date Friday, Oct. 30), from 7 to 9 p.m.
WHERE 19 Nathalie Drive, Village of Manley, Hockessin
ADMISSION $4, $2 Monster Control necklaces are also available
DETAILS Hockessin Haunted House remains open until all guests have gone through. All proceeds benefit CompAnimals Rescue in Landenberg, Pa.