Fright night for the family: From pumpkin carving to houses of horror, East Dallas does Halloween right

Ancient Celtic villages understood the strength in community. They gathered every year on Oct. 31 to mark the end of their summer with a harvest festival, meeting with neighbors and sharing a huge sacred bonfire. They also took care to leave out gifts and treats for any evil spirits wandering around, a sort of guarantee for next year’s crop.

Who would have ever guessed that a modern-day East Dallas neighborhood would have so much in common with the Celts of yore? Sure, there are few crops to worry over in the city, and the bonfire — well, let’s hope no one lights one, sacred or no. But gathering with neighbors, the celebrating and sharing? Oh, and the evil spirits receiving treats? Now we call them little trick-or-treaters.

Stroll down Vanderbilt Avenue in the Lakewood Heights neighborhood on Halloween night and you’ll see. The stretch from Abrams to Tietze Park is barricaded (city-approved, of course) to traffic, allowing little vampires, princesses and ghosts to roam safely in their quest for ever more KitKats and Skittles.

“The vibe is fun and family,” says neighbor Heather McNamara. “Up and down the block, you’ll find food and drinks for kids and adults, and, of course, candy, candy, candy.”

But, she adds, the over-the-top decorations create the “scary vibe you must have on Halloween.”

Vanderbilt Avenue is a quiet street with more than the average number of young families. The big Halloween celebration evolved from neighbors hanging out in front yards, watching their kids play, and sharing a love of All Hallows’ Eve. Sarah Hale and friends decided a few years ago to make the night an all-out street party. All along the avenue you’ll find driveways with tables laden with hot dogs, chili, cupcakes, chips and dip, open to any and all. But it was husband Michael’s idea to create a haunted house in the Hale courtyard.

“Fog, strobe lights, creepy characters that are motion-sensitive, giant spiders, witches that fly along a rope, Halloween music,” Sarah recalls of past displays. The entire family gets in on the act, too. Hale kids Ethan, Lyla and Audrey have played the roles of mummy, werewolf and “kitty vampire,” and Michael is always The Grim Reaper, scaring the daylights out of unsuspecting visitors. A candy reward awaits the brave at the end.

Some kids, she admits, have exited crying, and “there are definitely screaming adults,” too.

“I hate thinking we might be responsible for bad dreams,” says Sarah, so she warns visitors that it might be scary and offers them candy at the beginning if they choose to forego the haunted house.

In the same block lives the McNamara family, whose front lawn at Halloween will be creepily transformed into a graveyard. Along with the requisite tombstones are scary ghouls gathered in a circle. Web-covered corpses hang in trees and skeletons sit at the patio table. On the big night, the McNamaras add a fog machine, dry ice, and strobe lights, as well as creepy animatronics and inflatables.

As much as they enjoy Halloween night, Heather McNamara reflects, “My favorite thing to see happens throughout the month.” The display starts coming together the first weekend of October. “We have had people knock on our door asking if they can take pictures of their children in the graveyard. Kids on the street will come in and play around, and the day we put up the graveyard, my husband always has lots of little helping hands.”

Older kids may want to meander down Vanderbilt to the 6300 block for a bit of Texas Chainsaw Massacre theatrics. Neighbors Julie and Harry Scoville, now in their eighth year of nightmare-inducing decorations, go the gory route. On the front lawn will likely be a headless body – some old clothes stuffed with newspaper, covered in blood and entrails: spaghetti boiled in red food coloring. Real chainsaws hang menacingly on the porch. Blacklights, a fog machine and recordings of screams and chainsaws complete the scary scene.

“There’s usually a wide range of reactions: fear, curiosity, humor,” says Julie. She recalls one “little bitty boy” who “screamed and ran back to his car. He didn’t even open the door, he jumped through the window and hid on the floorboard.” Julie ran after him and gave him a big handful of candy.

Leatherface and his chainsaw may not have been around to inspire the Celts, but they would almost certainly approve of the neighborly, all-in-fun vibe happening on Vanderbilt Avenue on the last day of October.

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