If you’re driving through the charming neighborhoods of Southwood Park in October, you might notice a “spooktacular” sight.
At the corner of Pasadena and Indiana Avenues is what appears to be a scene straight from the dark side of Disney World. Skeletons rummage through trunks of gold, compete in a Freak Show, and cheer on a football team as an ominous Grim Reaper guards a cemetery nearby, slowly turning his head from side to side.
They call it “Skeletown,” and it's all happening in Hazel Stream’s front yard.
The display has enchanted viewers at Hazel’s house every October since she moved to Southwood Park from California about three years ago (except for last year when her granddaughter graduated high school).
Hazel says her daughter and son-in-law, Shawna Stream-Dau and Roger Dau of Roanoke, are the masterminds behind Skeletown. She’s just the “groundskeeper,” and the indoor decorator.
Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean was the original inspiration for Skeletown.
On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-October, Hazel is hard at work, putting the finishing touches on Hazel’s Witch Hat Store in her living room to entertain friends and family on Halloween next week.
But if you ask her daughter, Shawna, Halloween wasn’t always such a big deal in the Stream family as it is now. Instead, it all started about 10 years ago when Shawna and Roger were living on the West Coast and started making displays to entertain their children.
“Our kids loved the big blowup yard creatures and things like that, so we started putting displays up for them,” she explains.
A Grim Reaper guards a cemetery in Hazel Stream's front yard.
The first year, it wasn’t much: A couple of cemetery stones and a few decorations. But with Shawna’s degree in theatre and stage production and Roger’s experience doing handiwork in the janitorial industry, the two began to realize they could do something much more elaborate if they combined their talents.
“After the first year, we were like, ‘If we’re going to do this, then we’re going to do it right,’” Shawna says.
So they started searching the internet for ideas, and they discovered that there was a whole community of people across the country making highly intricate Halloween displays.Shawna spends hours preparing the minute details of the display, like gluing barnacles on the Mermaid's rock.
On one of the websites, Shawna and Roger discovered a particularly cool Pirates of the Caribbean skeleton set that cost about $5,000, so instead of buying it, they decided to make their own.
That’s how the idea for Skeletown began, Shawna says. Then came the process of making it a reality.
She started by purchasing a few plastic skeletons at Walgreens on clearance and gathering authentic vintage clothing and accessories from thrift stores for the skeletons to wear. Then she and Roger began the process of “corpsifying” them to give them that authentic, straight-from-the-graveyard look.
The corpsifying process usually starts in May or June of each year before the display goes up, Shawna says, and it requires an “artistic/mad scientist process” of hanging the skeletons by their heads in the garage, covering them in women’s pantyhose using carpet glue, and then coloring them with wood stain.
“People look at us, like, ‘You guys are a little weird,' but it’s just a hobby,” Shawna says.
To make the clothes look worn and weathered, she actually buries them in the ground in her backyard for about eight weeks and waters them, so worms eat through them. Then she digs them up.
“Roger will call me sometimes, and he’ll say, ‘Did you remember to water the clothes?’” she says, laughing.
Parts of Skeleton move, like the grave digger's coffin.
For the entire family, creating Skeletown has become an annual hobby that only gets more elaborate each year they do it. Roger has spent the last few years using his mechanical skills to make parts of the display move.
When he and Shawna first moved to Roanoke about seven years ago, they put on the display there for a few years. But there weren't many trick-or-treaters, Shawna says. So when Hazel moved to Southwood Park and bought a house with a large front yard, they decided to put the display at her house instead.
Then it grew even more.
Along with the pirates, they started incorporating an old circus Freak Show into the mix, hiring Cory Benson, a graphic designer in Fort Wayne, to create banners for the acts, like a sword swallower, Siamese sisters, and a bearded lady, to match their skeleton reproductions.
The Freak Show is Shawna's favorite part of the display.
This year, they expanded the display again with a special find by Hazel. Driving around Southwood Park, she saw old stadium chairs from the Allen County Memorial Coliseum on the side of the road, left for trash, so she picked them up.
“I said, ‘Skeletown has to have a high school, and so they must have a football team, right?’” she jokes.
They dubbed the team “The Reapers,” and added a few fans, a cheerleader, and a skeleton football player, all in vintage gear.
The Reaper's football scene is a new addition to the display this year.
But having these large, delicate props begs the question: Where do they store it all when it’s not Halloween?
Shawna and Roger used to store Skeletown in their basement in Roanoke. But as the display grew, it got too big, so now they’re renting a storage unit for it. They hope to move to Southwood Park themselves someday, where they might eventually have more space.
Shawna says that ever since they moved to Fort Wayne, they have fallen in love with the artistic community developing in Southwood Park, one of Fort Wayne’s historic near-downtown neighborhoods.
“It’s like a wonderland out there to me, coming from California where everything is stucco and looks the same,” Shawna says. “It seems very artistic.”
A skeleton witch stirs a cauldron of potions.
If they do move into the neighborhood, they’ll be well known, Hazel says. She explains that having Skeletown in her yard has helped her make quick friends with the neighbors. Every year after it goes up in early October, she sees dog walkers, children, and families roaming her yard to admire it.
“It’s so much fun to hear the comments and see the children,” she says.
The display has boosted the number of trick-or-treaters who come to her house, too. Each year, she counts them, and she says she’s seen the numbers climb from 750 to 1,500.
Now, she’s decided to turn the fanfare into an opportunity for philanthropy. She put a barrel for donations to the Community Harvest Food Bank next to her front porch by the sidewalk, and she’s asking anyone who comes to see the display to bring a nonperishable, canned food item along with them to donate.
On the days leading up to Halloween, the display will also be enhanced by live performances, Shawna says. One of Hazel's neighbors, Brian Wagner, is Executive Director of the Arena Dinner Theatre in downtown Fort Wayne, where a few actors have offered their talents on Sunday, Oct. 28; Tuesday, Oct. 30; and Wednesday, Oct. 31.
Weather dependent, the actors will be impersonating a bride, a clown, and a gypsy at Hazel’s house from 6-10 p.m. And if you think this year’s display is good, then just wait until next year, Hazel says.
“They’re already planning next year, and it’s going to be even bigger and better,” she adds.
Skeletown is open to the public every night now through Halloween until 10 p.m. at the corner of Indiana and Pasadena Avenues in Southwood Park.
Please bring a canned food donation for the Community Harvest Food Bank.