Mike Spasoff is a tireless servant to this community -- at least for a few months out of the year -- and that's good enough for me. It's also more than good enough for the 600 trick-or-treaters he delights and terrifies with the elaborate, Disney-rivaling, pirate-themed yard display at his house on San Fernando Mission Boulevard (near Shoshone).
When I was a kid, I used to always wish someone in the neighborhood would do something beyond carving a pumpkin. Fortunately, kids in Mike's neighborhood will never have to cope with that same unfulfilled sense of longing that I always had.
What makes you want to invest the time, money, and resources into such an elaborate production?
I can remember the magic of walking the streets of our neighborhood each Halloween and the excitement of finding a house that did something more than just a jack-o-lantern or a cardboard skeleton. My parents and I always made a special effort to do something extra but it wasn't until we moved to our current home on San Fernando Mission that we took it to the next level.
Our first Halloween in our new house I carved the pumpkins, put out some gravestones and cobwebs and sat down to watch some scary movies waiting for the trick-or-treaters to arrive. Hours went by and we didn't get a single ring of the doorbell or knock at the door. It was so disappointing. San Fernando Mission may be a busy street without any sidewalks, but we were living in Granada Hills, "The Valley's Most Neighborly Town." Zero kids? Really? What could be more neighborly than trick-or-treating?
That was when I vowed to make our house a Halloween destination. I figured if we put enough "over the top" decorations up, kids would demand to be taken to the Halloween house. Each year I start planning in January or February on how to improve on the last year, and each year a few more kids arrive. Last year our count was around 600 and I expect this year to top that.
Did you do this sort of thing as a kid?
When I was in elementary school mostly it was just a pumpkin, a few cobwebs, some spooky lights and maybe a spooky mix tape. As I got older I would spend more time decorating. Still, it didn't become the production you see now until I was in my final years of college.
What do you most enjoy about your Halloween experience?
Last year some grandparents brought their grandkids to trick-or-treat; they lived around the corner and told us that since we've been doing this the kids all want to trick-or-treat with Grandma and Grandpa so they can go to the Halloween House. That's what it's all about. Simply put, it is the people that make it magical. The planning, building and decorating are fun, but without the people who come on Halloween it wouldn't be worth it.
What do you least enjoy?
The aftermath is always a chore, cleaning up the candy wrappers, putting away the decorations. I expend so much energy the night of Halloween, saying hello, handing out glow-sticks and candy that the next day all I want to do is sleep. I get lots of help for the night of Halloween but cleaning up is usually something my parents and I do by ourselves over a couple of weeks. We're lucky if we can get it all put away by Thanksgiving.
What crowd control measures do you need for 600 kids? How do you manage?
Planning, and having lots of "hands on deck" make it possible. And I thank the Halloween spirits that all 600 kids don't show up at the same time!
My college degree is in Design from UCLA and one of my classes was on attraction design. The whole class went to Disneyland, not to ride the rides (we did anyway) but to study what architectural, visual, and auditory systems they put in place to move people through as efficiently as they do. In my own small way I've taken some of those lessons and applied them here.
I make sure there is one clear entrance, and I use music and lighting to draw the kids down the correct path to the candy and glow-sticks. The glow-sticks serve two purposes: they are a cool and unusual treat at Halloween, but they also mean that we can tell at-a-glance if a kid has already been given their treats.
Finally, having a half-dozen or so friends and family members around to engage and guide the kids helps keep everything flowing.
How long have you been doing this? Is it just you, or do you have help?
We've been doing it since 1997 but it took a few years for people to start noticing, 2000 was the big year we started getting crowds, and the number of kids has climbed steadily since then.
Technically this is my parent's house, and I've been living here so I can save up to buy my own place. Actually, I just closed escrow on my own house on Oct 22, just six doors down the street. But even after I finish moving to my new place we'll keep doing halloween at my parents house.
The work typically breaks down like this: All three of us plan for the year around February, I figure out the build schedule and what we'll need and all three of us pick the projects we like the most. We start building stuff in the summer (July or August) and putting things up late in September. The day of Halloween we invite friends and family to come help with crowd control and handing out candy.
Do you have any funny stories to share about this undertaking?
A few years back we picked up a doormat that screams when you step on it. My parents and I are always hiding it in new places to surprise each other. So far, the winner is my dad who, snuck it into the bathroom one year. We were lucky we didn't have an accident.
You can imagine that the amount of planning that goes into this is rather extreme. If we don't get started building the latest additions in August we end up burning the midnight oil to catch up the weeks before the big day. I'm the keeper of the schedule for myself and my parents and I've been compared to a drill sergeant when something is behind schedule. This has lead my parents to call themselves my "staff." I think next year I'm going to get them T-shirts.