An annual Halloween showdown is about to take place between two Orange County families.
They have spent thousands of dollars to transform their suburban homes into their darkest nightmares. This year, Donald Julson is building a haunted maze on his parents’ driveway, while across the street, Clay Stevens and his daughters will blow up a huge circus tent filled with nefarious clowns.
Hundreds of visitors are expected to visit the spectacle on the night of Oct. 31. It's part of an annual tradition on Loganberry Lane in Lake Forest. Over the years, it’s become a playful rivalry between the families, each vying to see who can get the most screams in the neighborhood.
Leading up to the big event, Julson, a security manager who used to make fake weapons for Hollywood films, readies his “baby barbecue,” to roast home-made human dolls over the coals. He claims his haunt is so scary, there really is no competition.
“He (Stevens) wasn’t a prop maker, so he mainly buys his stuff. He’s only got girls, so he doesn’t understand what real fear is in regards to scaring,” Julson said. “If I was 5, I would be afraid of his haunt.”
Those are fighting words to Sierra Stevens, 25. She counters that neighborhood kids are more intrigued with her dad's house because it's more detailed.
“We have a little bit more of the props and things to look at, whereas theirs is literally just terrifying," Stevens said.
A hobby since childhood
Julson said he has known that scaring people was his calling since he was 11 years old. Back then, he volunteered at a haunted house, wearing his father’s Vietnam-era battle fatigues and a skull mask with a helmet over it. He says he posed, standing still with a knife, and when high school students stepped closer to see if he was fake, Julson let them know he was real.
“We scared 18-year-old high schoolers as 11-year-old children,” Julson said. “At that point, I knew that I wanted terrify everybody for the rest of my life.”
Julson calls his haunted exhibit “Nightmare on Loganberry” and says it began at his parents' home 15 years ago, when he and his brother tossed fake severed heads at kids from the back of a truck.
Now, the event has become much more elaborate, with visitors entering a maze that leads them into a "butcher bay" filled with severed body parts and presided over by a live demented character. At the end, you meet the Spider Queen — aka Julson’s mother — who sits on her throne and hands out candy. She’ll tell the parents, “Welcome to hell.”
If Julson has his way, you might not even make it to the maze. He and his friends will be wandering the streets, frightening anyone who passes by. He boasts that last year three people wet their pants and four lost their retainers.
“I like them to get so scared, they don’t even get inside,” Julson said. “That’s when I win.”
From princess costumes to scary clowns
Across the street, Clay Stevens' family took a more gradual path into the Halloween madness.
His daughters preferred pretty princess costumes at first, but as they became older their interest in scarier stuff grew, said Stevens, 55.
"Over the years, they've really gotten into it too, so it's really kind of neat," Stevens said.
Outside his home, visitors will enter a cemetery with fog machines that blow vapor across Halloween tombstones. Near the pathway, sewer pipes ooze green sludge through a drain and visitors later encounter a scary operating room, and of course, they can expect to encounter monsters along the way. During their journey, Halloween celebrants can decide if they really want to enter the circus tent, full of demented clowns.
Stevens said he took up the challenge to come up with new themes after a child complained that he was using the same setup as the year before.
"Ever since he did that, every year, we do something different," Stevens said.
This year, Stevens estimates he’ll spend thousands of dollars on his haunted house. Two of the big-ticket items are a driveway circus tent and a generator to make sure all of the fog machines and animatronics are powered up and ready to go.
Not everyone goes to the extremes of the Loganberry Lane families, but Americans will spend $2.2 billion on Halloween decorations this year, a nearly 7 percent increase from a year ago, according to research firm IBISWorld Inc.
Halloween's popularity, extending well beyond child revelers, can be attributed to the baby boomers, said Robert Thompson, who teaches about television and pop culture at Syracuse University. Trick or treating for children really took off after World War II and the baby boomers wanted to hang onto the holiday as they grew older, by creating parties for adults to enjoy, he said. That created a market for Halloween, besides costumes and candy for children.
Scaring others can be an expensive hobby. Last year, Julson spent about $2,000 on his haunted attraction. This year, his budget was cut to $500 - money his mother contributed. Julson got married this year and his wife doesn’t approve of the amount of time and money he spends on his haunted attraction.
“She sees it almost as a jealous lover. Halloween is depriving me from her,” Julson said. It’s not uncommon for Julson to take days off from work to prepare for Halloween.
“I love her to death, but I don’t get to spend any money this year on Halloween,” Julson said. “It was a horrible blow to me.”
Julson’s friends believe he can make his haunted attraction into a business and bring it to a larger scale. One option is to partner with a booster club and charge money to enter the event next year.
Jon Schnitzer, a close friend of Julson’s who is filming a documentary called “Haunters: Home Haunts to Pro Haunts and the Nightmares In-Between,” said he hasn't seen anything like it. Schnitzer will feature Julson's and Stevens' haunts in his documentary.
"For years I was doing West Hollywood's Halloween or in L.A. — I can hit six or seven haunts -— came here last year, and I can't imagine doing anywhere else now," Schnitzer said. "I want Donald so badly to go pro."
For now, Julson is focused on holding a great haunt with his family.
“I’m a large man, who doesn’t smile very much unless it’s October,” Julson said. “This is my time to shine. It’s the only time that I get to be myself.”