Season of the beast
Every Halloween one Oak Park couple, with the help of a protective gargoyle, transforms their home into the neighborhood’s must-see haunted house
A pair of hazy blue eyes, shielded beneath several layers of gauze, glows behind a curtain of stringy, blond hair. Their owner, a petite childlike figure, sits on a wooden rope swing that creaks with the slightest nudge from the evening's Delta breeze. The swing descends from a bulky tree whose branches loom over the street as its ancient trunk hugs the side of an early 1900s-era home.
Outside, there’s a black 1958 Cadillac hearse manned by a skeletal chauffeur who has just “dropped off” four pallbearers, who now hoist a six-sided diamond-shaped coffin onto their boney shoulders. The lanky characters slowly inch toward an empty grave. Nearby fresh mounds of dirt, lined up in rows, mark other final resting places as a menacing gargoyle, shackled in chains, mounts a pillar at the top of the porch’s stairs and surveys the scene. For the last seven years, this beast has protected the women who occupy this home’s creepy quarters.
Welcome to the “Gargoyle House” where, normally, passers-by might encounter a variety of familiar friendly scenarios: bicyclists pedaling on their daily commute and pedestrians traveling the sidewalks accompanied by happy pups. Every October, however, those making their way through Oak Park’s developing Triangle District near 33rd Street and 4th Avenue, also witness a scene that’s more macabre—especially come nightfall.
The home, which looks like something out of the Munsters family hood on Mockingbird Lane, belongs to Aimee Phelps and Danell Eschnaur, who have gone to elaborate lengths to decorate their house each Halloween season since 2007.
This year is no exception: The couple rented a scissor lift to string up more than 1,000 lights (a three-day job), hang more than 200 handmade bats, 24 crosses, 10 skeletons and endless yards of spider webs. And, of course, find the perfect perch for that hauntingly realistic little girl who swings in the tree.
The girl, in particular, has inspired much admiration, speculation and even fear.
“That was the first piece I made last year,” Phelps says of the lifelike figure. “She was hanging in the front yard and swinging during the day when some woman started freaking out.”
Phelps and Eschnaur ran outside to check out the commotion, only to find the woman grabbing at the “child.”
“She’s got the little girl upside down, trying to pull her off of the swing screaming,” Phelps remembers. “[She’s yelling] ’She’s just a little girl! She’s innocent! You can’t do this to her!’”
Scary, perhaps, but both women say they’re fine with the reactions that their home, and its seasonal decor, have inspired over the years.
In fact, the couple says they’ve heard it all, from the “Gargoyle House” moniker to other tongue-in-cheek names such as the “Witch House” or “Devil House.” The decorations are so popular, they even inspired an exhibit currently on display at Old Soul at 40 Acres, featuring works by local artists that depict the home.
Of all the decorations, the stone statue is particularly special—and not limited to the season of the witch.
“This gargoyle came out the very first year that we decorated and he never left the porch,” Eschnaur says of their year-round companion.
Sometimes people seem genuinely intimidated by the figure—which is just fine by Eschnaur and Phelps.
“He’s part of the house,” Phelps says. “We’re pretty protected [by him], if they’re afraid of it, cool—stay away from our house.”
The couple’s Target-brand beast comes by his reputation naturally: Gargoyles were once used in Medieval-era Catholic churches to scare away evil spirits.
Back in Oak Park, Eschnaur and Phelps’ porch decoration adapts to the changing seasons: At Easter, for example, he can be found biting down on a mouthful of marshmallow Peeps; at Christmas he wears a Santa Claus hat, and on St. Patrick’s Day he sports a shamrock.
The couple views him—and the rest of their efforts—as a labor of love.
“Every year that we’ve decorated, it’s been something that we do together,” Eschnaur says. “This year, just seeing these amazing things Aimee’s created and the finished product has been really cool to see.”
Phelps preps for her favorite holiday well in advance. This past July, for example, she drew upon her background in theater set design, painting and sculpting clay to create, among others, a life-sized Jack Skellington, his ghostly canine pal Zero, and a 6-foot-tall-plus spooky tree.
Phelps, who creates all her pieces from the ground up in her garage, says she enjoys making these dark, unconventional pieces.
“I’m not the normal artist. I don’t want to be that artist that paints that bowl of fruit. I want something different. I want to be challenged and inspired,” Phelps says.
It’s an exhaustive process: For her hand-crafted The Nightmare Before Christmas undertaking, Phelps used a material comprising 75-percent recycled newspaper for the clay mixture and also a simple homemade papier-mâché paste made from cornstarch, water, Elmer’s glue and flour.
“They’re all made out of that clay. I made like a triple batch in a 5-gallon bucket. It shaped Jack and Zero’s head and it also shaped the whole tree,” Phelps says.
Finally, by the time October arrived, Phelps had mixed and sculpted 35 gallons of clay and logged more than 30 hours of work on Jack Skellington alone. In contrast, the tree took 60 hours to create and Zero “only” about 15 hours—including the time required to install electronics behind his glowing, pumpkin-shaped nose.
Now, for the remainder of the season, Skellington, Zero and the spooky tree will be on display alongside various other scenes including a posse of poker-playing skeleton cowboys and a coven of witches brewing potions in a smoking green cauldron.
“Some people are crazy about Christmas, Well, this is my Christmas. It’s creative, it’s fun and I get to see the smiles on peoples’ faces,” Phelps says. “When the cars slow down when they drive by, that’s awesome. I love that. That’s why we do this.”
“We both just love Halloween,” says Eschnaur.