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Home Is Where The Horror Starts : Some county pranksters enjoy Halloween so much, they keep the ghoulish yard decorations--from coffins to cobwebs--in place year-round.

October 27, 1994|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It seems like another quaint, residential Ventura neighborhood.

Exactly how the zoning commission missed that cemetery in the front yard on South Dos Caminos Avenue is hard to say. And that pile of skulls isn't a pretty sight near the half a dozen or so cement headstones.

What about that beat-up old wrought iron fence tilting every which way? It can't be earthquake safe. And go figure--no matter what the weather, on at least one night a year there's that pocket of dense fog just hovering around the house.

All in all, it would be a nice piece of property if it weren't for that coffin out front. It sort of detracts from the well-manicured lawn. Now why didn't that thing get buried, anyway?

It's probably for the best, though, considering that each time someone gets near the coffin, the presumed corpse starts pounding on the lid, seeking relief from a suffocating predicament.

It's a setting that would be the source of pride for Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Stephen King, or any other of the legendary horror folk. It certainly pleases Jim Sindelar, the Ventura resident--or caretaker--of this property. That's why, for the past three Halloweens, he's been dragging out the cemetery props. He is one of those county residents who still takes time out to celebrate the ghoulish occasion with zest and imagination.

While concern for children's safety has cut down on trick-or-treating in some areas, there are still eerie signs of the old days when gangs of costumed creatures headed from house to house, never sure what lay waiting behind the fake cobwebs and dangling skeleton; never sure how the normally nice man next store would be transformed once the doorbell rang.

Most neighborhoods have at least one resident who goes out of the way to make Halloween the terrifying and/or bizarre night it was meant to be.

We found a coven of them around the county:

SAVORING CEMETERIES

"The kids in the neighborhood know what I'm going to be doing and they love it," said the 34-year-old Sindelar, a mailman. "The first year we had well over 100 kids come by. It surprised me because Halloween was getting to the point where nobody was coming around. It was kind of depressing."

Sindelar said he enjoys doing what he can to preserve the spooky spirits of the holiday. He's a fan of real-life cemeteries, and once Halloween is over, he doesn't exactly put the decorations in storage.

"I set the headstones up in my back yard all year long, the cement skulls sit in a pile," said Sindelar. "As I've grown up I've gotten more and more into cemeteries, mostly the older ones with the headstones and the work that goes into them. There is a peaceful feeling about the places."

Sindelar's Halloween display has become more elaborate each year. First there was just the coffin. Then last year he commemorated the 300th anniversary of the first witch burnings by re-enacting the scene with a mannequin. Then there was the fog machine. Last came the homemade headstones--all blank, except for the one belonging to Lord Byron, poet and rumored vampire of the 1800s.

Though the neighborhood kids seem to find the headstones unimposing the rest of the year, on Halloween, it's a different story. "A lot of them won't come up the block," said Sindelar. "We have to take the candy half way down the street to them."

EXPANDING THE SHOW

Each September, Camarillo's Ken Carter sits down with a Halloween mail order catalog from the Oriental Trading company of Omaha, Neb., and makes a wish list. This year's wishes-come-true included a silhouette-making machine and a flying bat with a 10-foot wingspan, additions to an already noteworthy collection of Halloween decor.

There's "The Surprising Arm," a "Graveyard--Enter at Your Own Risk" sign, cardboard tombstones marked "Unknown" and "Reserved," an open coffin with fake body, a spider attached to a fishing line that drops on unsuspecting visitors, cobwebs, a flying ghost, battery-operated noisemakers, bales of hay, a scarecrow, and various other tricks of the trick-or-treat trade.

"It started out small and has gradually gotten worse," said Carter, who has been doing this since 1986.

"I just like the scary things that go bump in the night. It brings back childhood memories of how scared we would be about ghosts, headless horsemen, haunted houses," he said.

"I grew up with guys where we all got pillowcases and started trick-or-treating when the sun went down and didn't stop 'til people told us to go away. I remember the houses I enjoyed going to were the ones where people went out of their way to make it more entertaining."

The 37-year-old firefighter lives with his wife Tanya and their two children--Lauren, 8, and Kyle, 5--in a two-story home on Heritage Trail in the Mission Oaks area. It's a young, family neighborhood, Carter said, where lots of things go bump on Halloween night.

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