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Ghost Hosts

Trends: Dale Parker and Colleen Hanson of Costa Mesa go all out to decorate for Halloween. In fact, all over the country, holiday business is boo-ming.


It's that time of year again, which means drivers plying Costa Mesa can't help but slow to gawk at a house at East Wilson Street and Westminster Avenue.

Owners Dale Parker and Colleen Hanson are up to their old tricks for the ninth year running, offering a Halloween treat to passersby.

We're talking a black coffin whose lid opens and closes thanks to a pneumatic jack hidden in the arm of the body stuffed inside. There's a witch stirring her black caldron; a bar scene with two poker-playing ghouls; laughing and wiggling skeletons hanging from a tree; tombstones bearing neon RIPs and a fully equipped Dr. Frankenstein's lab.

Then there are the two toilet bowls, one of which has a stuffed ghoul's upper body sticking out of it; the other one has only upturned legs and feet sticking out. They're animated, of course.

"A lot of people like that," said Parker, 39, as the twirling commode commandos appear to be getting flushed down the porcelain receptacles.

"People love the toilets," added Hanson, 37.

Parker and Hanson, who draw as many as 150 looky-loos a night as All Hallow's Eve draws nigh, will have spent at least $1,000 this year expanding and revamping their decorations.

Because of such folks, Halloween generates more than $3.5 billion a year in sales. According to the National Retail Federation, which tracks the amount Americans spend on costumes, candy, greeting cards and other Halloween-oriented fare, the harvest-time holiday ranks second to Christmas for money spent on decorating.

This year, according to the trade organization's informal survey, more than 72% of American homes will be decked out with some fright-night decorations.

Spencer Gifts in the Mission Viejo Mall, which does a booming Halloween business, sells gargoyle door knockers that play spooky music and say "Welcome" ($17.99), a flashing Bates Motel No Vacancy sign ($69.99), a 3-foot-tall Crypt Keeper with voice box ($399), a talking skeleton ($159) and a noise-activated Bungee Spider that drops down a string, then crawls back up ($14.99).

Manager Manju Jacob said Halloween regulars spend at least $200 a year, and one customer had just walked out the door after dropping nearly $600 for a talking skeleton, a latex witch on a broom, jumbo rats, several gargoyle door knockers, spray-on spider webs and strands of pumpkin lights.

Jacob said it's not uncommon to hear customers say, "We want to get a fog machine this year because we spent so much on dry ice last year." One fog machine: $199.99.


For their part, Parker and Hanson prefer the do-it-yourself approach. That includes what now amounts to 50 stuffed ghouls. One decorating tip they learned the hard way--after rain turned their newspaper-padded figures to mush: First stuff the newspapers into plastic bags such as supermarket produce bags.

The couple have two decorating rules: no blood and no dismembered body parts. "We try to stay away from gore," Parker said. "It's supposed to be fun for us and everyone else."

Like those of most homeowners who decorate for Halloween, theirs is a monthlong display. Parker said they start setting up the last weekend in September, then spend the entire month of October getting it "squared away."

One year when they lived in a house up the street, vandals stole the black lights and fixtures and trashed the stuffed dummies. "We had neighbors literally blocks away bringing us back body parts," Parker said.

Now, "to keep all of this from walking away," Parker sleeps outside in a tent. "Not a lot of people are willing to do that."

Come Halloween night, the Parker-Hanson extravaganza generates more than a thousand visitors. But sons--5-year-old Davis and 13-year-old Josh--get a head start on Halloween. Throughout October they'll occasionally don costumes and sit in the yard without moving. Then, when a sightseer stops to look, they'll suddenly move or jump up.

"It's a kick," Hanson said.

Not surprisingly, Parker and Hanson also go all out decorating their house and yard for Christmas--everything from a manger scene to a candy lane with gingerbread houses and "a zillion lights."

But, as Hanson said, "you're kind of limited with Christmas." Not like Halloween, where, she said, "anything goes."


What's with this Halloween decorating fervor?

Sociologists, professors of anthropology and other experts have weighed in with a number of theories: People are spending more time with their families. In an era when many people don't know their neighbors, elaborate displays provide welcome cheer and bring people together. Forever-youth-minded baby-boomer parents have both the willingness and the means to indulge themselves.

And there's no denying the obvious: Halloween is one of the few holidays conducive to decorating.

Parker has his own explanation: "It's just about having fun."

Pointing to the tall grandfather clock whose hands are wildly spinning backward, he grinned and asked: "Do you feel yourself getting younger?"

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