30 October 2023

Our Spook Houses

Wicked Witch Jan Grape

My late husband, Elmer Grape, loved Halloween as much as Christmas, maybe even a little more. He always said kids liked to be scared. Nothing to hurt them, just something fun scary. So when Halloween rolled around, he was like a little kid himself. Every October 31st, I think of our Spook Houses in the mid-1970s. Our house in Houston had a sidewalk leading from the driveway to the front door located under an overhang eve, a little wider than the walkway. Elmer was a commercial construction superintendent and had access to rolls of black plastic, Visqueen. Like garbage bags but thicker and blacker. He hung the plastic from the overhang making a dark corridor to our front door where an evil looking Jack-O-Lantern sat. Kids would have to walk the ten feet to the front door and ring the doorbell. I dressed in a long black dress and ratted my dark hair out, giving me a witchy look as I opened the door. Kids were surprised that someone in costume greeted them.  

Elmer sat up in our dark garage, which had small glass windows where he could look out at the kids who walked up our driveway to ring the doorbell and say "Trick or Treat." He'd rigged up a PA system and with his normally deep voice he'd say, "Fee Fie Fo Fum, I Smell The Blood of an Englishman." Parents standing at the bottom of the driveway, were giggling and encouraging their kids to go to the front door. I usually had to open the front door and coax them to come up the walkway corridor to get candy. He would usually add, "I'll grind his bones to make my bread." 

One little boy about 6, was hesitant so I finally walked halfway to him to give him candy. The boy walked back to mom and safety. Then Elmer said, "I'll get him next year." The little boy looked up at mom and said, "Let's don't come back here next year." I could hear Elmer smothering laughter.

The next year we had moved to Memphis, Tennessee. We joined the PTA and discovered the PTA had a fall festival in mid-October, as a fund raiser, for school. It was their version of a Halloween Carnival. The previous year they'd had very successful a spook house. 

Without thinking twice about it, Elmer and I signed up to be the chairpersons for this one. I won't detail what all we did, because this article is about "OUR" spook houses, but I will say, Elmer built a wooden coffin to use in the school event. It was shaped like the ones you'd see in all those old Western movies. You know, with the angles at the top end. He painted it flat black, and it was long enough for him to lay his 6 foot, two inch body down inside. As kids came inside the room they saw the coffin, as they got near, he'd raise up, sometimes laughing maniacally. Our school spook house was a huge success, at 25 cents a ticket many kids came through multiple time.

Two weeks later was October 31st, "Halloween." Mr. Grape had already planned for it with that coffin. Again using the black Visqueen, he turned our carport into a spooky room. Of course we didn't charge kids anything. I was once again dressed witchy, in my long black dress. 

I had a little story, inviting kids inside, telling them of my friend who had been killed in a horrible accident. If they wanted, they could view his body and his parts if they would just come inside. 

I had a box with for them to put their hand down into with a bowl of cold wet spaghetti to feel like guts. Another box held a bowl with cold peeled grapes for eyeballs and brains. 

E. had added one new feature to his coffin, which was resting on a couple of sawhorses and draped with the black plastic, he cut an opening in the coffin side in order to stick his arm out and pretend to grab at a kid's arms or hand. He was also wearing a horrible rubber mask with a plastic eyeball hanging out. It had slits in order from him to see. As a kid got close he could raise up or grab, whichever seemed to work.

As the doorkeeper, I would have 2 or 3 kids come in at once. Usually, they were traveling in groups. Kids had so much fun, they went home and got their mom and dad to come see the spook house. No one in this neighborhood had ever done such a thing. 

One mom got so shook at the coffin watching another mom scream and jump, she said, "I think I just wet my pants." 

Elmer heard this and when he raised up, was laughing so hard he had trouble making a scary sound.

The next year we had to change it all up. We set up our living room with the coffin against the far wall. We had put a large cloth dummy inside.

We also had big moving blankets on the floor so when you walked in the floor felt squishy to walk on. Dim lights barely lit the room. A carved, evil Jack-O-Lantern had a battery electric candle inside. As kids rang the doorbell, yelling “Trick or Treat,” I opened the door, letting only 2 or 3 inside, they could see the coffin across the room but couldn’t see inside it.

Elmer as clown
Elmer never dressed up for Halloween
but one time his little sister made him
up for her grandson's birthday party,
the only pic I have of him in costume.

I’d tell my little story of my friend who had the terrible accident and had the "guts and eyeballs" for them to feel. Then I’d steer them to the coffin and while they're concentrating expecting Elmer, he’d come out of the coat closet by the front door, moaning like a ghost. Wearing his horrible mask, and a flashlight in his belt shinning up towards his face, he was scary.

Some of the parents came inside, then neighbor lady started screaming, "Damn you, Elmer Grape, I thought you were in that coffin."

That year was when mean people put razor blades or poison in candy treats and it became too dangerous for kids. Elmer and I both were angry and disappointed. The fun of Halloween was dead.

However, in the nineties after we moved back Austin we had a few kids walking their own neighborhood with parents. Our niece Dona and her family lived behind us. Her young daughter Tiffany and Tiff's best friend, Amber would walk around the block with their moms. Somewhere along the way, Uncle Elmer would jump out and scare them.

Along the whole way, they were expecting him but never knowing exactly when or where. The girls are now adults with nearly grown kids of their own but at Halloween they always tell the story of being scared by Uncle Elmer.]

So is it any wonder I write mysteries? Or that we owned a mystery bookstore for nine years? It's just a shame there are no photos or videos. People didn't have cell phones or digital cameras then and even if I'd thought of it, I was too busy telling the story and handing out treats.


  1. LOL! Love it! My Brother (in little Hugoton, Kansas) puts stuff out in the yard, like a homemade coffin with lights and sound!

  2. No need to regret the lack of photos when you have some many vivid and charming memories!

  3. What great Halloween memories!

    1. Thanks, Janice and Eve, yes they are good memories and vivid in my mind. When all is said and done I guess I enjoyed playing Witches and Ghosties as much as Elmer did. HaHa.

  4. Elizabeth Dearborn30 October, 2023 13:43

    Halloween is my favorite holiday too. Who doesn't love to eat candy & pretend to be somebody else?

    1. I like your approach, Elizabeth.

    2. Elizabeth, you make a good point. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I suspect Elmer is enjoying your article, Jan.

  6. Leigh, I imagine so. And now that I think about it, I believe I enjoyed Halloween & our spook houses nearly as much as he did.

  7. Mom: great memories! I did not remember much of the Houston spook house but certainly remember the Memphis version. The worst part was that since it was our house, we missed out on the fun! I remember getting home from trick or treating the neighborhood and would see a line if kids out front of our house, waiting to get inside! Seems like maybe one or two other houses in the neighborhood had something like that where you could walk in and be scared, but they were always lame compared to the Elmer Grape version!


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