Mike Hearn is too busy right now tending the cemetery in his front yard full of life-size ghouls and monsters to worry about any philosophy other than scare and be scared. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
But, as he hammers that last figure into the ground, completing his Halloween graveyard for what he insists is the last time, he might be living out one of the tenets of Buddhism: Life flows continuously, like a river. It changes constantly.
If you swim with it, you survive. If you fight it, cling to a rock in the middle, you drown.
I was driving by Mike’s house, across from Rossmoor Elementary School, a few days ago when I nearly wrecked my car craning my neck to see what on earth was standing up in that long, narrow front yard.
I couldn’t help pulling over and knocking on the door, to ask about the display.
I ended up coming back to talk to the home’s owner, Mike, who told me the graveyard was the inspiration of his late wife, Karen, who loved everything about Halloween.
Christmas decorating? Naw. Just put up a string of lights. This family was all about Oct. 31.
It’s been 19 years since Mike and Karen started building their “cemetery” in the front yard of the house in which Mike grew up, where his parents were the original owners.
Karen grew up nearby, and she and Mike even had crushes on each other as teenagers. But Mike never had the nerve to ask her for a date. Instead, they both married other people.
They only fell in love with each other years later, after they met again as single parents, while their daughters played softball against each other at Rossmoor Park.
It wasn’t long before they were hitched, and Mike was quickly infected with his wife’s love of Halloween.
The first year, the couple didn’t do much decorating, just put up a sheet made into a ghost – that someone promptly stole from the yard.
Then, year after year, the display grew.
Headstones went up. A mock picket fence across the front.
A neighbor gave them a wedding dress that didn’t sell at a garage sale. It now looks like a ghostly Miss Havisham from Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” with a grinning skull for a head and hidden frame made of rebar and PVC pipes.
Eventually, the couple became Halloween-iacs, shopping garage and end-of-season sales year-round.
Hanging lanterns containing severed heads. Creepy witches. Skeletons wearing their rotted shrouds. Zombies. Headless corpses. Caskets. Strobe lights. Fog machines.
Mike even had to build a 12-by-12 shed in the backyard, just to house the collection.
Each year, they spent countless hours together, spending a month setting up the collection, anticipating the thrills that would come when the full, lighted-and-electrified display was unveiled Oct. 31.
On Halloween night, after rushing around all day getting the electrified elements into the yard and plugged in, the pair would be joined by family members who dressed up like ghouls to scare the neighborhood.
Then, they’d wait for dusk, when the first little kids started to arrive, too scared to actually enter the yard. Older kids, who weren’t as scared, would come and get a piece of candy.
Over the years, the display and the crowds grew and grew, attracting around 1,000 people. One neighbor said she had to buy more candy each year, to anticipate the spillover trick-or-treaters who would hit her house. Other neighbors just turned off their lights or left home to avoid the crush.
One of Mike’s fondest memories is seeing tiny kids, who were too scared to come into the yard, get older each year, until finally they dared to come and get candy. “See, I told you that you could do it,” he said their dads would prompt them.
His father, the original owner of the house, would come every year from Arizona to dress up and help with the event.
“We would dress him up in a costume – one year, he even wore a dress,” Mike recalled. “He’d be out there high-fiving people and I’d tell him, ‘Dad. You’re supposed to be scaring them.’ ”
Then, three years ago, Karen died of breast cancer at age 54.
Mike, now 57, said his family and friends were surprised he still wanted to do the Halloween display without her that first year, when he was still in shock over his loss.
But he felt obligated to do it, by the joy that it brought so many people.
He even kept shopping for Halloween artifacts to add to the collection.
Then, his father died from a fall this spring, meaning he won’t be there to be scolded about not scaring the kids.
That was enough for Mike.
As usual, he started setting up the display in September, climbing up on a neighbor’s roof to string ghosts on a wire, hammering rebar into the lawn to anchor the life-size ghouls.
This year, he has 40 monsters in the graveyard. People walk by and take pictures every day.
Kids from the school across the street stop by, to see what’s been added.
Animated monsters and freaks have taken every seat in the living room, liberated from the storage shed and waiting to be placed outdoors on Halloween. A casket and its bony occupant occupy the front window, accompanied by a faux dog mummy.
As usual, he’s planning to take Halloween off from work and get up at 6 a.m. to hurriedly install the strobe lights, fog machines, mechanical spooks and other electrical equipment that can’t stay out in the yard all month. He now has to borrow a generator from a friend because the cemetery blows out his circuit-breakers.
And his 20-year-old daughter, Mikala, will sit on an oversized, golden movie prop throne that once belonged to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, to hand out candy to those brave souls who dare to enter the cemetery.
But, Mike says, his heart is no longer in it, and setting up the displays that used to be joyful is now just drudgery.
He vows that this will be his last Halloween, and he plans to put up a sign announcing that fact.
“Without her, it just isn’t the same,” he said. “I’m done. Think I’m going to put up a sign saying, ‘Thank you for all your support through the years. This will be the last time. And everything’s for sale.’”
In the past, he made a point of removing every tombstone and bloody limb from his front yard on Nov. 1, before 2:30 p.m., when the kids got out of school across the street. But they were just stashed in the backyard to be boxed and put away in laborious detail later.
This year, he says, he’s not even going to put things away. He just wants to sell it all, bury the cemetery and be done with it.
No amount of pleading from neighbors or Mikala has so far changed his mind. I suggested maybe he shouldn’t sell off everything yet, in case he decides to pick it up later.
No good. He’s ready to move onto the next chapter of his life. Sometimes people have to let go of the past, even though they know they’ll be disappointing others.
“It’s like a band of musicians that breaks up,” he said. “I could never understand how a great band could just break up and walk away. But now Iknow.”
He has no idea what he might do with his free time next October, with every moment no longer consumed exhuming the Hearn Family Cemetery.
“I’ve never been able to go anywhere else on Halloween for the last 19 years,” he said. “I just might go see what other people do.”
And, even if he sells everything else, he’ll still have one reminder of Halloween hanging around.
His black cat, Belladonna, who was catfooting it around the dining room while I was there, won’t be leaving any time soon.
The Hearn Family Cemetery is at 11781 Montecito Road in Rossmoor.