Thursday, October 23, 2014

Haunted Houses

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SCARE MASTERS


Pumpkins and fake cobwebs are a copout. Meet the Birkett brothers, whose over-the-top fright-night displays have wowed Scottsdalians for years.


Steve and Chris Birkett have been building Hollywood-style Halloween haunts for more than 25 years on the front lawn of several of their homes within a 5-mile radius in south Scottsdale. But it’s not always been a bonding experience for the brothers. In fact, one of the scary things about the annual tradition is just how competitive it can become.
   
“It’s in a good way,” Steve explains. “When I make my display better, he makes his better. It gets our creative juices going.”
   
The annual event draws nearly 10,000 people, creating slow moving crowds that stop from 6:30-10:30 p.m. at Chris’s Haunted Grave (8414 E. Val Vista Drive) and then walk over to the hair-raising House of Haunts (8325 E. Lincoln Drive). It pulls people from adjacent neighborhoods – even Paradise Valley – and according to Chris, fans of their free fright night have even flown in from as far as Florida. Neighbors sit around fire pits and hand out so much candy they sometimes require an extra trip to the store to restock.
   
Surprisingly, for all the attention he has gotten over the years for his Halloween and Christmas shows (including news coverage of a neighbor’s complaint that landed him in court), Chris, 36, is quick to point out that it was actually Steve, 41, who started the work as a preteen in 1983 in the family home. Steve created a few gravestones by molding wet wood and created the illusion of a fire with cellophane paper blown over the chimney by the swamp cooler.
   

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Steve, in turn, credits his brother with taking the show up a notch or two, multiplying the chill factor and creating a downright phenomenon in their small, middle class neighborhood.
   
The brothers live in block homes a few streets from one another and start preparing for the holiday in the heat of summer. Each man has his own graveyard and collectively claims to have more than $100,000 worth of daunting decorations ($80,000 for Chris’ setup, $20,000 for Steve’s). Chris has singing pumpkins, hearts beating beneath the ground, and a Madame Leota head that rivals the one in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

Steve is dead-on with an organ-playing skeleton, an open casket and other horrifying Halloween vignettes. Cutting-edge computerized systems keep the smoke, music and other mechanics moving. Each production costs $1,000 to $2,000 to run, with Chris’ starting five days prior to Halloween and Steve’s staying up for three.
   
Both grown men admit their muse is Disneyland (specifically the Haunted Mansion) and delight in the details of their projects. For Steve, who owns a floor restoration business and is the father of three young children, it is about building from scratch or transforming trash into treasure, which is what happened when he found an old organ on the side of the road – the musical kind, not a body part – that became the centerpiece for his stage.
   

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Over the years, the brothers have helped each other, but these days they are so busy building their respective productions, (Steve with input from wife Renee, and Chris with the approval of his wife, Sarah) that they don’t see each other’s displays until show time on Halloween night. 
   
“We don’t have this big brother-bonding experience, but here’s what makes it great,” says Chris, owner of event planning company Birkett Entertainment (birkettentertainment.com). “I like to wait till opening night and be surprised by what he has done, and he likes to do the same with mine.”
   
Last year, unbeknownst to one another, they both mined a family trip to the Goldfield Ghost Town for ideas for their next production. Chris built a multi-sensory, seemingly endless mine shaft in his yard. Steve’s “The Lost Dutchman Mine” has an elaborate 30-foot-mine tunnel reminiscent of Phoenix’s old Legend City amusement park in his yard.

My sons love the Birkett displays so much that they were inspired to create their own haunted houses in their room,” says Gail Arnold, who lives in the neighborhood. “My oldest son, Will, spends weeks setting up his Halloween display.”

The Birkett brothers have created wonderful memories for many children, in contrast to their own recollections of quiet childhood Halloweens, when the biggest scare was the concern over contaminated candy that kept many kids close to home. 
    
“I’m amazed on Halloween night,” Chris says. “You can’t even get down the street any more. I never expected it to get this popular.”

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