TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Inflated and wavering in the blustery night wind as they are, the Audrey II man-eating plants probably jump out first; then the jack-o’-lantern garage, spread with bared fangs topped by glowing eyes. Hanging black lights turn rain reflections on the pavement into abstract, oscillating purples and oranges.
Silhouetted against windows gleam a haunted lady fluttering in white, Frankenstein’s monster rising alive from the slab, a seated damsel at her vanity, blissfully unaware of a hovering bat, which shapeshifts into Count Dracula. Ghosts galore haunt the windows, and sometimes each other. Fringing the yard: tombstones, at least one mysterious pointy-hatted hunched figure, and grim grinning pumpkins singing “Let’s Do The Time Warp Again.” Closer to the road looms a deceptively normal-looking election sign: Bigfoot 2020. Make America Believe Again.
Should you feel brave enough to actually step onto the front porch of “King of Halloween” Justin Grimball, in Northport’s Bristol Park neighborhood, off Mitt Lary Road, a spider the width of an eagle descends.
“We’ve gotten some delivery guys who are not too happy about it,” Grimball said, sounding not very remorseful. “And we catch it all on the door camera.”
The Grimballs enjoy some neighborhood competition when it comes to Christmas, for which they also deck the house, and there are other inflatable ghoulies, ghosties and long-legged beasties around, but his neighbors concede October.
“I had a lot of people, the last week of September, text me OK, King of Halloween, where’s it at?” said Grimball, who co-owns three local Jalapeno’s restaurants. Though his wife and their 15- and 7-year-old daughters pitch in with suggestions and appraisals, this eerie panorama, the tongue-partly-in-cheek tableau of the macabre belongs to the dad, who grew up creating websites, doing graphic design.
The Grimballs have been in this home for the past two Halloweens, but really began ramping it up in their prior house, for about six years before that, so a lot of what’s in the yard, and inside — projectors, inflatables, various spirits, monsters and other props — has accumulated over years. While they do patronize Spirit Halloween store and other retailers, Justin’s managed to keep the combined expenses under $1,000, creating many of the illusions himself, downloading projectable short films and sounds, inspired by the practical magic of Disney’s theme parks.
The singing pumpkins, currently working from a range of 11 synchronized tunes, borrow from tricks made to generate the crooning marble busts — the undead Mellomen, including bass singer Thurl Ravenscroft, voice of Tony the Tiger, and in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the singer of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” — in Disney World’s Haunted Mansion, singing “Grim Grinning Ghosts.” Grimball projects the animated musical jack-o’-lantern faces onto three blank pumpkins procured from Michael’s.
“We’ve always been into decorating for Halloween and Christmas; we love going to Disney, the Haunted Mansion,” Grimball said. While the family rides through, he’s turned back around studying and dissecting the techniques at work, the Pepper’s ghost and other practical effects employed to spawn a 999-happy-haunts illusion.
The new home expanded his capabilities, with garage windows ripe for projection, so he doesn’t have to take them all down at night. The lights come on automatically, on a timer, but he has to choose and turn on various ghastly projections. Those visiting 11164 Persinger Circle, in Northport, should come by after dark, Grimball said, but before 11 p.m., when the show stops each evening.
“Every year we try to add a little more, more window projections, just messing with it, seeing what looks cool,” he said. “We push it a little bit each year.”
Despite the pandemic, the Grimballs plan to celebrate for 2020 much as in recent years. A neighborhood Facebook group discussed things, and they’ve decided their many kids deserve a little celebration, with everyone taking safety precautions, of course. Those neighbors who don’t feel good about getting into the mix can simply leave their lights off, or place candy out on a table, Grimball said, distance themselves and enjoy the parade of costumes and images from their porches.
A survey of 7,644 consumers, conducted annually in early September by the National Retail Federation, suggested seasonal enthusiasm was down somewhat, with 58 percent of respondents — which extrapolates to about 148 million U.S. adults — saying they’d be celebrating Halloween in some fashion. Following recent trends suggests the average expenditure per person would be $92.12, a sharp rise from the $48.48 when measured in the NRF survey in 2005, but nearly matching figures from 2018 and 2019. Spending should be around $8.05 billion, down from 2019′s $8.78 billion.
Most plan to celebrate safely at home, with 53 percent decorating houses and 46 percent carving a jack-o’-lantern. Just 18 percent will dress their pets, and 17 percent hope to party virtually. Plans for in-person gatherings, trick-or-treating and haunted house visits have all plummeted. Where people may not be spending as much on parties and costumes, they’re making up for it on candy, cards and decor.
The frights of 2020 spilled over into disturbing scuttlebutt, according to Steven Silverstein, CEO of Spirit Halloween, which opens 1,400 stores in the U.S. for the season, and its corporate owner Spencer Gifts. In an interview with the NRF, he said rumors ran around that Spirit wouldn’t open this year due to the pandemic.
“We quickly assured them that’d we’d be back to open our doors and keep the Halloween spirit alive. We immediately saw an outpouring of enthusiasm for Halloween celebrations across social media,” Silverstein said.
Some Tuscaloosa Halloween aficionados might trend that spending curve downward. At the Druid Hills front lawn of dance therapist Loretta Lynn, and University of Alabama biocultural medical anthropologist Christopher Dana Lynn, and their three sons, the bones seem to be bursting from the ground. Flagstone piles form cairns. With the exception of a couple of purchased skulls, it’s basically all formed from found art.
Justin Grimball, planning ahead, shops 75-percent-off bargains on Nov. 1. He scored those inflatable Audrey IIs — from the movie and later musical “Little Shop of Horrors” — last year, so they waited almost 11 months to shine, to plead “Feed me.”
Grimball uses multiple projector systems, but those can be had for about $100 each, he said. New exterior speakers are on their way, to boost sound effects from the larger dining room display window, after a Bluetooth system proved less than reliable.
“You can download a lot of things; every year this company comes up with new stuff, with still pictures and animated images,” he said. “Or you can film your own stuff, kind of get creative with it.”
The Grimballs will dress themselves for the neighborhood Halloween, too, though maybe not the full family themes of previous years, like the Beetlejuice year, or through the looking glass to Wonderland when their daughters were Alice and The Red Queen, his wife and her sister Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and Grimball himself the White Rabbit.
On Nov. 1, the Grimballs will take it all down, with a family assembly line loading Halloween up into the attic, and bringing down Thanksgiving and fall themes. A month later, the yard process reverts to Christmas. After the new year, the yard can rest.
An initial Halloween setup takes Grimball about four or five hours to put physically in place, then to link to his Amazon Alexis. The inflatables get their own system, so on a stormy night he can take them down, out of harm’s way.
A visitor might wish to make multiple trips, not just to run the gamut of mini-movies projected on the windows, and enjoy the full musical repertoire of the jack-o’-lanterns, but also because Grimball continues to tinker throughout October.
“For hours every day I’m adding to it,” he said, “just finding new things to add on.”
Some admirers have asked how he does it all, and Grimball’s happy to share his knowledge, his craft, his inventions. But oddly, he has yet to find an acolyte willing to follow through on such elaborate, individualized monster footsteps.
“It’s a lot of work,” he said, laughing, “bringing it all together.”
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.