By Joi-Marie McKenzie
When a new tenant moves in to 313 Clinton Ave. in Clinton Hill owner Janna Hyten always asks, “Do you like Halloween?” It helps if they do. Hyten warns them that beginning in September the entire first floor of the white facade brownstone may well resemble a haunted house.
Hyten is 55. She lives for—and with—Halloween. The words “Do not disturb the dust…it is not dead, only sleeping” are painted on her the wall in her living room. A skeleton hanging on an antique wheelchair once welcomed visitors to her home. She started decorating the wheelchair months ago because she thought it was a cool idea. Hyten moved it to the kitchen to make room for more Halloween decorating. Two coffins stand upright in her living room. There is a rack of costumes against the parlor wall. A dozen mannequin heads line the mantel of the fireplace. They are leftover props from last year’s production, “Carnival of Carnage.”
Hyten starting producing Halloween shows for her neighbors and friends nearly 13 years ago. The first year she decorated her lawn with two-dimensional tombstones. Each year her decorations have grown bigger. Hyten even added a short play put on by her next-door neighbors. The play was a way to entertain the passersby while they marveled at Hyten’s front lawn. Neighbors gradually volunteered to help create Hyten’s ambitious Halloween plans. Last year she attracted more than 3,000 kids.
Andrew Watts, a longtime friend and neighbor of Hyten, remembers when they produced “Pirates of the Scareabean.” “We built, she and I, in her dining room, this freaking pirate ship. It was huge — about 30 feet long,” Watts recalls. Hyten is producing “The Vampire Opera” this year. It features the King of the Vampires, gypsies and gore. Every year Hyten hopes to outdo herself. She’s a little disappointed that the flamethrowers from last year’s production can’t make it to 313 this year. But Hyten has some other ideas up her sleeve.
Hyten has lived in 313 for 25 years. She moved here with her husband Randall, an investment banker. They used to throw Halloween parties together. When her daughter Kesley was born in 1989, Hyten wanted to make Halloween even more special by decorating the house. Although her husband has moved to Connecticut and her daughter is away at college, Hyten still decorates the house.
It’s a week before the big show. The door at 313 is wide open. Hyten is running back and forth painting inside her parlor and checking on the guys outside who are building the 40-inch stage on her front lawn. She’s wearing jeans that are no longer white because they’re covered in grey, black and red paint. Her blonde hair is pulled back in a leopard-print scrunchie. She’s been up since six a.m. and she’s still going. Hyten is on her knees trying to lay painted canvases on foam core. It will serve as a background for the stage. She presses the canvas carefully with her hands while on her knees. She opts to do it again when it’s not perfect.
A wooden body lies in Hyten’s hallway. Tombstones with tongue-in-cheek epithets like “Christine O’Donnell—I’m not a witch, I’m you” rest on the stoop. Her neighbors Matt Duncan and Larry Heintes have just finished setting up the stage for this year’s production in the front yard. The stage stands some three feet off of the ground and straddles 313 and 315 Clinton. It took two hours to erect the stage and another seven to build the set.
Every now and then a few neighbors gather to watch the half dozen people running around in Hyten’s yard. After years of Halloween shows in her front yard they’re used to this scene.
“It seems to get more and more elaborate every year,” says Becca. She’s lived across the street from Hyten for seven years. “They totally do it for themselves. The fact that the kids enjoy it is a total byproduct.”
Every year brings it’s own set of problems. It’s a week before Halloween and Hyten is nervous about the set backgrounds. Two panels have so far been painted with black, white and gray skeleton heads. Hyten and two other volunteers are painting the trees that will serve as the backdrop for the gypsies’ song. They will have to repaint the dentist’s office. It was painted too bloody. Claudia Howard, who lives upstairs at 313 and who wrote the script, didn’t envision the office that bloody.
By sundown, Duncan and his crew are finally hoisting the set’s defining image: lips. Later they will hang two candy corn fangs. The stage will look like an open mouth to fit this year’s theme.
“We didn’t always use to do the big shows,” said Marc Ashmore. He’s been involved since the beginning. He and Hyten met at Florida State University when the two were undergraduates. “It started with the tombstones and she would throw a big party inside the house and would decorate.” But that was years ago. Hyten expects the crowd to reach nearly 5,000 this year.
Wendy Krabbe, who lives in the basement at 313, frantically checks the weather. Rain is in the forecast. She pounds the screen on her iPhone to check for updates. She sighs as she sits down at a sewing machine to finish the gypsy costumes.
She finishes the easy costumes first then moves on to tougher ones. The elaborate outfits do not intimidate her even though she has no experience in costume design. She just knows how to sew. Last year, Krabbe pushed herself to create a half man/half woman costume for the “Carnival of Carnage.” It was the show’s most controversial character.
A poster with a hermaphrodite was hung throughout the neighborhood, urging people to “come see the freaks,” until someone left a note saying the poster was insensitive to transgenders. Still, the half man/half woman scene remained in the show. “It’s all supposed to fun,” Duncan explains. “The last thing we want to do is offend somebody.”
Most of the painting was supposed to be finished today but now it looks like they’ll have to put the finishing touches on tomorrow. At least the stage is up. That’s one task checked off the list. A few neighbors walking by stop to talk to Duncan as the sun is finally setting on the day’s work. “The first show starts at 5:30 and it’s a family-friendly show,” Duncan tells the passersby. They’re new to the neighborhood and wondering why so many people are in Hyten’s front yard.
“I think that’s why a lot of us do it,” says Ashmore. “We all jump on board because we don’t want to let her down, apart from it being a really cool thing to do for the neighborhood. When she stops, I’ll stop.”
Hyten yells to Duncan that a panel on the stage was put on incorrectly. Although it’s getting late in the day, he’ll have to do it again. Hyten usually goes to sleep around 9 p.m. but not today. She’ll have to stay up late to finish painting the set with the other volunteers. People have been milling around 313 since the early morning and Hyten knows them all.