FORT MADISON – Halloween starts in July for Chad and Denise Donaldson.
The Fort Madison couple has taken just four holiday seasons to become one of the most iconic spooky homes in the city. The display at 316 18th Street in Fort Madison, just southeast of the Fort Madison High School Campus, won the Fort Madison Kiwanis award for best Halloween display last year.
But Chad Donaldson, a Lee County Sheriff's detective, is quick to say it's not for the awards.
“We just love to see people driving by, even before Halloween, and staring out the window or kids stretching their heads in the car seats to see what’s going on.”
And it’s not just outside, the inside of the home is overrun with ghouls, skeletons, Hollywood’s scariest characters, and even some of its most loveable.
And they play company to the Donaldson family all year long. Some of the mannequins get redressed in St. Patrick’s garb or Christmas outfits and provide a unique setting for family dinners.
It’s not uncommon to see Chad and Denise out in the yard after the end of the Tri-State Rodeo starting to put up the display. Many of the monsters in the yard are all-weather and are anchored with heavy bases and stakes with seasonal lighting.
Almost all are animatronic. Chad said it’s also not unheard of for him to dress up and stand with the display unbeknownst to evildoers.
“I dressed up in one of the outfits after the Burlington/Fort Madison football game last year thinking the Burlington kids might want to cause a little mischief,” he said.
“There were a couple adults that came by and were curious, but then we did have a few teens come by and started talking tough to the display not knowing I was there. After a bit of me listening, I think I stepped forward and said, ‘What are you boys up to tonight,’ and they went screaming out of the yard and down the street,” Donaldson said.
But this isn’t your crazy uncle Tim’s Halloween display with a bunch of big box purchased displays. Many of these displays are homemade.
The very first, Big Bootie Judy, was made with a human model – Denise.
Chad wrapped Denise in plastic and duct tape, who got a little claustrophobic before being cut out. Then the shape created by the duct tape is filled with expanding liquid foam, a trick Chad learned from Do-It-Yourself videos. That way they don’t have to keep buying displays, but can actually keep recreating their own.
And as the couple dresses up each year for Halloween, the costumes eventually find their way onto new homemade displays and put in the yard.
Creepy crawly skeletons are climbing all over the Donaldson’s home and lighting brings the whole thing to life once the evil of the night sets in.
One skeleton suffered at the hands of a 12-foot wolf who growls from the bowels at every passing potential victim. And that ghoul is dwarfed by a 16-foot skeleton with a skull and thoracic cavity that fire up.
Spiders are hung from the porch, as are several unfortunate victims. And an animated skeleton waves from the entrenchment of a coffin next to gargoyles and other scattered monsters.
This year’s display, which is only in its fourth year, will also feature some video enhancements with a Stranger Things theme.
When asked how much the couple has spent on the display over the past 14 years, Donaldson said quickly.
“We don’t talk about that. Other people go on vacations, we - ,” he said with a laugh.
Halloween parties the weekend before the 31st are the soft open of sorts for the display.
“That way we can get out with some friends and turn everything on and make sure everything is working correctly,” Donaldson said.
But people from all around are already driving by the display at night to get a sneak peak at what the corner of Avenue D and 18th Street will look like this year.
Denise said the display is created for all-ages.
"We don't want it to scare anyone, but we want them to enjoy it. Last year we had a girl with Down's Syndrome come through and she was nervous about going through. So we turned everything off but the lights and let her go through. As she went, she started to smile and when she got through, she wanted to go again. But she said, 'Turn it back on'."
She said she hopes the display encourages other people to do simliar things.
"We're already starting to see other people put displays up early," she said.
Chad said he’s not sure how big the display will grow, but he says it’s not meant to be terrifying, just crazy enough to make everyone happy. And he and Denise will keep building while people keep enjoying.
“Anything worth doing, is worth overdoing,” he said.
For more information, see the couple's Facebook page at Fear in Fort Madison.
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