“This is about 20 percent of what you’ll see Halloween night,” Richard Bryan shouts to a mesmerized neighbor enchanted by the flickering lights, animatronic hitchhiking ghosts and motorized Elvis in the Corvallis man’s front yard.
On Halloween, Bryan’s home on Northwest Elder Street, nicknamed the City of the Dammed, will draw dozens more with a 12-minute long show featuring a magic mirror, dozens of animatronics, music, lights, fog and fake fire. The main event will be the capstone on Bryan’s nationally recognized display complete with handmade headstones of Oregon State University opponents and faux-iron fence adorned with a “grim beaver.” And it all started with a single store-bought headstone.
“We bought this stupid little Styrofoam tombstone and then one year I added a light to it,” Bryan said. “We added a few things the next year and they were a huge hit.”
Bryan suggested to his wife, Julie, that they “bump things up a notch,” but the two agreed that they didn’t want the display to get much bigger. That is, until one night when they forgot to turn on the lights for a ghost they had set up in the yard.
“Our neighbor down the street, a 3-year-old boy had been coming by with his dad and having his dad tell the ghost good night,” Bryan said. “But we forgot to turn the light on, so (Julie) hears this knock on the door and she answers and the kid asks ‘is the ghost OK?’ And she just melted. That’s when we decided to ramp it up.”
But Julie came up with three ground rules: No gore, no fire and don’t bankrupt the family.
“He’s very creative and he comes up with so many ideas, but I have to rein him in a little bit,” Julie said with a laugh. “Sometimes he goes off on tangents because he’ll come up to me and say ‘wouldn’t fire be great?’”
Bryan, an insurance claims adjuster, said he has no background in arts or engineering and had to teach himself how to create everything in the yard.
“I’m just really interested in how things work,” he said. “You don’t want to take me to a magic show, because I’ll ruin it. I can’t help figuring out how something works and reconstructing it or explaining it.”
Most of Bryan’s inspiration comes from a major hobby; he is a self-confessed “theme park junkie” who has visited Universal Studios and Disneyland many times. Several pieces of the display are inspired by Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.
“Those two rides are always my favorite and I always feel like a little kid and I love the whimsy they create,” Bryan said. “But I don’t have Disney’s budget so I have to be creative to make it work.”
Over the last few years, Bryan has invested hundreds of hours and about $15,000 into the display. His latest animatronic pirate required four servos to operate its head alone and the entire display on Halloween night will require three PCs and more than 100 extension cords to operate. The display has gotten the Bryan family national attention, including a story in the Wall Street Journal.
“It’s really just an art project and something that’s supposed to be fun for people who see it,” Bryan said. “But you always want more people to see it and enjoy it. It has been so much fun to see it get attention because the response has been great and people are having fun.”
While many yard displays often create controversy or bad blood between neighbors, Bryan’s display has become embraced in the community as it’s gotten larger.
“The neighbors refer to this display as ‘our display’ and they ask us about it all year long,” Julie said. “Some of them have started to do their own displays to add to it.”
Bryan said he always keeps his neighbors in mind when coming up with new displays.
“We think it’s important to be good neighbors. So we don’t have the music going all month and we make sure to turn it off at 10 p.m.,” Bryan said. “There are a lot of people who go for the horrifically scary and gory. For us, that didn’t fit with the neighborhood so we go for the whimsy and tongue-in-cheek.”
And the Bryans have never forgotten their young fan who inspired them to keep going.
“The whole goal is to make it so that 3-year-old and all the way up to the 83-year-old can get some enjoyment out of it,” Bryan said. “Nothing that you wouldn’t see it at a theme park. Only you don’t have to pay anything because we don’t make a cent off of this.”
The Bryans draw nearly 70 people on any weekend. For Halloween night, they anticipate roughly 100 people for the main event. And for next year?
“We can’t get much bigger without needing to get an event permit,” Bryan said. “But we’re still going to add some things. I think I’m going to make a third hitchhiking ghost and do some projection mapping. I’ve always wanted to try that.”