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A happy haunting on Walnut Street

Friendly Halloween fiend Jake McCusker and his daughter, Mirabel, stand by a skeleton, one of the many decorations McCusker hopes visitors will enjoy on Trick-or-Treat night, Oct. 31. (photo by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– Halloween spirit is everywhere at 32 W. Walnut St. in North Liberty; in the bushes, on the lawn and dangling from the trees, in fact.
Jake McCusker really gets into the holiday. He grew up in Ottumwa, in an area of town that traditionally went all out with Halloween decorating.
“Everybody decorated for Halloween,” Jake said. “Subdivisions would even do themes. Everyone had their porch lights on for trick-or-treating. It was like Halloween Town.”
But when Jake moved to Iowa City, he said, they could put out bowls of candy on the front porch unattended and nobody would even take any.
Now that he lives in North Liberty, Jake hopes his fiendish fun will liven up his own neighborhood and enchant visitors.
For the third year in a row, Jake– with the help of his family, wife Jessica and niece Eva, and two young daughters– has set up an elaborate Halloween display in his yard. Inside an authentic antique wrought-iron fence draped in cobwebs is a graveyard with bones and headstones, but the display is enhanced by special effects: fog machines, laser vortexes, flying ghosts and spooky sounds. Even the bushes on either side of the lawn have subtle scare factors, sound and movement effects that are triggered by motion sensors that offer spooky little surprises to passers-by.
Jake got started when his mother-in-law gave him a fabricated headstone for the lawn. By visiting website forums and podcasts posted by Halloween aficionados, Jake taught himself how to craft many of the special effect contraptions from found objects and cast-offs.
“I could go and buy Halloween decorations, which are cool but expensive,” Jake said. “So I write ideas down in a notebook, research how I could make it myself, make a parts list and then scavenge for parts. Most of my stuff is either found or bought cheap.” For example, the illuminated flying ghost is suspended from a ceiling fan motor, and a lightning machine is timed to sound effects generated on Jake’s personal computer, and the swirling, glowing vortex– which truly resembles something straight from a Hollywood horror film– is a combination of a well-placed high powered laser light source, mirrors and fog machines.
“I saw one online, but it was far too complex, so I simplified it,” Jake said
The effect is far from simple, though it is not extremely frightening, either. Jake said he keeps gore and blood out of his display because he wants kids of all ages to enjoy it and not be too scared.
“I want to make them laugh and not cry,” Jake said. “I like to keep it clean on Halloween.”
Jessica said Jake is as crazy about Halloween as any child.
“Our neighborhood is a little dead,” said Jessica, ignoring the pun. “It doesn’t get as much trick-or-treat traffic as you’d like. Jake likes to share his Halloween toys. He talks every year about how people do less and less decorating, so he does more and more.”
Jake agreed.
“I don’t really know why, but no matter who you are, everybody always remembers what they were for Halloween, or where they want and what they did,” Jake said. “I want to get my display to where people will remember it as a fun Halloween memory.”
Most of Jake’s decorations take power of some sort, and the power sources are weather-sensitive, so he waits until Halloween day to begin his set-up process. It usually takes from 7 a.m. until just before the trick-or-treating hour to prepare the display.
“I check the forecast for days ahead,” he said. Then he takes most of the display down after all the treat-seeking ghouls and goblins have gone to bed.
“It’s a special time for kids, and I just want to give them a little of that atmosphere for Halloween,” he said.
Undertaking accomplished.