Cody Meacham is having nightmares about creating nightmares. • "I couldn't sleep last night," he says, walking through a narrow passage of stone and decay that bears no resemblance to what it really is: a pile of foam, Elmer's glue and sawdust. • "I still have so much to do."
It's a hot Saturday afternoon in late September. An anxious, sweat-soaked Meacham is prepping the final stage of his masterwork, the sixth annual Radley Haunted House, a major Halloween season event that drew more than 4,000 visitors to his nonspooky suburban northeast neighborhood last year.
This isn't your buddy's goofy haunt, with the Jell-O brains and cold-spaghetti guts. Meacham walks out of the cave into an ornately designed drawing room, where his story of cursed lovers from the 1880s begins.
He steps outside to show off the ominous Gothic facade, also carved out of foam, elaborate cathedral work that recently caught the eye of the creative head at Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights.
The Radley is Meacham's dream, his obsession, and not just come trick-or-treat time. Creating the house has become a year-round endeavor built in the small driveway of the ranch house he shares with his mother and father.
Sometimes his art imitates life a little too closely. Last October, his mom suffered a heart attack as he was building a faux funeral parlor in her front yard.
"Bad omen," he says.
But that didn't deter Meacham. Nothing does.
"I'm trying to create beautiful horror," says the 24-year-old.
"I want to change the game."
Halloween has become a $7 billion industry, and extreme gore is the currency. Busch Gardens and Universal Orlando invest millions in their viscera-intense seasonal spook shows, which draw hundreds of thousands of people. Director Eli Roth, of the Hostel "torture porn" flicks, just opened the multimillion-dollar year-round Goretorium in Las Vegas, a graphic maze on the Strip. It's a hit.
The Radley, which is more about playing with heads than chopping them off, will cost Meacham about $5,000 to put on: drywall and lumber from Lowe's, pieces plucked from antique stores, random goodies from the trash. He just paid $100 for 30 big sheets of foam. That's a lot of stuff, but his neighbors have been supportive, even setting up in the park across the street for a sort of terror tailgate.
Instead of a large crew, Meacham, who works full-time in the scenic department at HSN keeping track of inventory, hammered together his dream house, with several different scenes including an intense finale in a "throne room." He had just one regular helper, Jaisen Crockett, a graphic designer who has worked on big haunted houses in New York.
Blending ghoulish elements from Edgar Allan Poe and Guillermo del Toro's film Pan's Labyrinth, this year's Radley Haunted House features young couple William and Scarlett, who discover a portal in their drawing room wall. His "scare-acters," dressed in vintage clothing, will be placed throughout the haunt, not just to freak people out but, even more important to Meacham, to drive the plot.
"I like to stick to anything before 1950," says Meacham, who stands 6-feet-3 and looks more like an Abercrombie model than Tim Burton Jr. "I'm not into clowns, chain saws, gore. I want to keep it scary. The best job in the world is scaring people. But I want it to be interesting, too."
A short film explaining the Radley history, all shot on a muggy weekend with pals who are doing this for free, will be shown to people in the queue. Thanks to his burbling reputation — he starts from scratch, story and construction, every time — Cody is expecting double last year's attendance when crowds start showing up Friday.
Admission is $4 per person, the first time he's asking for anything other than a donation. Another first? He will also accept credit cards.
• • •
Kids, by definition, have little control over the universe, and yet at an early age Cody Meacham discovered an innate talent that allowed him, if only for a few minutes, to somehow control everything, including that most precious commodity: human emotion. It was a rush, an adrenaline high. He was a puckish puppetmaster with some seriously freaky puppets.
In his teens, before he was ready for full-tilt haunted houses, he experimented with lighting and mirrors, sinister sleight of hand he picked up from repeat trips to Universal and Disney, theme parks that make massive crowd manipulation not just palatable but fun. "The Haunted Mansion was the inspiration," he says. "I decided to become my own Imagineer."
He lured Halloween innocents to his parents' windows, where he'd set up shocks: a figure in the corner that, with a strobe effect, was suddenly in your face. He owned them as soon as they got close.
"People were freaking out," he slyly smirks. "I liked that."
One year, he dressed his sister Sommer as a murderous bride with red eyes and a visibly beating heart. "Cody is all about the psychological fear," she says.
But as his talents grew — including a penchant for design and set-building — so did his desire for more power. In 2007, he debuted his first "walk-through."
The story: Beatrice Radley was a flower freak who fell in love with her greenhouse. When her husband wanted to move — well, Bea found a new way to make topsoil. The house was rudimentary compared with this year's, but a mirror effect was almost too scary: It appeared that a creepy little girl was down a long hall; in fact, the demon child was standing right next to you.
"The first year you learn that if you scare a person into a corner, they're going to get stuck," he says. "So you learn to scare them in the right direction."
Frank Strunk III, a metal artist in town and a huge haunted house fan, first checked out the Radley last year.
"I was utterly freakin' blown away," says Strunk. "The attention to detail, the cinematic qualities — it wasn't even haunted house-y! It was like you were in a movie. The only real comparison is the theme parks, but they're all just jumpy stuff. Cody is tuned into your head, pulling you from room to room."
After going through the haunt — the almost-doomed funeral home — Strunk begged Meacham to let him help with the next one. So for this year's Radley, the metal artist donated "quasi-ornate metal gates."
"I was happy to do it," says Strunk. "That guy is a visionary."
• • •
"I thought the house would be a one-time deal," says Cody's father, Wayne Meacham, who works at the Tampa Bay Times’ printing plant and taught his son about woodworking. "Then the one-time deal got bigger and bigger."
His relationship with his parents can fray nerves, especially this time of year. He says the Radley "is the biggest reason I still live at home" — free rent, plus somewhere to build — but he'd like to move relatively soon. His mom and pop would probably not object.
"Last night, I went to the grocery store," says his mother, Debbie Meacham, who recovered from her heart attack and now has full strength to roll her eyes at her son's front-yard monstrosity. "I had to make my way through the dark, through all those rooms in the haunted house, with my groceries! I thought, if that thing weren't there, it would be so easy to get inside."
Much to his mother's delight, Cody's dream — his only dream really — is to have a large space in which to build the Radley, maybe an empty storefront downtown, maybe with the help of investors, so he could finally unleash his full twisted vision.
"Indoors would be nice," he says the day after rain has made his sacrificial altar very soggy.
• • •
A few years back, Cody Meacham met Mike Aiello, a genial show director and writer for Universal Orlando. One of the resort's biggest, and busiest, stars during Halloween Horror Nights, Aiello has never been able to make it out to the Radley. Still, he has seen enough videos to know that Meacham is a unique talent — even though he has no formal training, no college degree.
"He's an amazing artist," says Aiello. "What he does with limited time and funding is so impressive. He's able to take some very terrifying themes and make them gorgeous. Some designers go to school for this sort of thing; some just do it."
Aiello could even see Meacham fitting in at Universal: "We're always looking for new people to bring in. He's very cerebral."
A dastardly dream gig, right? Designing major scares at one of the biggest theme parks on the planet? The money, the prestige — not to mention workspace bigger than your parents' driveway?
When asked what he'd do with such a job offer, Meacham shrugs his shoulders with mild apology. "But my house," he says quietly.
And with that, the master of the Radley gets back to the work. After all, there are people to terrify and nightmares to fulfill.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.