Fog lingers near a twisted maze of haunted rooms. A chain saw revs. Lights flash and monsters emerge, chasing petrified prey through the night. • While this could easily be a scene from an amusement park, it's actually a free haunted house that pops up annually at the South Fork home of artist Damon Wilde. Its owners call it the Boneyard.
An estimated 300 people passed through last Halloween. This year, the house is open Saturday and Sunday night to accommodate crowds.
"It's like a mini Howl-O-Scream right here in South Fork," neighbor Loraine Marino said. "When I went last year, I couldn't believe what I saw. It's amazing."
The Boneyard started in 2005 when Wilde, a graphic designer, and wife, Eva, turned their garage into a haunted house. It went so well they decided to do it again, move it to the back yard and make it bigger.
Neighbors welcomed the fun.
"It gets scarier every year, and it's become really popular," Adrianna Romero, 14, said. "Me and my friends met up there last Halloween, and I went through it like five times."
Damon Wilde studied art at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he made a haunted house for his fraternity and got hooked. He now helps design sets for Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens. He said the Boneyard is unusual because it is a tribute to old-school horror.
"I like to create an immersive environment, something that's scary and out of the ordinary," Wilde said. "What I do isn't too gory. It's different."
Wilde handcrafts props using wood, plastic foam, paint and other inexpensive materials. He has created detailed tombstones, life-size statues, rotting corpses and skeletal remains. He also revamps store-bought items. He has a cast of moving animatronic characters and begins set up two to three weeks before opening night. He is unsure how much everything has cost over the years, but knows it has added up.
"Our cars haven't been in the garage for a few years because that's where we store everything," Eva Wilde said. "It's worth it though, when you see it all put together. I'm always really proud of what my husband has created."
Eva, a kindergarten teacher at Ruskin Elementary, is a tour guide at the haunted house. Fellow teachers also help out. Some lead the way for nervous trick-or-treaters. Others dress up as scare actors.
Kingswood Elementary teacher Jennifer Channel travels from Carrollwood to participate.
"I haven't decided what I'm going to dress up as this year," Channel said. "One year I was a witch. Last year, I was a zombie."
The Wildes' neighbor, Heather Longjohn, also plays a costumed character.
"I love scaring the grown men and the teenage boys who think they are too cool to get scared," she said. "Every year, it's the older kids that go running and screaming out of the house."
Wilde said scare actors bring the Boneyard to life. He owns about a dozen high-quality costumes and lets volunteers borrow from the pile. Of course, he gets first pick. His favorite is the 8-foot-tall pumpkin king.
"It's like a big puppet," he said.
While the Boneyard is open to all ages, an adult must accompany children under 13. Wilde uses intense special effects, such as strobe lights. He also passes out glow bands for the brave little ones to wear.
"So the actors go easy on them," he said.
Julian Jaramillo, 8, made his first trip through the Boneyard at age 5.
"My favorite part is when the guy with the chain saw comes out and the witch that stands by the door making potions," he said.
Each year, Wilde grows more excited. If the exhibit outgrows his property, he plans to look for a donated space and make it into a charity event. Until then, he welcomes everyone for free.
"It's great because a lot of kids can't afford to go to theme park events and would never get to see something like this if it wasn't free of charge," said Marino, who lives next door.
The Wildes' 2-year-old daughter, Claire, is already showing an interest in Halloween. She has nicknames for some of her daddy's creatures and does not scare easily. Wilde looks forward to her first walk through the Boneyard.
Last year, she slept through the sound of a chain saw outside her bedroom window.
"We like being known as the Halloween family," Wilde said.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]