“His head kept moving around, so I stuck a turkey baster in his neck.”
Diary entry of a serial killer?
Nope, just Turlock resident Stephanie Valgos talking about the skeleton groom that stands with his corpse bride in her front yard. The baster-in-the-neck bit is just one of many tricks Valgos uses to keep her home looking good and scary for Halloween. “Me and my glue gun are pretty good friends,” she said.
In a neighborhood with several home exteriors fully decorated for Halloween, Valgos’ stands out. Half the driveway is a black tent, filled almost bursting to the seams with lighted, animated displays – a witches coven here, a ghost pirate crew there, a pile of half-buried remains, an evil clown’s carnival of horror. There are skeleton fountains that ooze blood, a life-size undead cowboy and much more.
The yard is laid out for a Halloween walk-through: Visitors start at the tent, make their way up the walk to the porch and then exit a lighted path through the lawn’s graveyard.
This isn’t the product of a shopping spree at a Spirit Halloween store or Party City. Valgos, 40, prides herself on finding good buys wherever they lurk, and points to sections fully decorated with purchases from dollar stores.
And her personal touch is everywhere. “Those were the first things I got,” she said, pointing to her bride and groom skeletons. “At Safeway, of all places.” Of course, they weren’t a bride and groom then. One of the skeletons was green and had to be painted. She dressed both of them.
On a tent wall hangs a twisted Twister game. The plastic mat is adorned with bits and pieces of burned fashion dolls – arms and legs here, torsos there, disembodied heads all together in a circle.
Suspended on the front porch is another of her customized creations, a big – what is it? – a skeleton, with angel wings, but with a red wig and devil horns.
Valgos, a single mother of a 9-year-old daughter, Paris-Noel (she was born Christmas Day), has been at this for seven years. “I start Oct. 1 and work on it most every day. It takes 20, 25 days,” she said.
And while the display looks flawless, Valgos said that what no one but she can see is how many things – like the groom – are jerry-rigged to stay together.
As she tinkered with this and that in her yard one morning last week, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” played softly from a hidden speaker. Looking down Merchant Lane at a neighbor’s home also impressively done up, she said, “It’s fun. I feel like our street is the Christmas Tree Lane of Halloween.” Every other year, there’s a big Halloween block party, with each participating home offering an attraction or game, like lawn bowling. “We have a very active street. I’m lucky.”
Not that her home isn’t a party all on its own. And this year, she’s welcoming trick-or-treaters for two days: Wednesday and Thursday. She and her helpers – cousin Marta Dias is her right hand from setup to tear-down – will have two cotton-candy machines going to send children on their way, munching happily.
She gets a line 30 deep of youngsters and adults waiting to walk through. “It’s awesome. It gives me the chills,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself. “It’s like a huge show for four hours, five hours. It’s superexciting.”
That rush is what keeps her going through a very long day. On Halloween morning, she brushes a coat of liquid Tide detergent on almost everything. It’s a trick she learned to give everything a fluorescent glow under the black lights, but the work takes about five hours.
Come showtime, the extent of her costume is jeans and a Halloween T-shirt. She’s too busy to be a witch or what have you and mingle with visitors. “I’m the tech that night,” she said, constantly running around to make sure everything – lights, fog machines, the many animated characters – is working well.
Then, because she wants to be a good neighbor, the night ends with her and her helpers combing the neighborhood with trash bags to pick up the hundreds of paper cotton-candy cones that have been dropped on the ground.
A petite 4-foot-11, Valgos might not dress up to host Halloween, but she’s worn her share of costumes – once in front of a live audience of thousands. Asked if any particular piece of her display has special meaning, she points to a skull-headed creature in coveralls that are dirty and covered with plastic bugs, knives and more. Twelve years ago, when she was a Raiderette, the Raiders were playing the Dolphins on Halloween. The Raiderettes were doing a halftime performance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and each cheerleader was to come up with her own zombie costume. That’s hers. It was hanging in the garage for years until she incorporated it into her décor.
Those Raiderette days behind her, Valgos works three jobs these days: waitress, bartender and substitute teacher at Turlock High, her alma mater.
She doesn’t know how many more years she’ll keep up the huge Halloween display – all the ladder-climbing is torture on her sciatic nerve – but for now, she keeps working to make it bigger and better.
She likens it to a gardener always seeking to freshen and enhance her plot of soil. “When it’s your passion,” she said, “you’re never done.”