Last Halloween, something unusual stood out from the small groups of trick-or-treaters wandering Tacoma’s placid North End neighborhood. Near the corner of North 21st and Warner streets, a dozen people gathered outside a gray house extravagantly decorated with skulls, spiders, crows and ghost projections. Kids waited 10 minutes or more to be ushered through the front graveyard. Finally a line began to form down the sidewalk.
The attraction was what locals call the Haunted Dojo, home to a family that’s been creating a stage-worthy haunted house for 34 years now — and this year it promises to be bigger and spookier than ever.
“OK, you take these,” says John Smith, handing his daughter Lexi a pile of bones. It’s a mid-October Saturday, and the Smiths are already well into staging the haunted house that’s notorious around the neighborhood for a walk-through, interactive experience that’s been known to scare even grown-ups. Smith, his wife Jeanette, Lexi and even their two resident exchange students all help with a set-up that takes an entire month and culminates in a four-hour haunted house manned by about 15 friends and family. It takes hours of planning, yearly props shopping and around $100 in candy.
Last year we had over 100 people. We had to improvise a gatekeeper to do tours. People were lining up down the sidewalk.
John Smith, owner of Tacoma’s Haunted Dojo
But the Smiths have been doing it for their whole 34-year marriage, in various houses, because it’s fun.
“I grew up on the East Coast, and out there Halloween is a big deal,” explains Jeanette, dusting off some latex masks. “I’d go out, come back and change costumes, go out again, sometimes five times in one night.”
“I used to do that too,” interjects Lexi, who’s now 21 and grew up with the whole concept.
With most houses, you trick or treat. At the Haunted Dojo, you’re the one walking into the tricks. The experience starts in the front “graveyard,” where lifelike crows rest on the shrubbery, a giant spider roosts atop a Japanese maple tree, and blueberry bushes alternate with tombstones and skulls on poles. Escorted by a hooded skeleton, you shuffle down the gravel path at the side of the house, past a window with moving ghostly images and life-size monster props. Only along the way, some of the Smiths’ friends are dressed exactly like those props. What you think is another plastic ghoul suddenly leers over you; the third ghostly mannequin reaches out toward your candy bag.
15 Pounds of candy given out each year at the Haunted Dojo
“We have a few rules: No chasing or touching,” clarifies John.
Even so, it’s pretty spooky. In the back yard is the dojo — actually a karate studio (John teaches privately) — with a smoke-spewing skeleton out front and lots of smaller skeletons in karate outfits draped over trees and patio furniture. Cobwebs and fog abound.
“On a good night, we can cause an actual fog bank over the neighborhood,” Jeanette said with glee.
Then, if you’re brave enough, you enter the dojo. Each year has a different theme. Last year, Jeanette (who’s a tarot card reader) was dressed as a gypsy, telling fortunes to wide-eyed visitors. Other years have seen Asian themes, which fit the Smiths’ overall Japanese-influenced decor.
This year’s theme is a “Monsters’ Banquet,” and the family’s planning a secret surprise for inside the dojo. They also have a brand-new projection in the front window, and some new ghouls, along with veterans like Bruno and Brutus, the snarling winged dogs that guard the front veranda. And then there are some added details like the real live crows, which the Smiths feed a few days before Halloween to entice them into the act.
Kids get penny candy in the front yard, but if they make it all the way through they earn a big candy bar — and a final scare exiting out the back gate into the alley.
“We take pride in how many people drop their candy and run,” says John. “One kid even dropped his mask once. We found it the next day.”
A few things the Smiths don’t do: blood and gore, animations, extreme violence or anything “too campy.” They also don’t do make-up, instead asking participating friends to just show up in black clothes and pick a mask and costume from their themed sets.
They also don’t stay open past 9 p.m.
“People ask if they can just walk through after that, but we say no,” says Jeanette. “Because it’s about how they interact with what we put out. You have to pass through. We play on people’s fears.”
The Smith family begin setting up the Haunted Dojo in early October. They take it down Nov. 1.
As a trick-or-treat experience, it’s famous around the North End.
“Oh, we love the Haunted Dojo,” exclaimed Kim Bardwil on Facebook, immediately recognizing a photo posted for this story. “We can’t think of trick-or-treating without making a stop there. It’s the highlight of our kids’ evening ... maybe even more so than the candy itself.”
Ironically, the Smiths didn’t realize that was the name folks gave — but they like it.
“That’s a good one. We’ll call it that from now on,” John said smiling.
There are other extreme haunted houses around Tacoma (see the accompanying box), and the Smiths are just part of a national hobby called haunting, fueled by numerous YouTube videos and Pinterest boards and documented by films like “Haunted: The Movie” and “American Scream.” Serious haunters spend big money on big items (think actual coffins) and storage units for them, plus effects like perforated PVC piping systems for their fog machines.
The Smiths aren’t that intense — they just like to have fun.
“It’s an expression of our youth,” Jeanette said. “We did it with our kids, with our nieces and nephews. We’ve got a really cool house and cool yard, and we’re creative people.”
THE HAUNTED DOJO
Where: 3317 N. 21st St., Tacoma.
When: 5-9 p.m. Saturday.
Tips: Be prepared to wait in line, it’s popular. It’s perhaps a bit scary for very small children. Enter through the front yard, exit into the back alley. Parents who don’t go through with kids might like to go around and meet them there.
FIRCREST HAUNTED HOUSE
Where: 909 Manor Drive, Fircrest.
Who: Robert Thompson and family.
When: Dusk-11 p.m. Friday (Oct. 30) and Saturday.
Cost: Donations taken for Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Tips: Parking recommended in Whittier Elementary lot, 777 Elm Tree Lane. A nearby haunted house to check out is at 202 Ramsdell St., Fircrest.
Robert Thompson has being doing Halloween decorations ever since he was a little kid thrilled by the fake monkey at Tacoma’s B&I shopping center. When he got his own house he really went wild. Now, the Fircrest postal worker runs a haunted house experience that takes in the yard and his entire three-car garage, accepting donations for the Seattle Children’s Hospital where he and his wife lost a baby son in 2007.
“I don’t do this for the money, though,” says Thompson. “I do it for the community, for a place for kids to go and have fun.”
Being a licensed electrician and skilled DIY guy, Thompson has an advantage in the haunted house department. He’s built coffins, ziplines for ghosts to fly on and a complete light-and-sound-effects system in the garage. There are boatloads of skeletons, “massive amounts” of pumpkins, and inflatables from spiders to Scooby Doo. Inside the garage (the entire bottom floor of his house) he’s built a floating, vibrating floor that comes with a wind machine. An aspiring DJ, he also adds a soundtrack of hip-hop and dance music. While most of the set-up is automatic, he ropes in his brother, wife and friends to help.
“I just like creating fun entertainment that’s safe for families,” he says. “Scares are great, but I don’t like seeing kids crying. So it’s less about gore than the lighting and sound.”
HOW TO HAUNT
Want to decorate your own Haunted House? Take some tips from veteran Tacoma haunters the Smith family.
▪ Decide on a theme to tie the whole thing together. Ask friends and family to help. Use masks — make-up takes too much time. Feed people first: Haunting is exhausting. Ask them to bring a one-pound bag of candy each.
▪ Have one-way flow to avoid traffic back-ups.
▪ Save putting out expensive or rare decorations until the last minute, to avoid tempting thieves.
▪ Leave your fall yard clean-up until after Halloween — free spiderwebs.
▪ Interactive is scary. But don’t chase or touch people.
▪ Experiment with projections onto netting or fabric. The Smiths use a special effects DVD called AtmosFEARfx. But avoid animated props — the batteries wear out quickly.