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Yards Full of Skulls and Bones and Long Fingered Ghosties

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Story by Lee Rennick | Photos by Erin Kosko, Lee Rennick, Michael Barbieri and Chanda Lanier

October is my time of year. I love watching the scarlet, orange and yellow leaves flutter from their branches in a snappy gust, caught by the sunlight in that one glittering moment before they land on the faded, dry grass. I love the cooling breeze, with that slight scent of rot and wood smoke. I love how clear the air is, and the way it makes every muted hue of fall shine for one last time before it all crumples into the dust of winter. 

It is also the time of Halloween. So, imagine my excitement when I was asked to write a story about Halloween external home décor. My cohort in writing this @HOME section, photographer Erin Kosko, was equally excited, and with a little help from our friends, off we went to explore how the residents of Rutherford County chose to express their love of All Hallows Eve. 

A (Very) Short Tale of Halloween

Before I share the sweet, fun and creepy Halloween décor we found festooned across many homes in the area, let me first write a little about what the holiday represents. You see, it all started when mankind began growing crops after being hunters and gatherers for quite some time. Humans became aware of the cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth. It was then that people created a harvest festival marking the change between the period of crop growth and decay.

The harvest festival most well-known is Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced Saw-ween, which is where Halloween comes from). It is said to have been celebrated by the ancient Celts, which were a pagan people who lived in what is now the United Kingdom, parts of modern-day France and parts of Spain. It falls half way between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. It is a time believed to be when the veil between this world and the next is the thinnest. Many cultures around the world see it as the best moment to honor not only crops, but also the dead, especially dead relatives. 

October 31 became All Hallows Eve under Pope Gregory IV, when he named November 1 All Saints Day. He moved it from May 13, which is where Pope Boniface placed it a century before. It is thought the move was an effort on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church to offset the pagan holiday, which was still celebrated by many of their flock along with Christianity. 
Over time the rituals of both the pagan Celts and the Roman Catholic Church blended into many of the activities we associate with Halloween today -- including carving pumpkins, dressing in costumes, trick-or-treating, bobbing for apples and decorating our homes to scare off evil spirits and things that go bump in the night. Celebration of the holiday took off in the middle 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. 

The Decorating of Halloween Homes

In the beginning, decorating the home for Samhain or All Hallows Eve meant placing scary items on the outside to keep the dark shadows and long-legged beasties away. Carving pumpkins with creepy faces was begun to scare away these evil forces. 

It wasn’t until the 1950s that Halloween became more kid-friendly. “In 1958, Mamie Eisenhower decorated the White House for Halloween for the first time, giving Halloween decorations a sort of national seal of approval,” according to
The National Retail Federation's annual Halloween Consumer Survey showed that spending in 2022 reach a record $10.6 billion, exceeding 2021’s record of $10.1 billion. This year’s spending is expected to rise once again. 

Today, Halloween decorations can be funny or scary, sweet or fashionable. Erin and I found a wide assortment of each. From a minimalistic “Boo” stained glass window placed in a home with a long history of hauntings, to a mid-century modern gathering of witches on a front stoop, to two homes that filled their yards with a cast of skeletal characters right out of Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

Tales from the Home Decorators

Catching “Monster Mash” by Bobby Pickett on the radio, Erin and I set off into the night (and day) to scare up some of the most chill yard décor in the county. With help from a few of our friends, we scoped out examples of all types of themes, but skeletons were the biggest hit. Skeletons were found towering over yards, having a meal, being cooked in a stew and continuing to enjoy a pirate’s life even after a hundred years of being dead in not one, but two yards. I felt sure I heard the haunting strains of “that” Disney song by Xavier Atencio echoing from their long dead mouths…

“Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.
We pillage plunder, we rifle and loot.
Stand up me hearties, yo ho.
We kidnap and ravage and don't give a hoot.
Stand up me hearties, yo ho.
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me…”

“We do tend to go all out every year,” said Michael Barbieri of his pirate themed yard extravaganza. “We’ve done pirates for the last two years, but we’ve also done other themes in the past, like a graveyard. The pirate idea came from the whole family. We have three kids and on a family trip to Gatlinburg we went to a pirate dinner show and everyone loved it. From there we just started brainstorming ideas. My son Jack, who is now 17, is my biggest helper. We typically spend a few weeks building props but we can get everything put up on the house in just a day or two.”

While the Barbieri family goes all out, there are some who take a more simplistic approach. Michael Graves said that his sense of decorating is a bit more minimalist. He always believes in making a few large statement pieces rather than small little trinkets. “I don't really like clutter and I think large pieces have a bigger impact and ‘WOW’ factor.”

One thing Graves does believe in is making his decorative items. The "BOO" and "bats" that hang in the windows of his Victorian home he handmade out of stained glass about 15 years ago. “We back-light them at night with indoor flood lights to illuminate them,” explained Graves. “I didn't decorate on the interior this year very much, but I normally have a four foot by four foot Ouija Board that I handmade that hangs in the living room above the piano. We also have skeletons and such that sit around the house at the piano, etc.”

Graves doesn’t need a lot of Halloween décor, as his house has its own spirits. It is haunted!

“We jokingly call our ghost ‘Bertha’ after a resident that lived in our house in the early 1900s,” said Graves. “For the first 15 years that we lived in our house, our antique 1900 candlestick phone would ring every single night at 8:39pm. It was a fun party trick for guests to see/hear because she NEVER failed to call!” 

Regina Kroll loves Halloween. She especially loves decorating for her neighborhood to enjoy. She has a very Mid-Century Modern home and she has created a look in her front entry that fits nicely with the style of the home. 

“My Halloween decorations started years ago with just a cemetery, cardboard coffin and spiders,” explained Kroll. “It has evolved into black and grey décor... I try to change it up a bit and add a little something each year. The wooden moon and skeleton cutouts were purchased in Bell Buckle several years ago. The witches are all dressed in my clothing. The witch with the scary cat is put together on a vintage dress form and the other witch/skeleton is mounted to a mid-century outdoor chair. The tombstones have been around for about 20 years. The wooden wreaths on the doors have a vintage Halloween theme. I tend to use things I already have and repurpose them into decorations, such as my clothing, dress form and ribbons.”

Not everyone goes all out. Some of the decorations we found were very simple, but sweet. Rae Boutte and her sons do their decorating as a family event, just like the Barbieris. 

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