CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Théoden Janes/The Charlotte Observer) - Matthew Clark stands in the driveway of his Elizabeth home with his wife Kristen Johnson and neighbor Ladd Van Devender as dusk descends on East Fifth Street, his eyes scanning as yet another SUV weaves around the cars and garbage cans parked along the curb out front.
“I sometimes get nervous about people driving down the street while they’re staring at our house,” he says. “I’m afraid they’re gonna run into the cars.”
He points out that, earlier in the day, a passing motorist had turned into their driveway as he was doing some work outside, and the man apologized profusely but said he just had to get a closer look. Not even an hour ago, another visitor mentions, a vehicle clipped one of the trash cans with its bumper, perhaps while rubbernecking.
“Well, you know,” says the neighbor, Ladd Van Devender, with a laugh: “It’s not like you’re trying to be under the radar or anything.”
Once again, the big art-deco-ish house on this affluent block is on its way to getting all dressed up for Halloween, and it’s a serious head-turner, featuring (among other things, so far) a towering archway made of skulls, two large dragons mounted on top of the porch, a giant tunnel constructed on top of the front walkway, a massive pirate ship in the side yard, and a big band of singing pumpkins glowering through a rusted iron fence out front.
They call it Rosemont Manor, and it’s quite possibly the largest and most ambitious homemade haunted attraction in Charlotte, the centerpiece of a super-sized, one-night-only party in Elizabeth that takes nearly all year for Matthew and Kristen to plan and execute, is staged with help from an army of more than 40 volunteers, and shuts down the block — literally.
And the lines to get in?
“The lines,” laughs neighbor Tom Smith, who can see the house from his home on Kenmore Avenue, “are as bad as SCarowinds’.”
Kristen and Matthew can’t agree on which one of them is more to blame for creating this monster.
He says it’s her fault. She says it’s his.
What they can agree on, though, is that this whole thing was born out of a conversation they had not too long after they got married and moved onto the street eight years ago, about how much they enjoyed Halloween when they were growing up, and how there was always “that house” — the house with the owners who took their enthusiasm for the occasion to the next level.
So, one of them (Matthew concedes that it was probably him) suggested wrapping the porch in black plastic, and that lit the match.
Says Kristen: “This is how conversations go in the Johnson-Clark household: ‘You know, we should dot, dot, dot.’ Then the other one says, ‘Well, if we’re gonna do dot, dot, dot, then we also need to do dot, dot, dot.’ And it escalates,” she pauses for a beat, clapping her hands lightly together twice, “from there.”
In this case, it escalated that first year, in 2013, to a “porch haunt” featuring an assortment of creepy props and animatronics along with a soundtrack of scary music; they also set up screens in all their home’s front windows that played videos of zombies on loops.
Then it kept escalating...
By 2015, they had substantially upgraded the scale and the quality of their “haunt,” making Rosemont Manor (named for the historic Charlotte neighborhood upon which Elizabeth was built) practically a must-see attraction for anyone in the vicinity. As a result, Halloween foot traffic increased so noticeably that some neighbors voiced complaints about being forced to dash out to purchase extra candy to accommodate the influx of trick-or-treaters.
And it kept escalating...
In 2015, they obtained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which had two very different benefits:
One, they had started asking people who enjoyed Rosemont Manor to consider a donation to the Greater Charlotte SPCA (which supports Charlotte’s homeless-animal community, and for which Kristen serves as a board member), and this legitimized those efforts. Two, doing so helped them qualify to attend TransWorld’s Halloween & Attractions Show in March 2016 in St. Louis, where they could rub shoulders with folks representing haunted attractions hundreds of times their size — and, more importantly, find inspiration.
And it kept escalating...
In 2016, for the first time, they obtained a permit to close the entire block to vehicular traffic, and hired two off-duty Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers to help ensure everyone’s safety. They added themed tents that each offered a unique thrill or chill; a “swamp” featuring thick, waist-deep fog bathed in green floodlights; and a 30-foot-by-30-foot inflatable maze.
(An interesting side note: The event almost didn’t happen that year, because the family briefly relocated to New York City — returning to the neighborhood with just three weeks to spare. “We were all devastated,” remembers Elizabeth Schultz, who lives on the other side of Independence Park from the house but routinely walks her dog up and down Fifth. “I mean, when we first found out that they were thinking about moving, we were just like, ‘Noooo!’”)
And it keeps escalating...
They pretty much started thinking about this year’s event while they were breaking down sets and props last Nov. 1. They got new ideas — and ordered a towering, custom-made replica of a famous horror-movie character (no spoilers here) for their porch — in the spring at the TransWorld convention, which has become an annual thing for them.
In the summer, they drew up an eight-page master plan (detailing the four scare zones on their porch, the four themed tents in their driveway, and the other surprises scattered across the house’s facade, the yard, and the street) and a five-page playbook for the roughly 50 members of the cast and crew who’ll help out on Oct. 31 in a volunteer capacity.
“Then in early September we started building,” says Matthew Clark, “and since the beginning of October, it’s been on — every weekend, every evening, until I’m about to drop dead.”
As for the division of labor? He’s a master woodworker and a solid DIY electrician/IT guy, a problem-solver as handy with a 3D printer as he is with a hammer. She’s a cosplay devotee who is good with textiles and can sew just about anything, has a keen eye for design details, and is just generally bursting with creative energy — in addition to being an extreme extrovert who serves as something of a carnival barker at the foot of their property on Halloween night.
They typically take multiple days off from work in the run-up, including the entire week leading up to Halloween, and use a couple more vacation days after for clean-up.
Indeed, it’s easy to forget: This isn’t actually their job.
There was a rumor going around, apparently, that they both worked in the movie-magic business for Disney.
There’s also a fairly common notion among neighbors that they both have theater backgrounds.
The fact is, Matthew Clark (who is about to turn 50) has a computer science degree from UNC Charlotte and is an operations manager at Wells Fargo, while Kristen Johnson (who is in her “40s”) has a master’s and a Ph.D. from Northwestern in communication studies and quantitative statistics and is a global consultant for Amazon Web Services.
But, like most of us, they’re different people when they don’t have their work hats on.
They are both, Kristen says, “very passionate about geek topics and pop-culture topics” — and it shows in things like the pair of wooden, painted-white chairs that Matthew custom-made to resemble a Stormtrooper and an R2-D2 (normally on the front porch, now out back to make way for the Halloween stuff) ... and in the painstakingly re-created Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine they made out of an old 1965 Ford Econoline van (currently in storage, since it won’t fit in the large garage that doubles as a Halloween workshop) ... and in the monikers they’ve given to their massive collection of rescue animals, from the Greyhound they named The Khaleesi Daenerys Targaryen to the ball python they named Draco Malfoy.
There are scenarios in which behavior like this could make the couple the neighborhood nerds, and certain inhabitants of their very own household roll their eyes at the pair: Clark’s three children — 18-year-old Grace, 17-year-old Olivia and 14-year-old Jack — think that she and their dad are “the weirdest adults ever,” Kristen says, laughing.
But Rosemont Manor has, in fact, turned them into the coolest people on the block.
This past Monday evening, a woman who lives across the street walked by with her two dogs and mentioned to Kristen, “My sister actually texted me yesterday to ask about the progress. She’s like, ‘What’s goin’ on at the house now?’”
Silas Van Devender — Ladd Van Devender’s 8-year-old son, who lives just a couple of houses down — swings over virtually every day to pepper Matthew with questions and comments as he works, and has announced that he’s building a haunted path in his own yard that was inspired by Rosemont Manor.
Lynna Moen, who recently moved from Elizabeth to a home off of Scaleybark Road, says that when her new neighbors told her she’d probably only need to buy one bag of Halloween candy, she replied to them: “‘Uh, yeahhhh — we’re gonna be in Elizabeth for Halloween.’”
Another neighbor, Morgan Williams, sums it up like this:
“It’s really neat to see folks choosing to invest in their own neighborhood. It really is. And by the way, and all for nothing for themselves. Because anything they do raise goes to charity. So these people work for months out of the year to put something on for one night, just to give the money away. Where else do you see that?”
ABOUT ROSEMONT MANOR
Where: 2100 block of East Fifth Street (between Osborne and Ridgeway avenues).
Appropriate for: All ages, at parents’ discretion. There are strobe lights, so people who are susceptible to photosensitive epileptic seizures shouldn’t participate. While Matthew and Kristen are in favor of scares, they shy away from the types of gore that people would typically see at something like SCarowinds. All members of the cast and crew are at least 17 years old, and cast members are instructed to never touch the guests.
When: The haunt will open at 6:30 sharp on Halloween night, but the line will start forming quite awhile before that. Kristen says neighborhood kids like Silas often compete to be first in line. More than 1,000 people are expected. Fire performers and circus sideshow performers will entertain the line. There’s no set end time; when Matthew thinks they should cut it off, he’ll instruct a volunteer to stop letting people get into the line.
Cost: It’s free, although donations to the Greater Charlotte SPCA are welcomed after you’ve been through. You can grab a piece of candy at the donation table on the way out. (Speaking of candy, volunteers each bring a bag to donate, and Matthew will periodically bring reinforcements to neighbors overwhelmed by trick-or-treaters, addressing the complaint some neighbors had voiced a few years back.) Also, Matthew and Kristen bought a commercial Snow-Cone Maker and a commercial popcorn machine this year, and will sell scoops from both for $2 donations to the Greater Charlotte SPCA.