As the cool breezes of October come blowing our way again, one Woodbury resident and his two sons are already making plans to be the silliest, spookiest front yard in their neighborhood.
They’re preparing their costumes, figuring out how to power fog machines and video projectors, and deciding exactly how they’re going to carve their signature flaming pumpkin. And somewhere, a certain ‘80s movie character inflatable is being withdrawn from storage.
It’s John Soma’s sixth year as the Halloween Dad in the Bailey’s Arbor/Stonemill Farms neighborhood. He’s taken on that mantle for his sons, Jackson, 9, and Brody, 10. “I always try to tell the kids you should get into the spirit of things,” Soma says.
Soma’s Halloween displays have spirit to spare.
However, he hasn’t always gone all-out for the holiday. He started stepping up his Christmas decorations around 10 years ago as a result of a strange white elephant gift.
“One of my college buddies gave me an inflatable Santa,” Soma remembers. “He didn't think I'd put it in my yard… It started getting Clark Griswold-esque probably eight or nine years ago,” he says, referring to Chevy Chase’s iconic Christmas-crazed character from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
From there, his passion for lawn decoration carried over to Halloween, and into other holidays as well. There’s already an inflatable turkey in his collection for next month.
His collection is growing. “About a quarter of the garage is about 20 bins of inflatables, electronics, props and other things for the two seasons,” he says.
Last year, Soma had a sprawling display including a fog machine, a fully-featured graveyard filled with skeletons, spiders, vampires and, bizarrely, an eight-foot-tall inflatable Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, of Ghostbusters fame.
In 2015, Soma and his sons were at Lowes shopping for Halloween, when he spotted the Marshmallow Man in the entryway. “Oh my gosh, we need that for the kids,” Soma says. “It was basically my own childhood dream coming to fruition.”
That year, Soma passed down one of his favorite films to his sons. “That became the theme of the year,” he says. One dressed up as a Ghostbuster that year, Proton Pack and all, and the other became the grinning Marshmallow Man. The giant inflatable has made an appearance in their Halloween scene every year since.
Another staple of the Somas’ display is a real flaming pumpkin. The boys found a video on YouTube on how to make it and even change the color of the fire. “I’m amazed at the stuff they can find,” Soma says. “It’s our kickoff to the night when we light that thing up.”
His collection comes from all over, from Home Depot, online stores and those Spirit Halloween stores that pop up for only a few weeks.
“The one place that we do go to get some fancy stuff is the Twin Cities Magic & Costume store off Robert Street in West St. Paul,” Soma says. “That guy knows us, because we go for the extreme stuff over there.”
Once October hits, they start making a plan. Reviewing the previous year’s design, Soma asks his sons, “What do I do differently? Anything the same? And where do you guys want the graveyard?”
Once they have brainstormed the layout, Soma has to figure out how to connect it all together. He carefully plans out where to lay the extension cords, where to use splitters and how to keep it all from falling apart when he turns it on.
The flashiest features are two LCD projectors displaying spooky animated scenes. The boys pick out Halloween DVDs from stores or online. Soma uses a sheet over his garage door and the upstairs of his house as backdrops for dancing skeletons and witches at work, complete with sound effects.
He says he’s never blown any fuses with his Halloween setups. “I’ve been lucky enough to get by,” Soma says. “Christmas, I’ve blown a fuse a couple times, but that’s part of the mapping now.” He recommends being extra careful to distribute power loads across the whole property.
With their ever-expanding prop collection, Soma and his boys needed some extra hands. “This last year, some neighborhood kids came out, and they made it kind of a neighborhood event,” he says. Years ago, Soma would do all the work himself. With his kids and the neighbors helping now, his last setup crew was eight kids and himself.
“And the price was right. I think it cost me some freeze pops,” Soma says with a laugh.
With the display and the setup event getting larger, Soma makes sure to stay respectful of his neighbors. “When I first moved into this new neighborhood, I gave a heads-up warning, and they were all fine with it,” he says.
Soma makes a point of taking down the larger props within a day after Halloween, and gets everything cleaned up within a week.
As the kids are getting older, Soma is letting them have more control over the Halloween festivities. Jackson, the youngest, wants to make the display more frightening.
“He wants it to be the scariest house around, with all the magical effects...” Soma says, “which I kind of temper because there’s younger kids in the neighborhood still.” However, this year might feature more of the ghoulish and grisly and less of the silly, he says, but nothing too terrifying.
Brody, the eldest, enjoys playing the showman. “The last couple of years he’s been the guy who wants to get done quickly and pass out candy,” Soma says, “so he can see the reaction if people come to the door, or hear people talk about it, or take pictures of it.”
Soma realizes that the window of opportunity for extreme Halloweens might be shrinking “before those middle school, high school years where it's not 'cool’ anymore to get involved.” Still, he hopes he’s instilled a love of the holiday in his sons. “Even if they take a break for a few years I hope when they have their own family, they do similar stuff,” he says.
For now, though, the Halloween Dad is hard at work planning on his biggest, most high-tech Halloween display yet. “I think we're probably leaning to some more effects,” he says. “We're going to hopefully try some new things, possibly with lasers.”
Trick-or-treaters might have a more ghoulish experience this year, involving skeletons, zombies, and “more things that would be bigger and scarier than just the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man,” Soma says.
What began as a joke gift a decade ago has evolved into a passion for holiday flair. Soma has tried to instill that passion in his sons as best he can.
The whole neighborhood has been inspired to help make the holiday bigger and better. “Other neighbors have kind of upped their game, if you will,” Soma says.
The best part of Halloween for Soma and his sons is helping other people get into the spirit of the holiday. “My favorite thing is always when I'm walking back by the house…” he says, “and I'll see them stop and take pictures. I feel like I'm helping the neighborhood, and the community too, when it makes a special moment for other families.”