It is a dark and stormy night — literally. Mark Gildersleeve is ankle-deep in ivy and fallen leaves in his natural mini-forest of a front yard, disconnecting a blinking black box hidden under a bush.
"It's been acting up," he says. The box is a fogger that pumps out a non-toxic water-based mist through the tombstones on Mark and wife Chauna's sloped property. A gauzy and faceless ghost with crooked arms strung on marionette strings bobs overhead, rising from the blackened headstones and back down again. The yard is full of gray-barked Sweetgum trees and sharp leafy bushes — perfect hiding spots for the blacklights that illuminate the ghost a translucent purple. Behind Mark and this makeshift cemetery is his two-story home, awash in flame. The house is burning, night after night, every year come October. The exterior of the cozy suburban home and yard become the Gildersleeves' artwork, a playground of invention and environment, where fantasy becomes a design reality.
Mark and Chauna live in a small neighborhood in South Charlotte. For the past eight years, they have spent the month of October creating an elaborate, ever-expanding Halloween yard just for the sheer joy of it. The decorated garden combines standard ghouls 'n' goblin fare with innovative twists. Mark smiles as he says: "All of this is an excuse to do weird things."
Woven through the trees are 200 feet of 10-foot tall plastic tarps that flank the house on both sides. Hidden lights on the ground cast a blood-red glow on the plastic tarps, giving it the look of a disjointed, flaming wall. The home itself shines a flickering orange, its windows boarded up as if it were abandoned to its fiery fate. Various human skeletons dot the peripheral vision, clinging to trees, grinning from the roof, digging their way up through the ground. An equally lit, detached garage is to the left of the house, and the window above the garage doors is full of moving flames.
"Design is innovation," Mark says. "Look at what's been done and make it better. Make it your own."
This motto is why an initial store-bought $300 fire effect was scrapped in favor of a $2 version of Mark's own creation. Shredded trash bags blown by a fan in front of a fluorescent light create the dancing "flames" of the house fire. The window above the garage is a simple trick of light and a moving sheet; an idea he adapted from a scene in Disney World's "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride.
The faux-iron gates to the driveway are wide open. Towering pillars covered in cotton cobwebs and braced by skeletal guards frame the sloped drive. Funeral urns looped with green snakes and stately ravens top the looming entrance. In the dark chill of the early night, their outline can barely be seen against the red glow of the house. A large sign faces the sparse passing traffic on the quiet dead-end street: Dead and Breakfast at 13911. No Vacancy.
"We do our regular jobs in an expected environment," Mark says, ever moving to tinker with a light or arrange the creatures in the yard. "You don't expect it — this bizarre display — in a residential neighborhood." The husband and wife owners of Gildersleeve Creative say they are both drawn to experimental design and letting the work decide what it wants to be. Clients set parameters and canvas sets boundaries. In this, their Halloween home, Mark and Chauna are the directors, the inventors and the artists.
Make no mistake, this is no haunted house or corn maze. Don't drive by the Dead and Breakfast house expecting to do anything, no more than you would do something standing in front of a painting in a museum. The experience is inward, visual, and up to the interpretation of the viewer. This is a subtle Hitchcock and not a slasher Hostel. There are no blood and guts, no cheap trick ketchup stains or bowls of grapes for eyeballs. The scares come from the viewers' own imagination, the most frightening place of all.
"The thing I love to do is to change the way people see their environment," Mark states as the rain heightens the shadows of the night, the dark movements in the bush either tricks of light or otherworldly beings. Halloween, art, creativity in general: These are the things that stir the blood and make us remember the width and breath of the world around us.
"As I get older, I realize that there is kind of a repetition in life and things get kinda mundane as you go through," he continues. "The seasons, the changing of the seasons –—the Halloween and Christmas seasons — those are the things that are an outlet, the things people embrace to break up the monotony of the year. People genuinely look forward to this."