An Aliso Viejo family embodies community spirit and fun with their annual Halloween display.
The Stanleys’ front yard became national news in 2021. Probably because it was the only one with the pirate ship from Pirates of the Caribbean in it. Quite a way to celebrate Halloween, but it was also the kind of thing they’d been doing for years.
Aliso Viejo’s Mike Stanley has always loved Halloween. He loves “the imagery, the artwork,” and that “everyone has the fun communal spirit” of the holiday. And it led him into making Halloween more than a night to hand out candy.
Some super Halloween fans build what are called “home haunts,” or scary, themed mazes in the front yard. Others, like Stanley, focus on creating yard displays that even out-dazzle many home haunts. And Stanley Haus, as they call it, might be in a category all by itself.
It’s not just that the displays are elaborate, it’s that they often tell a story, and flow beyond the Stanleys’ own yard around their cul-de-sac, allowing the entire street to serve as a kind of theater.
“I’ve always been into Halloween, monsters, special FX, sci-fi and comic books since I was a little kid,” Stanley says. But bringing in his son, Wyatt, was how it all began. “I have three kids and I won over the third child. He’s all in.”
“Wyatt’s artistic skills reached a level where we could create some amazing works of art on the front lawn. He was 12,” Stanley says of his now adult son. “He had been experimenting with animatronics and we built a skeleton army battling gladiators from ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ with clips from the movie rear-projected, making it look like a three-dimensional battle.”
The two work in tandem toward each year’s display, but it’s a family affair he describes as “what life’s all about” because of the organizational help from wife and mom, Dawn.
The first run was a success and drove them to try and top themselves each fall, with themes from the customary to the fantastic.
“We would do traditional graveyards, but our tombstones looked real and the inspiration was from New Orleans, and our skeletons were medical-grade skeletons that we aged and made them look real. We also did a dragon battling a brigade of undead knights,” he says. “We did our version of the haunted house and hand-built an 1800s hearse we copied from an old black-and-white photo of a horse-drawn hearse. We had a horse pulling it with tall black feathers on its reigns and animatronics everywhere.”
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Typically, the father and son start their process in January, “to decompress and clear the brain,” he says. Once they agree on a theme, they start their research and choose what kinds of scenes to build.
“Then we contact the neighbors and tell them what we have planned and see if they are interested. If so, we give each house a list of materials to buy for their scene. Around July, my wife sends them a spreadsheet and we finalize where scenes are going. We begin construction in August, start installation in September, and shoot for an Oct. 1 premiere.”
In 2021, the Pirates of the Caribbean theme attracted the attention of ABC News, among many others, ultimately bringing thousands of visitors to the street during October, and helping the Stanleys and their neighbors raise money for a local U.S. Marine charity, which they are donating to again.
The members of the cul-de-sac were together on the project and visitors were mostly considerate. The key, Stanley says, is they’ve always been “inclusive and respectful. We got lucky and have really great neighbors. New families have moved in over the years and we win them over. Now they want in on the fun.”
The attention from last year paid off. Literally. Home Depot and Lowe’s have become sponsors for 2022’s Haunted Mansion theme.
“I love to see their mouths drop open and try to understand how we achieved everything,” he says of visitors. But he also hopes they find their own inspiration in Stanley Haus and create something special in their own neighborhoods. With or without a pirate ship.
By Shawn Price