According to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau population and housing unit estimates, the Village of Romeo boasts around 3,600 living souls — until October comes around, that is.
Then, tens of thousands of thrill seekers descend on one particularly scary location in the tiny northern Macomb County hamlet: the annual “Terror on Tillson” Halloween extravaganza.
Extravaganza is not an exaggeration.
Each October, residents of Tillson Street deck out their homes in elaborate Halloween décor. It’s exploded into one of Romeo’s largest annual events, even rivaling the annual Armada Fair held nearby that’s been packing them in for more than 140 years.
But it started quite small.
Nearly 40 years ago, Vicki Lee moved to Tillson Street. When her children were young, she started decorating the house — and not with just a pumpkin or two.
“It was an older neighborhood,” she says. But as younger couples started moving in, “it sort of evolved. It was gradual.”
Soon, nearly the entire block of some 30 homes were on board, and they began setting up increasingly complex displays.
Things really got going, even after Lee’s children, Mike and David, grew up. Instead of trick-or-treating, the boys began to help patrol the streets to deter candy thieves — and keep a watch on the neighborhood as spectator traffic started to grow. They called their group “Bulldog Security” named after the Romeo High School mascot.
More recently, Mike became a coach for the Bulldogs and has recruited his players to help out.
And that sums up Tillson Street’s volunteer spirit. Residents receive no sponsorships or tax breaks and pay for all decorations and candy out of their own pockets. Donations are always welcome and appreciated, of course.
According to a website run by Lee’s daughter-in-law, there are no real rules (and no, when a home turns over on Tillson, potential buyers are not required to sign any agreements).
Terror on Tillson has also become a charitable fundraiser, carrying on a legacy started by Lee’s late husband, William “Buzz” Lee. The lifelong resident of Romeo had started the scholarship fund through a golf outing to help students go to vocational schools. The fund has given out over $80,000 since he died in 2002 from a brain tumor.
Vicki Lee, who used to do freelance acrylic paintings, started designing and selling T-shirts to the “tourists” in 2006. All the money goes to the fund. It started out small, maybe a few hundred printed up. Last year, she ordered more than 1,000 T-shirts. They sold out.
This year, Lee says, “the plan is something to do with bats.” They also sell a cookbook.
The displays evolve year to year. “Mine is a football graveyard,” Lee says. Another neighbor does an OK Corral.
One of Lee’s favorites is “Sparky,” a poor soul sitting in an electric chair. Usually, she says, he’s wearing a U-M jersey (Tillson Street is mostly populated by Michigan State fans, you see).
How popular is Terror on Tillson?
“We’ve had people from all over — from Germany, China, and Japan,” Lee says, adding that one of the neighbors is an engineer and tried to count the October visitors. His best guess? About 80,000. That outdoes the estimated 5,000 who visit Romeo for its annual Peach Festival.
Terror on Tillson is a legacy that will likely keep going long after Lee is gone. In fact, she says her son and daughter-in-law have plans to move into her house, eventually.
“They’ll keep grandma in the closet,” she jokes.
Hauntingly Helpful Hints:
• Come before dusk. It gets crowded.
• Most displays are lit until 10 p.m. – 11 p.m.
• Free parking is permitted on most public residential streets.
• There are additional parking areas nearby. Some organizations charge a donation fee.
• There are no public bathrooms. The closest facilities are at gas stations in town. There are also pubs.
• Dress for the weather and for walking. The viewing is best on foot.
• On Halloween night, trick-or-treating is from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The town bells ring to begin and end.
Tillson Street is west of Main Street (Van Dyke) and south of 32 Mile Road. Decorating begins mid-October and is complete by October 31.