It’s mid-October in Michigan. The crisp autumn air demands to be felt despite the layers of knit scarves and flannels wrapped around those out in the village of Romeo. Thousands of people from all around the area drive to see this small town’s greatest fall attraction: a street full of houses completely decked out in over-the-top Halloween decorations, some with moving parts and larger-than-life characters that bring the spooky scenes to life. The front of these Victorian homes become masked by skeletons, cobwebs, ghosts, and graveyards. The displays are completely independent of each other and range from a haunted bridal shop with a sign asking the passerby if they’re “saying yes to distress?” to a sinking ship adorned with a skeleton crew of pirates. This wonder that only happens once a year is known as “Terror on Tillson Street.”
To outsiders, we may look crazy. We’ve been called devil-worshipers and promoters of horror and all things spooky. We’ve gotten pamphlets warning of the dangers surrounding Halloween, how it’s a holiday celebrating evil. But my neighbors and I, we’re not like that. I consider my neighbors to be family. I always have.
Having lived on this street my entire life, I knew that the relationship I had with my neighbors was different early on. When my parents first moved on to the street in 1997, the next-door neighbors jokingly asked if they liked Halloween. This friendly warning was the first of many instances where neighbors helped one another. No, my parents were not forced to sign a contract about decorating for the occasion. But they didn’t realize what they had gotten themselves into. That Halloween, they ran out of candy for trick-or-treaters and sent a friend to go buy more.
My neighbor Vicki Lee started it all. Her birthday falls on Halloween, and her mother used to decorate their home, hanging strands of garland and spiderwebs. Amping up this annual tradition in adulthood, she says the neighbors began thinking she was crazy about Halloween in the late ’80s. But as younger couples, like my parents, moved to the street during the ’80s and ’90s, the rest of the neighborhood caught on. Over the years, Lee’s initial idea has grown into the amazing displays of “Terror on Tillson Street.” (It’s also sparked the launch of an annual fundraiser, in which neighbors take turns selling Lee-designed Tillson Street T-shirts at her house; the proceeds from those sales go towards local scholarships and charity funds.)
Those who add to their displays yearly might begin preparing in August, but set-up typically begins in early October. By the end of September, people begin slowly driving down the street and asking when we’re open. The running joke between the neighbors is to tell people that we open tomorrow — an unclear response to a silly question because, as a public street, we’re always “open.” With nearly 30 houses on the street, many of the displays require moving heavy objects, like pillars for an elaborate ballroom or the mast of a ghostly pirate ship. There isn’t an organization that sets things up and packs away our displays. I’ve watched a group of neighbors move from house to house, lending a hand in preparation for the big crowds that were soon to swarm the street. The days set aside for decorating were followed by a night of visiting with the neighbors on someone’s porch, talking and catching up with each other.
Growing up, I enjoyed watching the hordes of people grow as the 31st approached, and I loved to see the looks of amazement on their faces as they walk the street. On Halloween night, we close the street from any traffic so that the families of more than 2,000 costumed kids can navigate safely. It gets hectic; trick-or-treating is from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., but traffic closes a half hour before and remains closed a half-hour prior. I have learned to love the exhilaration of Halloween night.
The excitement surrounding Halloween has carried over into my adult years, especially since I’ve been away at school at Michigan State University. My apartment in East Lansing has been decked out in Halloween decorations since the middle of September. I now try to come home whenever I can to help set up our decorations and feel the excitement of the Halloween season on Tillson, just like I did when I was a kid. This year, I was able to visit for a weekend to get our western-themed display out and rearrange it to my liking. Our front yard is complete with a saloon, a jail, a graveyard, and a barn. Visitors can even take pictures in our “Wanted” poster or jail cell.
Although the hype is well deserved, living on Tillson Street means much more than being known as “the Halloween street.” While that’s interesting and cool, it’s not all there is to this street. We’re involved in each other’s lives and always willing to lend a helping hand. My neighbors helped shape me into the person I am today. Throughout my life, these people weren’t just random strangers to smile at occasionally on the street, and I always felt bad for the kids who didn’t know their neighbors. Mine were people for me to look up to, to respect and love like an extension of my family. I am so grateful to be a Tillson Street resident.
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