For most, spooky is a “szn,” a month or so to indulge in the supernatural, to watch scary movies and break out a witch hat. For Jen Dwyer, Halloween is a year-round event, an occasion for which she keeps her Mt. Rainier, Maryland, home decorated across all seasons.
Jen is the mom of one of my best friends, and I grew up having sleepovers (or rather, trying to sleep at sleepovers) amongst spookily dressed mannequins, anatomical skeletons, and strategically placed fake tarantulas. Jen’s bathroom looks like a medical oddities shop, stacked with bottled curio, antique medical gadgets, and cautioning signage of hazardous waste. Alongside the mirror above the sink is a glowing x-ray of a human foot. Tombstones and thigh bones are implanted throughout her front and side yards. Baby doll heads and skulls of animals, real and fake, line the porch railing. Her house’s street number on the mailbox is updated with stickers to read “666.”
And every year, Jen amps up the decorations come late October for her annual Halloween party.
Jen works as a clinical research nurse, which has surreptitiously benefitted her morbid aesthetic. I chatted with her about her love for all things sinister, decoration resourcefulness, and the community that’s formed from her dedication to the holiday. “It’s really funny,” she said halfway through our phone call. “I never realized how much I did like Halloween.” I’m glad she’s finally caught on. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
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JEZEBEL: Was there a specific point when you decided to keep up decorations year round?
JEN DWYER: I’m lazy. [laughs] No, it slowly grew—I was like, oh, it’s gonna be too much to take it down, let’s just keep it up year round. A couple of skeletons on your mantelpiece seems kind of decorative. Then the bathroom grew into this kooky lab, and that was way too elaborate to take down. We’ve been at this house now for 20 years, and it just grew.
It was my sister that said, “Pick a holiday and stick with it.” I was like, OK, I’ll take it to heart. She has Thanksgiving.
When other holidays come around, like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, do you incorporate the Halloween stuff? Do you make them Christmassy?
I have a lot of taxidermy that I got at yard sales and eBay. All the taxidermy gets to wear Santa hats.
What are some of your year-round decorations?
Mostly skeletons and gargoyles. They’re all in the front yard. And the iron fence—it’s an old Smithsonian railing. The first couple of years I put that away, but it weighs 50 pounds, so I was like, this is going to stay.
Do you have a favorite Halloween decoration in your home?
One of the things I really like, I’m looking at right now. It’s from a place that’s sort of like a community forklift. It’s a doll that’s definitely been in a fire, and her eye is punched out. And she hangs up in a little baby coffin, naturally looking creepy.
We were cleaning up the shed and we found another baby doll we didn’t realize had naturally aged. It’s a little moldy and her eyes don’t open too well.
What decoration have you had the longest?
I have a couple full-size anatomical skeletons [from] this single dad that was head of a website called Bones R Us. They were like, 30 bucks apiece. Now they’re like $150 or something stupid. I got those probably 20-plus years ago.
The one mannequin that I’ve had the longest, a neighbor who’s a window dresser gave to me. People start to leave things on our porch like in May. Somebody dropped off a huge tombstone from the police department that was like a “this is how many people get killed by drunk driving every year” gravestone. A neighbor just a couple days ago brought over a deer skull. She said, “I think you’ll want this more than I do.”
And was she correct?
She was right.
The bathroom is so eerie, and I love the anatomical jars in there. Was that inspired by you working as a nurse?
One hundred percent. I started collecting antique medical stuff. One of the first things I got was a little spider in formaldehyde in a baby food jar. I got it at an antique store, and then that inspired me. We have formaldehyde at work. You can formaldehyde anything. So I’d be like, “Oh! The cat killed a bird! Let me get that!”
So some of them are your own formaldehyde creations?
My brother-in-law is a hunter, and we have some of his turkey legs and things like that. Then work always has so much stuff in the trash. Whether it’s legal or not, I’m not sure. But I never take anything that’s not trash.
Wait, like people’s things?
I have one mouse. You know, they have experiments and stuff. They have beakers, all the jars, thermometers, needles, all kinds of stuff that they toss every time a lab closes. They close every two years and rotate through with new doctors, and they just stick everything out in the hall for it to go to a landfill.
Oh, that’s brilliant.
I’m helping the landfill.
It’s like a green initiative. What is it about Halloween that you felt drawn to?
I guess because it is anti-holiday. Being a nurse, too, there’s always a dark humor. To see the sick and dying, Halloween gets to sort of poke fun at it all a little.
Halloween celebrates the dark underbelly of things that a lot of holidays like to push under the carpet. Like “Oh, welcome to our perfect house on Easter. We don’t fight and we’ve never experienced grief or death or sickness.” Halloween is this opportunity to be like, “Yeah, the world is sick and gross and bodies are weird.”
Exactly. I’ve also watched Halloween become, in the last 20 to 30 years, a commercial moneymaker.
How does that feel to you?
Those things can be fun every once in a while—the cutesy Halloween stuff—but I’m more like, make your own decorations if you can.
I like your practice of allowing all of these decorations being brought to you, or you finding them. It’s not so much going to big Halloween party stores.
The only way I buy new decorations is if they’re seriously, seriously reduced. I wouldn’t pay more than $5 for something.
You’re actually getting stuff that is creepy, that has had past lives.
For sure. Go to the antique store, the thrift store. Find something creepy in there.
I know you’re a part of online communities that discuss Halloween stuff.
I am. I’ve been teased about that. We have conventions. Halloween.com and Hauntforum.com. People give you tutorials about the best way to make your tombstones, how to age things, and I’ve learned a lot from that. I have some baby owls that I need to get looking burned.
I love that.
For us, Halloween prep starts November 1.