Cemetery worms to candied coffins, her house is treat Sykesville woman creates Halloween memories

October 30, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Wearing a Harlequin mask and a full-length black satin cape, Julie Wehrle welcomes about 100 young Halloween visitors to her haunted house in Sykesville every year.

If toddlers are too afraid of her couture, she flips her mask up and says, "It's just me: Miss Julie."

She treats guests to cemetery worms -- the gummy variety -- resting on a trayful of dirt -- wheat from the bulk food grocery section. They can wash down the sweets with vampire apple juice and then walk through a garage full of scary scenes with frightful fiends.

"I have to do more than the take-my-candy-and-go thing," she said.

This year will be her third in Sykesville, but she staged the haunting for several years at her former home in Bowie. Halloween memories last a lifetime, she said.

"Everyone has a Halloween memory or a trick-or-treat story," said Wehrle, whose job is special agent with Defense Security Service.

Her aim is fun, not fright. On the front lawn, tiny purple lights twinkle around a graveyard. Tombstones mark the final resting FTC place of I. M. Fein and U. R. Knott and occasionally a battery-operated hand pops through the ground.

Casper the Ghost beckons from the bushes. A gray curtain with a window torn out and lines painted to resemble castle walls marks the doorway to the haunted house. Frankenstein ushers guests in -- a few at a time -- and introduces them to a 6-foot-tall John Wayne mannequin, scavenged from a local liquor store and then dressed in a black graduation gown.

"There is no gore, no chain saws and no grabbing," she said. "My Halloween is designed for kids."

The haunting comes by way of whatever is handy -- "I am going to do something with dry ice this year, but I haven't decided what," Wehrle said.

Cackling witches brew at bubbling caldrons and offer recipes. Smiling rodents whisper "take me with you." The space abounds with headless bodies -- sometimes Wehrle runs out of the plastic ones used by hairdressers -- and floating hands and feet.

Strobe lights flash on eerie scenes filled with monsters, bats and rats -- all more high camp than stark terror. Macabre music drones in the background.

"I watch the kids walk away and then glance back," she said. "They come with one parent and go back and get the other."

Nearly every scene is at a child's eye level. Teens are welcome to help, but not participate -- "they are too old," said Wehrle. Her two teen-age daughters play roles in the haunting and may be coaxed into acting the role of the deceased in the candy-filled coffin.

All this ghoulish grandeur takes foresight and a month of planning. Wehrle haunts thrift stores, shops post-Halloween sales and accepts everybody's discards all year.

"You have to find stuff that kids don't see in stores," she said. "And you have to do something different every year."

Wehrle has even gone trash bin diving for items -- that's how she found her suitcase of horrors.

A square of discarded plastic foam frames a skeleton; cheesecloth sprayed with stiffener creates a lasting ghost; and pasta dipped in gelatin dessert makes gooey gore. Stuff old clothing with newspaper, add a plastic head and wig and you have a creepy character.

"This is real low budget," said Wehrle. "I use throw-aways. Kids like the homemade stuff better."

The Halloween theme prevails inside the real house. Wehrle decorates with bats, cobwebs, ghosts and goblins. Skeletons peer from window panes and jack-o-lanterns gleam on the porch.

Wehrle encourages her neighbors to follow her lead and many have decorated their lawns.

"Everybody should do something for Halloween," she said. "Dress up and surprise kids coming to your door. Maybe we could haunt the whole street and rename it Haunted Lane."

Sykesville used to stage a haunting in Cooper Park every Oct. 31, but the event died for lack of volunteers. Could Wehrle revive the tradition, officials asked?

"It takes me a month to haunt my garage," she said. "It would probably take a year to haunt a park."

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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