The cluster of gravestones jutting from Dana Dyer’s backyard beckon you to stop as you drive by.
An archway adorned with human skulls welcomes you into the cemetery. Leaves crunch underfoot as you step into the graveyard and see a horde of blood-splattered dolls carrying a body wrapped in a black Hefty bag. Among the crush of murdering dolls is Madeline, the beloved children’s book character.
You swiftly realize something: Nothing is sacred here.
“That’s probably why I do it,” Dyer says.
Dyer’s Half-Acre of Fear, located at 1755 East 1310 Road, evolved from a simple Halloween display he put up 26 years ago. A former construction laborer, he first made three tombstones from cement, calling them the big three: Freddy, Jason and Michael.
“I started doing it in the front yard, but it got too big, so I moved it over here, and then the next year, I said ‘Why not?’” he says. “I used to do it because it’s fun. I don’t know (why) anymore.”
Growing up, Dyer attended a church that prohibited Easter, birthday and Halloween celebrations. He’s often wondered if his inability to celebrate Halloween has influenced his decision to put on such an elaborate exhibit.
“That’s probably part of it, but it really just grew from those three gravestones to overcrowding the front yard, and my neighbors’ encouragement,” he says.
One year a girl and her father were admiring Dyer’s display when he stepped out from behind a refrigerator wearing a horned ogre mask.
The girl fled across the street in fright.
“I just looked at her dad and just said, ‘Wow,’” Dyer says. “So the next year I expanded to a walk-through and just kept expanding more. … Once I get interested in something, I learn all I can about it — sort of minorly obsessed.”
Part tradition, part obligation, the labor of love still inspires Dyer to put up the display every year. Even when it hurts.
Trudging around his yard to set up his creations has gotten harder over the years.
He leans on a cane to give his bad knee, wracked with arthritis, some relief. Periodically he sits down to rest.
“This year my knee is just excruciating by the end of the day,” he says.
On the Tuesday before Halloween, Dyer, 69, plodded along his half-acre backyard checking the wiring for the creatures whose eyes are supposed to glow, and inserting cigarettes made from dowel rods into his zombies’ mouths.
Clamped between rotted teeth, cigarettes both place the dead in a past era and signal their complicity in their own demise.
Often dressed in old suits, the zombies’ faces look melted, their eyes bulging. Dyer says he created the creatures by hand, choosing to make some of them smoke to evoke a criminal vibe: these are not good people.
The ground wet from a recent rain, some of the clowns and hillbillies had toppled over from the deluge. Dyer stooped to prop them up, scanning the yard for imperfections.
A few feet away, the butcher-shop hostess held a platter of literal finger-food. Some foreboding signs — ”Organ donations taken tonite” — hung from the entry.
The Half-Acre of Fear is divided into themed sections. Bubba’s Butcher Shop was inspired by Dyer’s favorite horror film, “Wrong Turn,” which features a family of mutant cannibal hillbillies.
“There is a smokehouse, if you like smoked meats,” Dyer says.
Walking into the smokehouse, you feel like you’ve stumbled upon a sadistic ritual you shouldn’t be privy to: a group of dead men wearing straw hats and flannel shirts, and a couple of women wearing old-fashioned dresses, most of them smoking, cluster around a wizard-looking hillbilly. The old, bearded man appears to be stripping a carcass of its flesh. Dismembered body parts hang from a line.
For some years, one of Dyer’s nephews would fire up a chainsaw without a bar and approach passersby.
“He stepped through that back wall and fired that saw up, and people would freak out,” says Jim Underwood, one of Dyer’s old biker buddies.
He and his wife, Peggy, have helped Dyer host the haunted yard for about 20 years. They recruit friends and family to serve as scare actors.
Peggy loves to scare people.
“I’m good at it,” she says. “Find a dark area and then just barely move. … And don’t touch people.”
When scaring people, it’s funnest to wait until several have walked through, then scare the fifth or sixth one, Jim says.
“They’ll take off running and run into everybody else and then you got everybody freaking out,” he says.
The handcrafted horrors in Dyer’s yard run the gamut: spiders, rats, vine monsters, pirates, escaped prisoners and a corridor of evil clowns. Dyer handbuilt an outhouse that houses an Elvis Presley corpse sitting on the toilet, pill bottles strewn about.
Although Dyer still adds bits and pieces here and there, at this point he mainly maintains what he’s already built.
Setting it up, disassembling it and putting it away is an arduous task Dyer does mostly on his own. He’s built sarcophaguses specifically to store his props.
Overwhelmingly the things in Dyer’s yard are handcrafted using supplies he collected from construction sites: rebar, insulation, iron, cement. Dyer amassed supplies, then took them home and figured out ways to integrate them into his haunted yard.
“I guess this is a culmination of all that I have learned, even with the construction since I built everything in the yard,” he says.
This year, Dyer started working on his display in September. Next year he plans to start setting up earlier — and he has no plans of quitting.
“I do this every year for the kids and anyone else who enjoys it, and I enjoy it too,” he says. “I will do this next year, but will start in the middle of August instead of Labor Day (to) give me more time since I’m moving slower these days. I’ll see how it goes then.”
Dyer’s Half-Acre of Fear is open from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Halloween (Monday). He’s closed Sunday to give his scare actors a break. The yard, at 1755 East 1310 Road, is just north of the Iowa Street interchange with Interstate 70 in Lawrence. It’s free, but donations are encouraged.
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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.