Scary stories: Love for Halloween takes many forms in the Upper Valley

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    Standing in the entrance of the Slaughter House at Devil's Playground and Haunted Walk in Unity, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, creator Bruce Clough talks about his love of Halloween. "They can keep everything else, Thanksgiving, Christmas," he said. "I like Halloween." Clough was even married on Oct. 31, 1982. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Bruce Clough takes a call when walking through his creation Devil's Playground and Haunted Walk in Unity, N.H., at his home on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. The walk snakes though the woods with creepy stops like the Doll House and Trailer Park. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valleu News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Katy and John Steenwyk have added a pet cemetery to their Halloween display at their home in Windsor, Vt., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. The couple has entered the Windsor Halloween decorating contest. They have their dog Lou with them. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • A lawn dart has hit its mask at Katy and John Steenwyk's Halloween display at their home in Windsor, Vt., on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2022. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • Cartoonist Coco Fox, seen at her West Lebanon, N.H., home, on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, grew up in a Halloween-obsessed family and is designing the Gory Daze poster for the second year running. “I’m like the Elvira of Halloween lovers. I love costumes, but I’m scared of spiders,” said Fox. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • A stand in Coco Fox’s studio holds a witch’s hat in West Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Cartoonist Coco Fox reads the fortune of the Deviled Egg, a character from her Little Ghouls Fortune Telling Cards and Zine that she created at her West Lebanon, N.H., home on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. Each card in the deck is illustrated with a child in a Halloween costume and corresponds with a fortune in the zine. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

Published: 10/29/2022 10:57:52 PM
Modified: 10/29/2022 10:57:32 PM

For some families, Christmas is the big holiday. The tree, the presents, a big dinner, a church service, perhaps.

But for Coco Fox, Halloween was it, the whole enchilada, if said enchilada was made of foam and fabric and proudly worn for trick-or-treating.

“I love Halloween,” said Fox, a 28-year-old cartoonist. “I came from a household where it didn’t have to be Halloween for you to be in costume.”

As the youngest of five children growing up in Zionsville, Ind., she was the beneficiary of all the costume-making done for her brother and three sisters. Her school held a Halloween parade, where all the students wore their costumes for the day. She favored powerful and/or evil women. Cruella de Ville. Cleopatra. Kissin’ Kate Barlow (the fetching murderess from the young-adult novel Holes).

All of this is to say that Fox was a natural choice to design the poster for this year’s Gory Daze parade and Gum Ball dance party. She did last year’s, too. The parade, first held informally in 2002, is White River Junction’s biggest celebration.

It’s a fitting night for the Upper Valley’s creative hub to celebrate itself. Halloween is all about seeing what isn’t there, but could be: spirits, ghosts, the supernatural, all set against the darkening days of autumn and the skirl of dry leaves against the pavement.

“I believe in ghosts,” Fox said.

She referred to Samhain, the Gaelic pagan festival that recognizes the onset of the darker months.

“That’s when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest,” she said. “I always thought that was so comforting, in the same way that people feel religion is comforting.”

The dead, their spirits, aren’t gone, but are nearby.

But Fox isn’t in it to be scared.

“I’m like the Elvira of Halloween-lovers: I love the costumes, but I’m afraid of spiders,” she said.

This year’s poster is full of ghosts and a gumball machine containing what looks like eyeballs. There’s also an animate stick of butter, an in-joke from last year, when her friend Bev went to the parade as the blocky, fattening comestible.

“I don’t want to overstate anything, but she won Halloween,” Fox said.

At the first planning meeting for this year’s parade, four people brought up the butter costume. So in the poster, “it’s all ghosts, and then there’s one little butter.”

After graduating from Duke University and working as a graphic designer and in the film industry, Fox came to the Upper Valley to attend the Center for Cartoon Studies and decided to stay. She took on the poster task, which has been done by other CCS students or graduates, because she wanted to do something for her adopted community.

She arrived here with an affinity for New England.

“My weird fantasy as a kid was to live in an old Victorian house like the Addams family,” she said.

In film, she worked on the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters, and later on Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, in cinematography. The coronavirus pandemic put an end to her movie work, so she pitched a book idea. She’s at work on Right to Left, a middle grade graphic novel about basketball, the sport her home state is craziest about. “It’s filled with the dramas of sixth grade girls,” she said of the book.

In conversation, Fox called herself a “witchy gal,” but her West Lebanon home was bright and airy on a recent sunny day. Maybe there was a bubbling cauldron in the basement.

There are other ways to be witchy. Fox has drawn her own tarot cards, for example, and a book that explains how to read the cards, which are more whimsical and encouraging than most fortune-telling devices.

The Gory Daze parade is held on a Saturday night, but Halloween is Monday. Fox has lived in her house on a residential street for only six months, so this will be her first Halloween there. She’s been told to expect around three dozen trick-or-treaters. She and a couple of friends plan to watch Halloween-themed movies and hand out candy.

Ultimately, Fox said, what Halloween is for is to reveal character, not conceal it. It’s less a dangerous night, full of blood-curdling screams, than a safe one, where a person’s spirit can expand. Fox, who performs as a drag king, has narrowed her costume choices for this year to two, both male: Weird Al Yankovic or Kermit the Frog.

“I’m a queer person,” Fox said, so when Halloween comes around, she knows it’s her chance to just put on an identity and see how it feels. For a young person especially, to be told you can dress up how you like and not be judged, or even be encouraged to do so, that’s the power of the spirit world come to life.

For more information about Coco Fox’s work, go to her website, She and others in the CCS community will be selling comics and art at White River Junction’s First Friday on Nov. 4 at Junction Arts and Music, between Tuckerbox and Piecemeal Pies.

— Alex Hanson

Devil’s Playground

Unity resident Bruce Clough, 64, is candid about his love of Halloween. But where others might express that love in words, art or maybe lawn decorations, Clough enjoys hiding his in dark places for people to seek. Sometimes it waits in a lightless corner to spring upon a nervous traveler. Or it may bang menacingly upon a metal drum somewhere in the forest. It might even follow you through the woods.

Clough’s holiday homage is Devil’s Playground Haunted Walk, a self-guided tour designed to spook and startle its paying guests. Located on 22 acres of fields and woodland behind Clough’s home, Devil’s Playground is a winding and disquieting stroll through an array of structures and exhibits, most of which likely have gruesome occupants crouching in the shadows.

“When people ask me how long the tour is, I tell them it’s either a 35- to 45-minute walk or a 20-minute run,” Clough told the Valley News.

A lover of the Golden Era of horror movies, the black-and-white films between 1931 and 1946 that brought actors like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff to prominence, Clough said he prefers the use of atmosphere, makeup and suspense to frighten an audience over modern movies like Saw that appeal to gore.

Started in 2014 as a creative endeavor, Devil’s Playground has continued to grow in popularity as a local attraction. In 2021 WMUR Viewer’s Choice, an annual recognition of favorite New Hampshire destinations named by station viewers, ranked Devil’s Playground the No. 5 haunted attraction in the state.

Several of those top attractions, such as Haunted Overload in Lee and Fright Kingdom in Nashua, are large commercial operations with sizable budgets, Clough noted.

In contrast, Devil’s Playground is primarily a DIY attraction, run primarily by Clough with the help of volunteers. A semi-retired welder, Clough finances the operation himself and said he is lucky just to break even at the end of each season through ticket sales. A friend in Springfield, Vt., helps build props during the offseason. Clough also has about 22 volunteers who perform as scarers, transforming themselves through makeup, masks and apparel into cosplay monsters, murderers or menaces.

“I tell them that I don’t care if they come and work, as long as they come and scare,” Clough said.

Myles Godsoe, 19, started volunteering at Devil’s Playground around five years ago, when he was a neighbor of Clough. Now Godsoe lives in Concord, where he works at an auto dealership. But he still volunteers, not only on the weekends when the attraction runs, but during the summer to help Clough with building and upkeep.

“I have a blast,” Godsoe said. “After living next door and hearing it go on for nights, hearing screaming outside my window, I finally had to check it out. And they haven’t been able to get rid of me since.”

Devil’s Playground may not have the professionally made set designs of, say, Haunted Overload — which regularly ranks on the nationwide lists of top haunted attractions — but Devil’s Playground’s local, homegrown feel injects a heart and spirit to the experience, which is also downright creepy in all the right ways.

In addition, because Devil’s Playground’s trail is mostly outdoors, a visitor may experience the attraction differently depending on the night, particularly in regard to the amount of moonlight.

Saturday, Oct. 22, was one of the Playground’s busiest nights of the current season, according to volunteers. The attraction typically closes at 10 p.m., but the line to enter in the final hour was nearly half the length of a football field.

The moonlight that night was essentially nonexistent, which can make an evening stroll through trees and fields slightly disorienting.

Imagine traversing past a re-created cemetery, enclosed behind tall iron gates. Looking behind, the silhouette of a figure — not another paying customer — is following. Or imagine in the woods, or inside one of the several structures on your trail, where a mannequin in the shadows becomes virtually indistinguishable from a scarer staying purposefully still.

The trails have sufficient light for safe travel — Clough has laid over 300 yards in wiring underground to feed electricity throughout his attraction — though maintaining a strong level of darkness is key to the “fun,” one volunteer said.

Clough, with his part-time welder job, said maintaining a seasonal attraction on top of his schedule can sometimes be a lot to manage. But he intends for Devil’s Playground to remain a permanent haunting ground in Unity, including turning the business over to his volunteers someday.

“I retired three years ago and have never been so busy,” Clough said. “But it keeps me going.”

— Patrick Adrian

Dead and breakfast

Katy and John Steenwyk don’t just love Halloween. They live it every day of the year.

The couple moved to Windsor in February 2021 after running a bed and breakfast in Montana for five years. Now, they’re steadily working on turning their new early-1800s home into a Halloween-themed bed and breakfast. (Plans are in the works for a Stephen King-themed room, among others.)

There’s a Halloween dollhouse in the dining room and raven-themed wallpaper. Dressed-up skeletons sit on furniture (leaving room for future guests) and stacks of books, including older editions by R.L. Stine, are piled on tables. Two Halloween toy trains circle around two decorated artificial trees. There’s a miniature village of “America’s Most Haunted Homes,” including the Amityville Home and Allegheny Sanitarium.

“I have always loved Halloween,” said Katy, who works at the Hartland Diner. “I kind of like the idea that it’s a very inclusive holiday.”

People are free to be whatever they want to be and be celebrated for it.

“And I’m just along for the ride,” John added.

He particularly enjoys looking for items at yard sales, where they get most of their items. Katy also finds pieces on eBay, as well as sales that start after Halloween.

The couple estimated they’ve spent under $1,000 on decorations. When John goes to yard sales looking for items to resell, he always keeps an eye out for more decorations.

“One thing I usually don’t bargain with is Halloween stuff,” said John, who works as a delivery driver for Deep Meadow Farm.

They also make it a point to look for handmade items, like a stitched cemetery scene and painting above the mantle featuring a black cat. Katy has a particular affection for primitive, older decorations.

Their Halloween decorating started when they lived in Montana and would dress up the lobby each year. What really started it off was a vintage carriage, which they purchased from a friend in Montana. While the couple has always loved Halloween, the carriage was the start of something more.

“We forewent taking several pieces of furniture to take that with us,” Katy said during a tour of their home last week. That carriage is now pulled by a skeleton horse in their front yard.

In the last few years “we’ve gone off the deep end,” Katy said.

They are dressing up as a dead bride and groom for Halloween. Katy’s dress was hanging in a tree outside to become more damaged, and the couple had plans to drive over it with a lawnmower to imprint tire tracks on it.

The front yard, which the couple have entered into Windsor’s Halloween Decorating Competition, is full of skeletons. Some have been taken out by brightly colored darts while others are playing croquet. There’s also a tiny skeleton riding an old tricycle that they got from Cover Home Repair.

“I’m not about the scary stuff,” Katy said. She leans more toward almost whimsical, including skeleton flamingos. Two skeletons climb an apple ladder. A pet cemetery with headstones completes the scene.

After the holiday passes, the couple will continue working on turning their dream of a Halloween bed and breakfast into reality.

“It just evolved,” Katy said of their idea.

It will be interesting to see how that evolution continues.

— Liz Sauchelli

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