When he was around 7-years-old, John Valdez watched “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time. The image of the flying monkeys led by the Wicked Witch of the West ripping apart the Scarecrow left an indelible mark on his psyche.
“That freaked me out,” said the 60-year-old, remembering it as if it was yesterday.
It also began a life-long love affair with scary stuff, something that is visible today if you visit the Valdez home along Huntington Street, in the City of San Fernando.
The Wicked Witch of the West — surrounded by bats and poised near his front door — is displayed on a wood panel Valdez made and painted himself.
But she’s not alone. She’s surrounded by a headless horseman, Freddy Krueger of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” film series (also displayed on a wood board Valdez made), an assortment of swinging ghouls hanging from a tree, tombstones and all sorts of phantasmagorical, spooky, and scary figures.
Pretty much everything goes, except clowns (his wife is scared of them).
“At night it’s pretty scary. We have kids who don’t want to come out at night,” Valdez says proudly of the horrifying exhibit that lights up the night near the corner of Huntington and Lucas Street.
A skeleton sits before a cauldron, which on Halloween will be filled with 400-500 pieces of candy Valdez and his family will distribute to the children and teenagers — as well as the inevitable adult — who pass by his frightening display.
“I love it,” says Valdez of Halloween. “Everybody likes to have a night where you let go. Everyone likes to dress up, get candy.”
Except his parents, who were not into Halloween. Growing up, Valdez only went trick-or- treating a couple of times with cousins. But everything about the festivity was magical to him, and it’s something he tries to give to children today, he said.
“I’m a kid at heart,” said Valdez, wearing a jack-o-lantern t-shirt. On Halloween he will be wearing a black suit adorned with a multitude of jack-o-lanterns, topped by a black top hat.
“He has fun,” his wife Antonette said.
In previous years, he had the famous Elvira, “Mistress of the Dark,” on a coffin. But not this year. Actually, the display evolves every year, as Valdez peruses and buys from Halloween stores during the sales after the annual holiday passes.
That’s how he’s been able to acquire the pieces he now brings out every year, on Oct. 1, to the chagrin of some of his neighbors and the delight of others.
“A lot of kids pass by and thank me,” he said of some of the reaction to his displays.
Valdez has spent upwards of $1,000 on those pieces. But there’s really no price for what you really like.
“To me, this is my time. I like to sit out here and look at my craft,” Valdez said.
The origins of Halloween
Next Wednesday, Oct 31, plenty of children, young people and even adults will dress like vampires, witches and in all other kinds of costumes to take part in Halloween, a tradition that goes back several centuries.
An abbreviation of All Hallows’ evening (consecrated night), Halloween has its origins in the Celtic festival known as Samhain, a pagan celebration of the harvest in the United Kingdom. The Celts believed that on Oct. 31, the world of the living and the dead were intertwined and the deceased returned to life.
The festival often included bonfires. Masks and disguises were used to represent the evil spirits or appease them.
With the passage of time, the tradition evolved and different things were added — especially “trick or treating,” which began in the Medieval Times and is similar to the practice of “souling” when the poor went from house to house on Hallowmas (Nov. 1) to receive food in exchange for offering prayers for the dead (Nov. 2).
The Irish and other immigrants brought the tradition to the United States, where it continues today.
A Spooky Imagination
Nowhere is this tradition more prevalent than down the street and around the corner from the Valdez home.
Along Glenoaks Boulevard, right before Orange Grove Avenue, the Salazar’s front yard is quite the horrific attraction.
There’s a hand sticking out of a dungeon, a partially interred body, a werewolf, and a cross with skeletons and spattered blood. Body parts lay all around. A fog machine completes the petrifying illusion.
It’s all part of an elaborate Halloween display at the Salazar family home.
“We love it,” says Ricardo Salazar, 29, the main creator of the macabre showing.
In fact, the entire family gets a kick out of Halloween, starting with the patriarch.
Salazar remembers going trick-or-treating, coming back home with a pillowcase full of candy, and getting dressed up for the school parade. Truth is, the family all loves scary films, dressing up, and the decorations, many of which wife Nicole makes herself.
Inspired by the Internet and drawing on her own twisted imagination, Nicole turned an old table into the dungeon surrounded by body parts. Old pieces of wood became a cross, and old clothes adorn dummies that give passersby the eerie feel of the season.
Nicole is just as creative when it comes to costumes — yes, she still dresses up. “You can be a different person,” she said.
Last year, she couldn’t find a Sonic costume for her son Richard, 5, so she put it together herself. This year he will be Luigi (from Mario Brothers) and she will be the mushroom that is part of the game. she’s making the costume herself. Her six-month-old daughter Violet will be a lamb. Ricardo will be a werewolf.
On Halloween, they take the TV out to the front porch, and play scary movies while passing out candy.
Again, it’s for a good scary day. And most of all, fun.