SACO, Maine — The modest, green ranch in this quiet neighborhood off Route 1 takes on a blood-red sheen every October.
Ghouls, goblins, witches? That’s child’s play.
Think severed heads, eye sockets with protruding spikes, a macabre butchery, funeral music, strobe lights and a smoky stench.
“I want to touch on all the senses,” said Jeremy McGrath during a tour this week of his basement-turned-house-of-horrors where creepy clowns and heads splattered in blood lurk around each bend.
When you’re 36 you can’t trick or treat anymore, but you can still jack up the spirit. This Saco man takes Halloween to the extreme, and to the extremities hanging from the ceiling. Inspired by Rob Zombie movies and Stephen King novels, the cable salesman spawns an alter ego every October: the gore master.
“I’m into the shock and awe. I’m in your face. It’s gory, its scary. It’s not cute Halloween,” said McGrath who opens his fright chamber to trick-or-treaters on Oct. 31. “I like to scare people. It’s fun.”
How did he get this way?
It’s in his blood.
“I have the fondest of memories of my father scaring the crap out of high school students and them falling down three flights of stairs to get out of our house,” said McGrath, who grew up in Biddeford. “Ever since then I’ve had that bug to scare people because it’s fun. It’s in my DNA.”
And he is in good company.
Halloween expert Lisa Morton, author of “The Halloween Encyclopedia,” said adults have taken back the holiday that was focused on youngsters.
“It was almost exclusively a holiday for children. Even in the 1980s trick or treat was for kids,” she said.
As the haunted attractions industry has grown into a billion dollar business, adults such as McGrath, who has no children, have taken over.
“I think it’s a cool form of folk art. A way of expressing yourself and entertaining people,” said Morton, who lives in Los Angeles, where almost every house on her block is tricked out in horror. “It used to be all you could do is buy a scarecrow and a pumpkin. Now there are fog machines, all kinds of ways to be creative.”
Each Halloween, McGrath gets more elaborate.
“It’s the thrill. A challenge,” he said. “The first year was on my front porch. I put up some creepy fencing and sat in a costume with some chains and it progressed from the front porch, out the back.”
Now in its 12th year, his home haunt takes over his basement, where seven fog machines, black lights and an electrocution chair set the scene.
Turning his rumpus room into a cave of carnage takes work, cash and dedication. He starts preparations in September, but is always on the hunt for a haunt.
“He’s the only guy I know that wakes up in the middle of July to sketch out something he thinks of in the middle of the night. It’s gory stuff,” said McGrath’s brother-in-law, Michael Budd, of Biddeford. “His haunted house is not for the faint of heart.”
Nor the light of wallet.
McGrath and his wife Jennifer spend $1,000-$1,500 every Halloween to delight children and make adults scream.
“It’s not inexpensive, but people love it. People like to be scared,” insists McGrath.
Every year about 150-200 people line up for the pleasure. He has roughly a dozen friends help him, and his father lays in the coffin. The police don’t shut him down — on the contrary.
“They direct people here,” said McGrath.
It’s not uncommon for adults to wet their pants and kids to become so scared they drop their candy and flee. But McGrath, his wife assures, is not a complete freak.
“He’ll go around and pick up all the candy and return it,” she said. “It’s all in good fun.”
Whoever makes it through McGrath’s trail of terror gets bragging rights and a full-size candy bar. Still, they are not in the clear. A chain saw wielding figure chases them off the lawn.
Neighbor Billy Burnham, 15, has worked up the courage to enter the basement each year and now helps McGrath. Still, he quivers just talking about it.
“I tell everyone that this is the scariest house, the house on the corner in Saco,” he says.
If it seems McGrath has missed his calling as a “hauntrepreneur,” he’s not out to make money.
It’s Halloween’s Celtic origins and the altruistic trappings he loves.
“It’s the one day of the year that you can go up to a complete stranger, hold out your hand and get something in return. No questions asked,” he said. “Everybody gets to be somebody that they are not one day a year.”