Welcome to the Eagle home of Dario and Cheryl Bell — a pleasant, easygoing couple who may at first strike you as just regular neighborly folks.
Until you see their house on Halloween.
Their front yard becomes a spooky graveyard with skulls and witches and other creatures. Some kind of ghostly thing is moving in the front window, apparently talking to someone (maybe you?). As you try to edge closer, many things you see may — or may not — be aware of your presence. And there are giant spiders on the garage. Is something still moving in that web?
Two tall frightening pumpkin-head fellows guard the open front door. The brave are invited to step inside to risk a trick-or-treat reward.
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A father and son stand in the street.
“Are you going to the door this year?” Dad asks.
After a moment, “No, not this year. Maybe next year.”
Cheryl Bell has numerous stories like that. Like the little neighbor girl.
“She and her friend were out in front of the house waiting, and she’s telling her friend all about what happens on Halloween,” Cheryl said. “And she pokes her friend and says ‘That house is haunted. I know. I’ve been in it.’”
Dario Bell laughed. “She lived two houses down, and she’d never been inside.”
How it began
“My husband and I met on Halloween 47 years ago,” Cheryl said.
Whether that date was foreshadowing or fate is hard to determine, but it’s a date that has popped up from time to time in their lives. Many years ago, for instance, Dario became a Tennessee Squire, which is an organization that honors Jack Daniel’s Distillery and entitles the member to a 1-inch plot of land. While visiting once, he looked up his membership and discovered his official entry date: Oct. 31, 1984.
Otherwise, they were an ordinary family with ordinary Halloween traditions. Dario worked at Albertsons and is a volunteer for the Patriot Guard Riders, whose members attend the funerals of U.S. military, firefighters and police. He also volunteers with a local church food bank. Cheryl has a background in bookkeeping and accounting.
When their two sons were growing up, they were too busy with their kids’ costumes to do any house decorating. They do remember when one of their sons was 3 and a neighbor wearing a gorilla costume scared the daylights out of him, and, “He came screaming down the driveway about the scary monkey,” Cheryl said. “And so now we’re the ones.”
The Bells have lived in Colorado, Houston, California and the Boise area (twice). They knew they were onto something when they moved back to Idaho in 2000 and their two small grandchildren came to visit on Halloween. “Survivor” was big back then, so they had put some tiki torches in their yard, along with some snow fence they had brought from Colorado.
“I call it spooky fence,” Cheryl said. “And these little boys got out of the car and said, ‘Ooh, we gots a cool grandma.’”
“So that started it,” Dario said.
“Their little eyes lit up and wow, from there forward …” Cheryl said.
At some point, they realized they had created a monster.
“I suppose when we started running out of candy pretty consistently,” Dario said.
They now sometimes get upward of 500 trick-or-treaters.
Come inside, my pretty
Let’s say you get up the gumption and make it past the gravestones, past the witches that may or may not be props, through the fog machine that smells like cotton candy, up to the giant pumpkin-head sentinels on the stoop, all the while ignoring the writhing, talking thing in the front window. What is on the other side of that open door besides the lure of free candy?
Yessss, there is an interesting broom collection right inside, but then you realize that the intensive Halloween mood continues into the house, overwhelming nearly everything in sight. Skulls, birdcages with bats, macabre-looking stuff, and lots and lots of laboratory jars with mysterious and creepy contents.
“It’s an insane amount,” Cheryl said. “And it keeps growing.”
Good grief, what is in them anyway?
“Besides the fingers and the ears …?”
“And the eyeballs and brains? … All the standard stuff,” Cheryl said. There are bottles with labels of arsenic and poisons and, well, other things.
“Doll heads are scary,” she said. “They’re my new favorite.”
Over there is an old waffle iron that belonged to Cheryl’s grandmother.
“I thought it would look great with a skull on it,” she said.
About this time, you start to realize there is a year-round obsession going on here.
“For her, it is,” Dario said.
Friends and family have gotten used to it.
“I’m sure they get tired of hearing me go, ‘You know, that would be fabulous if you did ...,’” Cheryl said. “I know they get tired of it. But I always see the strange in things. I like the strange in things.”
Ready, set, ghost
While not everyone has a wife or grandma with witches on the brain, it does make for an interesting way to focus your thoughts throughout the year.
“I can’t say I don’t like it,” Dario said. “I’m just patient.”
“We don’t do spring cleaning, we do Halloween cleaning because literally everything comes down, everything gets cleaned, windows, blinds, and all the cheesecloth goes up and we start brand new,” Cheryl said.
There is also a lot of preparation that goes into this annual transformation.
“She reminds me about it every week how many days we have left and the things I have to do in a short amount of time,” Dario said. “It takes a while to do. I think the hardest thing we do is put up a fence. All the rest of it is just piece by piece.” The fence is helpful because there is a lot of electrical stuff throughout the setup, and it prevents the little ones from tripping over wires and stuff.
Friends are helpful, too.
“We have friends who collect skulls … they bring them over,” Cheryl said.
And she comes up with new ideas every year.
“We try to add something new each year. We just keep adding more,” Dario said. “The yard’s getting a little small to add too much big stuff. But there’s usually another gravestone that pops up.”
Cheryl is looking forward to adding to her broom collection this year. They found a “nasty, old beat-up bicycle seat, so we’re looking for nasty, old beat-up handlebars to put on it,” she said. “It’s going to be fabulous. I can hardly wait. I think them up and he builds them.”
Their son is the one who suggested the breathtaking flying crank ghost in the front window. It’s generally built with a motor and simple wire coat hanger frame.
“And then she wanted to add bones to it, and a skull, and all this stuff, and pretty soon it got heavy,” Dario said. “Fishing line is what’s holding it all together.”
They finally got it to the point where it was less likely to wear out the 50-pound test line holding it all together.
“I wanted the jaw to hang open, so now when it moves around, the jaw moves up and down and looks like it’s talking,” Cheryl said. “It was a happy accident.”
Of course, it all has to be kept in a storage unit.
“A lot of our coffins and stuff are over there,” Dario said — a quote you are unlikely to hear in any other article you read this year.
At one point, they had to move it all into a larger storage unit.
“When we moved out of the smaller one, the wooden coffin he had built for me left an imprint on the cement in the coffin shape, and I thought it was awesome,” Cheryl said.
“At the end of every Halloween, and I do mean Halloween night, when the lights are off and the kids have gone home, literally we start talking about what worked really well this year and what we need to do next year,” Cheryl said. “I keep notes of what we need to fix, what we need to repair, what we need to add, what’s a better way of doing it. One of the things we came up with years ago — those little kids who can’t make it to the front door — someone’s got to be out there with a bag of candy, because some of them literally cannot make it to the front door.”
The all clear
The Bells don’t do it all themselves, of course. It’s a big project and a big deal in the neighborhood.
“A lot of our friends and relations come over and take part,” Cheryl said. “Our daughter-in-law dresses up as a witch. We do the three Macbeth witches out front, and she’s one of them. We move them around a bit, and (the kids) try to figure out which one is the real witch.”
And then it comes to an end. The clock strikes midnight, and the magic dissipates into the night. Inevitably, All Hallows Eve gives way to All Saints Day, and the sun comes out again.
“All this goes into the one night, and then the following morning, it’s all down by noon,” Dario said.
“Kids know magic is over at midnight,” Cheryl said.
Like the little, adorably dressed vampiress who walked up and down the fence studying the yard. The little girl couldn’t leave until she had told her favorite witch goodnight. (She was in the house taking a break.) The witch went out to see her fan, they high-fived, said see you next year, “and then she could go home.”
“All the hard work that goes into it pays off on Halloween night. Because that’s what it’s all about, is the kids,” Dario said. “And we have so much fun out there watching these little kids come up. We’ve seen some of them quite a few years where they won’t come up to the door for the first one or two years, and they get a little braver and come up and get a piece of candy, and they’re pretty proud of the fact that they got up there. So it’s all worth it.”
“I had a little girl say, ‘Thank you for haunting your house,’” Cheryl said. “ ‘You’re very welcome, sweetheart.’ ”
The Bell House — it tolls for you
If you’re in the Eagle area on Halloween, take a drive past the home of Dario and Cheryl Bell at 1758 N. Mansfield Way, a couple of blocks from Seven Oaks Elementary School off East Floating Feather Road.
You can also check out their blog and Flickr pages:
The Great Pumpkin Project: Cheryl Bell also looks forward to this annual project in which participants place a lit jack-o’ lantern in some spot that just looks like it needs one, where it will be discovered by others passing by in wonderment. Check it out at thegreatpumpkinproject.com
Dusty Parnell is a freelance print, radio and print journalist who has been working in the Treasure Valley for more than 25 years.
Take in a local homes show this fall
The 2016 Fall Parade of Homes
Underway now, the BCASWI 2016 Fall Parade of Homes features 33 homes during three weekends in October.
11 a.m.- 5 p.m., Fridays to Sundays Sept. 30-Oct. 2, Oct. 7-9 and Oct. 14-16
The Parade is sponsored by the Building Contractors Association of Southwestern Idaho.
For more information and details, see the insert in your Sept. 25 or Oct. 2 Idaho Statesman or visit bcaswi.org.
Fall home shows
The Boise Fall Home Show, also presented by Spectra, is Oct. 28 through Oct. 30 at Expo Idaho. For times, admission prices and details, visit boisefallhomeshow.com.