Brothers Justin and Dylan Cerniuk have been making their own Halloween decorations and displays since Justin, the elder, was 10. Their testing ground was the Nottingham neighborhood where they grew up, a thin finger of Chicago east of 74th Street and Harlem Avenue caught between Bedford Park, Bridgeview and Burbank. An uncle began taking them around the area to look at other folks’ Halloween displays, and the boys were hooked. They’ve been Halloween crazy ever since.
For the last several years, they’ve been organizing the Midnight Terror Haunted House, a combination of lawn displays and a ‘haunted house’ built in their driveway on 97th Street, in an all-residential area of suburban Oak Lawn, IL. The rest of the year, the property is your typical ranch-style house with a driveway and garage; but every October, it’s transformed into a creepy homestyle haunted attraction. And it’s popular: in 2012, they had more than 5,000 visitors, mostly teens and young adults but also many families with smaller children, although “the house is made to be more scary than kid friendly.” Still, they all love it, and many have been returning year after year – some for more than a decade – to see what the boys have cooked up. The display has been up at this location since 2000, and the local attraction has been voted the 6th most popular haunted attraction in Illinois by HauntedIllinois.com, a statewide website that tracks these things.
These days, their efforts are more sophisticated: in addition to colored lights and static displays, skeletons, and so on are animatronic figures, LED lights, and more than a dozen live actors in the 1,000-square-foot ‘haunt-a-house’ in the driveway and the graveyard on the front lawn. The ‘haunt-a-house’ has eight rooms, six hallways, 14 actors and eight animatronics inside. An LED display in the shotgun-style ‘asylum’ structure shows looped video clips of a woman being attacked by a bloody-mouthed zombie. Other figures and displays inside are triggered by motion sensors. There are a few actors among the 20 animatronics and other moving parts in the graveyard, in addition to sound effects, fog and spooky music.
At first, their displays were “very childlike,” the gents concede. Now that they’re adults, the brothers are more creative and ambitious in their efforts, but everything is still made by hand, by them and by a few other friends. “There’s about six of us who do this,” says Justin, introducing their main helper and fellow builder, longtime friend Maciej (pronounced MAY-chek), who goes by one name like Prince or Madonna. Even Justin’s girlfriend, who prefers to remain anonymous, got drafted into painting the props this year.
Maciej says that while a lot more people used to dress up their homes for Halloween when they were kids and that practice fell off for a while, Halloween displays at home have made a comeback. Younger display designers are surfacing: “You can see the new wave coming.”
Although there is no yearly theme for their displays, Justin says his plan is usually to keep the front yard as a graveyard and mostly change what goes on inside the haunt-a house. This year, the haunt-a-house is dressed up as an asylum. “We change a lot every year – we try to add about five new things” and change around the rest so that about 80 percent of the total arrangement is different from year to year. The oldest element in this year’s display in the shotgun building is about eight years old, but there’s a homemade wooden coffin in the graveyard out front that is at least 20 years old (and looks appropriately deteriorated and decrepit, with peeling paint and a creepy arm that comes out from inside to open the lid). Blue spotlights on the graveyard displays and some smoke and fog effects add that final spooky touch.
Building each season’s haunted house and yard displays takes about two months. They begin work about two-and-a-half months before Halloween. The construction gang mostly looks online for instructions for building yard displays and animatronics. They also sought help from a Chicago group that meets regularly to build similar props. Justin, Dylan and their friends have no robotics training, no courses in electronics and no kits – their displays, props and devices have all been built by trial and error from the start, which means things can get interesting. “They don’t always work the first time,” Dylan laughs.
Although the brothers and their friends began doing this seriously at least 15 years ago, there was a gap for four years between 2007 and 2011 when they stopped while Justin was in the Marines, serving abroad. Why enlist in the Marines? Two reasons: paid college tuition afterwards, and the discipline. It seems to have worked for him.
Justin had two combat tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was always deployed or in training for those four Halloweens. However, he came home in late summer of 2011 just in time – and began working on that year’s Halloween display a month later. And that year, one thing changed: the brothers began donating 20 percent of their proceeds to charity.
The Cerniuks don’t charge admission for visiting the haunt-a-house, but they do encourage donations. The brothers also sell popocorn on site and have a fire pit in front to keep visitors warm. Justin explains that they purposefully chose an Illinois charity “so that the money stays in Illinois.” In 2012, they began giving money to the Autism Society of Illinois. “When I was in the service, a lot of the people I served with had family members who are autistic,” and it seemed like a worthy cause, Justin said. Last year, they were able to donate $1,000.00 to the Autism Society. If all goes well, this year’s donation should be similar.
The funds that don’t go to charity end up defraying the cost of building the displays. “Every year, we put in between four and five grand on the haunt-a-house,” Justin explains, adding “We still lose money.” A photo log of this year’s construction is provided on their website.
Not that they mind. “We just want people to come and enjoy it. Lots of families can’t afford to take their kids to haunted attractions these days,” Justin says, noting that the most expensive spooky attraction in Illinois today charges $30 per person for admission, though most average between $15 and $30 per person. That’s a lot for a family of four to spend in this economy – and that’s why he and his brother don’t charge: it’s their gift to the neighbors, most of whom have known them for years. “This way, people in the neighborhood can come and have fun. We get a lot of families and a lot of repeat visitors from the area.”
To which we say: Good for you – spook on, dudes! If you’re in the area and want to visit, the haunt-a-house and graveyard are open from 6-10 pm every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening in October plus Oct. 29th, 30th and Halloween night, the 31st. Midnight Terror Haunted House is located at 5755 W. 97th St. in southwest suburban Oak Lawn, about 3 blocks west of 97th and Central Avenue (5400 W) and about 5 blocks southeast of 95th Street and Southwest Highway (5900 W). Visit their website at http://www.MidnightTerrorHauntedHouse.com/
Until next time,
Your spooky tour guide, Marie