Near the end of a narrow lane upon a hillside in the San Fernando Valley sits the House at Haunted Hill.
For most of the year, the Woodland Hills house is the welcoming home of Matt Ford and Lori Merkle Ford. But during the nights leading up to Halloween, the house serves as a hellish prison to the soul of a young Hollywood bride who married the wrong man.
Annually, the couple creates a haunted house to offer the community a fun and safe tradition, strictly to spread happiness and a sense of community, Lori explained.
"We remember what it was like to throw sheets with circles cut out for the eyes over our heads, grab a paper bag and run around the neighborhood after dark, trick-or-treating and having a blast," she told Patch. "We wish we could make that happen for all kids today—big and small."
In a tradition that dates back to their childhoods, the couple began decorating their own home with homemade tombstones and black lights in 2000. In the following years, they began adding effects, using Disney's haunted mansion as inspiration, and by 2006, "We were developing quite a crowd with about 1,500 people showing up over the few nights," Matt wrote on the House at Haunted Hill website.
He wrote that while people loved the unrelated vignettes, they wondered what the overall story—which at that time, didn't exist—was. That spring, Lori came up with a storyline around which the vignettes, along with new effects, would revolve. They contacted others in the entertainment industry (Matt is a television lighting designer and Lori is a singer and actor) who wrote a script, composed a complete score and recorded the narrator's part. Now, the story of a young Hollywood bride and her shady, new husband could be told.
"Unbeknownst to her, he was previously married to another Hollywood actor who, along with her daughter, mysteriously disappeared," wrote Matt, who purposely left the ending out so as not to give anything away.
Q&A With Lori Merkle Ford
Patch had the opportunity to ask Lori a few questions during this busy time. Here is the result of our Q&A session.
Patch: First, probably most people would want to know what motivates you to do this year after year?
Lori: We love Halloween, and when we started decorating, we had no idea it would become what it has. Each year, usually in July or August, someone will email or stop by and ask "Are you guys doing Halloween again this year? We just love what you do!" How can we say no to them?
Patch: Have you always been big Halloween fans?
Lori: Matt's parents used to help him set up their house each year as a neighborhood walk-through, north of Dallas. My father is a retired Air Force pilot, so we moved often, but yes, we decorated and had as much fun as possible. Matt and I both have a strong love for the theater and both hold college degrees in theater. We love the art of story telling and we love to tell our "haunted story."
Patch: How long does it take to set up each year (and with how many people helping)?
Lori: We begin setting up in early September. Numbers vary every year, but almost all of the neighbors and a big slew of friends help us. There is no possible way we could do it without all of them.
Patch: What is your set-up system? Does everything get stored at home or does it take its own storage room somewhere?
Lori: Storage unit—about a mile down the street. It's currently in a 10 by 10 unit, but we are going to be moving into a bigger one this year. Our house has only a small crawl space in the attic and anything we can fit into plastic tubs gets put away on shelves in our garage.
The "system" is as follows: go to the storage unit, brin it all to the house; start fixing, reinforcing, painting and setting up. Some of our pieces are 12 years old, so they can take a bit of work.
Patch: Do you have kids? If so, what do they think of it?
Lori: We don't have kids . . . We have nephews and nieces and kids of friends who come around as much as possible and they just love it. We also have kids in the neighborhood who come and help us each year. It's very special to us that so many want to be involved.
Patch: The production has to cost a lot, not only in terms of investment in equipment, but also electricity. Do you accept docations from the community? Roughly how much have you invested so far?
Lori: This definitely does cost money to create year after year and we try to save as much as possible ahead of time to cover what we know will be needed. We do accept donations, though we don't expect it. Any contributions which come in go to help pay for the city permit fees and the storage unit. And yes, our electricity bill certainly does jump.
If we simply put up the show with no upgrades or new illusions or additions, the annual cost, including things like the street closure permit, storage unit and electricity would be about $4,500.
Patch: After all this, do you decorate for Christmas as well?
Lori: We do put up enough Christmas lights to keep the meter spinning, but it's not a show, just lights.
Patch: Finally, are still adding to the production? Can you give us a hunt about what if might be?
Lori: We are always adding or fixing something. This year, we are adding a few new elements and I will say, it's possible a few people will recognize our newest ghost.
Where: 4400 Saltillo St., Woodland Hills
When: 7 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday and 7 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday
Note: The house is viewed from the street; Visitors do not enter the home or yard. Saltillo Street will be blocked off to traffic. Be prepared to park and walk on dark, sloping streets.