From the street, Danilo Oxford's Midtown Palo Alto home is neat and well-manicured, with a profusion of flowers accenting the two-story, pumpkin-orange house. But a macabre spectacle beyond the garden gate awaits visitors.
There is something on the backyard barbecue grill, and it isn't hot dogs or burgers. A mummified skeleton sporting a "Kiss the cook" apron stands ready to baste the grisly morsels rubber hands and feet.
Welcome, dear visitor, to Oxford's Realm of Darkness haunted house.
Each Halloween for 16 years, mild-mannered Danilo, 54, opens his 800-square-foot backyard house of horrors for four evenings at 1034 Moffett Circle. His nightmarish, zombie-populated vision of fright contains 22 pneumatic figures some 6 to 7 feet tall four coffins, headless victims, talking skulls and smoke-spewing gargoyles with glowing red eyes.
On a recent visit, Oxford greeted his victim/visitor in a blood-spattered white lab coat labeled "morgue."
Walking through a forbidding-looking iron rebar gate, he smiled affectionately at the black-shrouded skeleton trapped in a metal cage. "Do not feed!" the attached sign warned.
"Every year it gets better," he said.
This year the haunted house opened Oct. 20 for one evening, re-opened Oct. 26 and 27, and will re-open Oct. 31 from 6 to 9 p.m. Visiting is free of charge, although visitors often leave a donation toward the next year's production, he said.
The Realm of Darkness is indeed a dark place. Inside its labyrinthine walls, the archetypal figures of Halloween scream and pop from ceilings and walls. Escaping the ghoulish labyrinth isn't easy.
"I used to have straight sections, but they'd beeline for the exit. I make it tough on them. It's not for little kids. I warn people that it's not for kids under age 9 or for people with severe claustrophobia. You don't have room to run when something pops down from the ceiling. It's an adrenaline rush, like going on the roller coaster," he said.
Most professional haunted houses are filled with actors, but Oxford's is a one-man show. He creeps around from section to section, playing both live actor and puppet master. Deftly maneuvering switches to activate his spine-chilling cast members, he growls from behind his mad-scientist-cum-zombie mask bwah-ha-ha-ha.
Don't look too closely at what's in those jars in the lab.
"I like to be a part of it. I like to see people's reactions. It's like a psychological study of how people react. Two or three people will squeeze in a doorway at the same time trying to escape," he said.
Apparently, 1,000 visitors share his ghoulish fascination each season. A couple of neighbors help out as guides, but Oxford's wife, Ana, does not. The haunted house is a little too scary for her, she said.
Oxford's fascination with the undead started when he was 12 years old and first watched the television show Creature Features. It broadcast the zombie classic, "The Night of the Living Dead."
"It was just a game-changer for me. It is scary, but really cool," he said.
As a child, Oxford's favorite part of Halloween had nothing to do with ghouls.
"I liked the decorations, and I remembered always how the pumpkin would smell with a candle in it, and you would have the aroma of cooked pumpkin," he said.
Born and raised in Palo Alto, he started making his own Halloween props while attending Palo Alto High School. He spray-painted the names of dead characters on tombstones set up in his front yard.
But the observance of Halloween drifted away after high school until he married and had a family, he said. He began dabbling with the darker side of the human subconscious when his son wanted to set up a trick-or-treat display in the driveway.
"Children bring life to the holidays. They brought back Halloween for me. It's my hobby it's an obsession to do it," he said.
The lead machinist at Polytech Products Corp. in Menlo Park, Oxford applied his knowledge of manufacturing and design to the haunted house, building the figures by hand. Using scrap materials and a few store-bought items such as masks, he taught himself to bring his creations to life using forced air.
Through trial and error and the responses of his audience he has learned what works and what doesn't, he said.
The ghoulmaster has his standards.
"I've never done slasher-film things," since murder and mayhem are "an unpleasant reality," he said.
The haunted house is pure escapism, he added.
Oxford changes the setup and even the characters each year, replacing a mask or changing a head, so that the experience is always new. He starts setting up after July 4, assembling the black plywood structure by himself. After Halloween, he takes six weeks to disassemble everything. He would like to find a sponsor so he can hire people.
Oxford said he hasn't found many people who are as obsessed as he.
"I don't sit around and watch TV too much. Even on vacation, I like to explore caves and things like mine shafts. I've always had this youthful curiosity that I've never outgrown," he said.
Asked about what he might fear, he said there isn't much not the dark, and not ghosts.
"I have not personally seen anything that proves to me there are spirits. I question until it is proven to me," he said.
Now that he's older and the specter of mortality creeps closer, he said he probably wouldn't lie in one of his four coffins. And he might be afraid of a sunken ship of an ocean liner such as the Titanic and he would not want to go deep-sea diving and see a shipwreck.
In the final analysis, one thing does haunt Oxford, he said, and it is directly related to the Realm of Darkness: "My fear is tripping over something in the dark."