"I generally try to budget $1,000 a month," which adds up to $12,000 a year for several years, said lead designer Brent Ross.
This year, Ross, 31, and his eight-member team got some of that investment back as winners of the Fearnet.com "best house haunt in the country." On Halloween morning, Ross was in New York to appear on "The Today Show," where he was presented with $50,000 by the president of Fearnet.com — a Web site whose users watched a video and voted Ross' house their favorite over 40 others.
After receiving his award on national TV, Ross flew home first class — just in time for Halloween night, so he could enjoy the fruits of his labor.
That night the street was blocked off while a line formed to enter the DC Cemetery and accompanying DC Morgue. Some children were too afraid to go inside.
Ross has been building the cemetery in his parents' front yard and part of his neighbor's yard for the last 17 years, each year adding more props and more detail. The team's passion for their display shows through in its many personal touches — for example, the gargoyles that breathe fog on top of the cemetery fence were hand-sculpted by Ross.
The display has grown into a complicated system of motion sensors, microcomputers and props operated with compressed air. Numerous elaborate skeletons, a witch and a grim reaper have tiny computers in them, which can each take 10 hours to program, Ross said. The computers respond to "midi notes," which allows the display to be programmed by an electric music keyboard. When everything is set, Ross hits play on the keyboard and the display runs in a loop.
The scariest prop in the DC Morgue might be a skeleton that flips up and smacks against a window, coming face to face with visitors before sliding downward. A sign warns against entering for people who are "prone to stroke, claustrophobia or wetting themselves."
Ross once studied prop design and was thinking about joining the movie business, but when faced with the choice to "do this as a hobby" or "do this as a profession and quit [DC Cemetery] completely," he chose the former. Being in Hollywood would have meant giving up his 17-year project, he said.
Now he's a stock broker in training, which gives him the time and money necessary for his hobby. And he's created a side business selling "armatures" — the hidden mechanical contraptions that bring his props to life. That business is called Devious Concoctions (the "DC" in "DC Cemetery").
Ross' parents, Mike and Mary-Ann Ross, have sacrificed their garage, which Ross took over and converted to a shop where the props are constructed. All year long, Ross and his team hammer away, making noise that would normally irritate neighbors. But this display brings a sense of pride to the neighborhood.
The day after Halloween, enthusiasts were arriving from Fremont, Sacramento and elsewhere to see the cemetery. Ross said he is part of an online group of "Halloween nerds," which probably didn't hurt when it came time to vote on Fearnet. Parents of small children also visited Thursday, because children often are too scared to approach the display at night.
Ross' wife, Kasey, was watching him work on Thursday. "It's the only way I get to see him," she said. The two are expecting a baby soon and plan to put the $50,000 prize money toward buying a house in Mountain View. Because of their new responsibilities, the DC Cemetery may not be around next year.
"I'd like to say it's going to be around forever," Ross said. "But I wouldn't mind taking a year off."
More information is available at www.dc-cemetery.com. The house is located near the corner of Bush Street and Yosemite Avenue.