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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: Staying Spooky And Creative - But Distant - This Halloween

Rosemont Manor 2 under construction.jpg
Jodie Valade
Although the theme of Rosemont Manor is never revealed before Halloween, we can safely say this year's theme has something to do with a castle.

It’s hard to know exactly where to look first when you pull up to Kristen Johnson and Matthew Clark’s Elizabeth home on 5th Street. But the Scooby-Doo van parked in their driveway is a good place to start. It’s a point of pride for Johnson, who when not working her global consultant day job at Amazon, enjoys making and designing costumes for cosplay conventions.

One year, Johnson wanted to go to a convention as Daphne from the cartoon. She found the ultimate accessory — a 1969 van. The couple added orange shag carpet to the interior and a sound system. The license plate even says "Zoinks!"

Kristen Johnson
When Kristen Johnson wanted the perfect prop to go with her Daphne costume, she made it herself.

It’s also hard to find a quiet place right now because there’s a lot going on. Clark is currently painting what looks like the front of a castle with a pinkish-purple color. The façade is taking over the entire front of their 1920s home.

Rosemont Manor under construction1.jpg
Rosemont Manor co-creator Kristen Johnson checks out the progress made on this year's design.

When asked if he could maybe take a break during this interview, Johnson smiled and shook her head — a week away from Halloween is crunch time for the couple. There are no breaks.

And really, all of this action is the true reason for the visit — to see the couple's annual Rosemont Manor event come to life. For the last eight years, they’ve turned the outside of their home into an interactive Halloween experience. Last year, Johnson says it drew a crowd of at least 2,000 people.

It all started with a mutual admiration for Halloween. Both Johnson and Clark admired that house on their respective streets growing up — you know the one that goes a little bit overboard with Halloween decorations. Maybe it’s a makeshift cemetery in the front yard or decorations that spook every person who walks by because they just look so real.

Johnson and Clark wanted to be that house.

"It is a big debate between my husband, Matthew, and me. We each blame the other for this escalating so quickly," Johnson said with a chuckle.

It quickly snowballed, she said, from an extremely well-decorated, tricked-out front porch — to constructing actual rooms and tents that spill into their yard where guests can weave in and out. In years past, visitors could expect a show from fire performers and to walk through a constructed tunnel. The event takes months to plan and requires the help of 40-50 friends as cast and crew.

Rosemont fire performer.jpg
Ken Magas
In years past, fire performers were part of the show at Rosemont Manor.

And there’s always a theme. Last year it was the hit Netflix series "Stranger Things." There’s been a Tim Burton theme and a circus theme — mostly for the creepy clowns.

They never reveal what the theme is before Halloween but it wasn’t hard to rule a couple out this year.

"We were not going to do plague this year," Johnson said. "No plagues and no zombies."

But in order to keep this tradition alive, the couple had to scale back because of the pandemic. There won’t be the usual rooms in the front yard that give the illusion guests are walking through an actual house. They’ll be asking visitor to keep six feet apart and wear masks. And people will need to stay on the sidewalk instead of walking onto the property.

Still, the couple wants to make it a memorable experience. So while some things may be scaled back, the same intense, well-crafted, and well-constructed displays will be there for people to view and use as a backdrop for pictures. It will sort of be like during Christmas time, when families look at Christmas lights but, hopefully, don’t go on people's front yards.

This year is a more "look, admire, photograph, but don’t touch" vibe.

RM 2019 Entry Arch.jpg
Rosemont Manor
Last year's theme was the hit Netflix thriller Stranger Things.

A group of crows appropriately caw in the background as Kristen explains why it’s important for the show to go on.

"It’s still important to keep it on because it is our heart and our blood," Johnson reflected. "One thing that a neighbor said a couple of years ago was what really struck us is that it’s not just the joy of creating. It’s the memories we’re creating for the children in the neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods."

Interacting with neighbors and neighborhood pride is important to the couple. Even the name Rosemont came from Charlotte history.

"Elizabeth used to be called Rosemont," she pointed out. "So a lot of our deeds have Rosemont on it. So not only did that birth Rosemont Manor (but) it’s a chance for us to educate the children in the neighborhood about the history."

Rosemont Manor even applied to become a nonprofit a few years back. That allows the couple to collect donations each year for a cause. Typically it’s the Greater Charlotte SPCA, but this year it's Feed The Movement Charlotte.

And the nonprofit status also allows the couple to go to industry trade shows to get ideas from other Halloween or haunted house productions that have, perhaps, slightly bigger budgets.

"Which is hysterical because there are all these haunt operators there with 50 people and millions of dollars and then there’s two us with our $1,000 budget," she said.

Even though they aren’t operating with a million-dollar budget, constructing Rosemont Manor each year is work the couple loves to do together.

"It brings together all of our individual passions," Johnson said. "I work with fabric, he works with wood, we both dabble a little bit with electricity, so that plays nicely into a Halloween theme. It's also something different. While we love Christmas, obviously we're too tired to do anything for Christmas. It's just something a little unique."

Johnson says it’s hard to say how many people will show up this year given the pandemic. Even though it will be scaled back, it’s sort of the perfect set-up for families wanting to stay socially distant but still have some Halloween fun.

Johnson says she’s even figured out a way to safely hand out candy that falls in line with social distancing guidelines.

Regardless, they’ll be ready Saturday, Halloween night, at around 6:30 p.m. That’s when the fog and smoke machines will turn on and start to rumble.

That’s when Rosemont Manor will come to life.

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