If you live in or around the unassuming neighborhood near Tally Road or Moro Drive, just off Quakerbridge Road north of Miry Run, you’re already familiar with the main character in this Halloween tale. If you don’t live in this particular residential half-circle, fear not, this is not a grisly tale of the macabre. It’s one about a guy who, with the blessings of his wife, gives his neighborhood quite the show every time All Hallows Eve rolls around.
The annual spectacle is a presentation of Vince Farina, mild-mannered computer techie by day (and night), and his wife, Deb, an even more mild-mannered life coach. To get a sense of the Farina Family Frightmare, you can drop by the Facebook page of that name, where there are fangs and tombs and skeletons aplenty to show you how elaborate things can get every Halloween at the Farina residence.
But the full effect of Farina’s ghoulish productions should really be walked through to be appreciated. And he’ll let you do it, for free, because he just loves Halloween that much and gets a kick out of finding creative ways to bring the boo.
You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the Frightmaster beckon you to the Farinas’ two-car garage. And you’ll know it’s him because of the red vest, top hat, and “a $15 skeleton mask, but the best skeleton mask I’ve ever seen,” Farina says.
“I’ll beckon them,” he says. “Usually they’ll try to drive by, but I see one pull over and think, ‘OK, I’ve got one.’”
Once the hapless souls are successfully lured from the car, Deb will hand out candy and let visitors know what they’re in for, past the gravestones and inside the garage. There’s no gore, Farina says. Never has been and never will be. He is more about the haunted and the spooky. The slasher stuff can go in someone else’s garage (and, for the record, his garage rarely has a car in it, even when it isn’t Halloween).
This year, Farina is extra excited because he’s laying out something of a Celtic legend.
“I never had a Grim Reaper,” he says. “I came across a Celtic legend of the Ankou—he’s basically the protector of the graveyard.”
Actually, Ankou is the personification of death in Breton and Welsh mythology, but let’s not quibble about details. The point is, Farina has his Grim Reaper, and he’s got his designs ready to build an eerie, Sleepy Hollow-like scene with a 7-foot Ankou at the gates; and he’s built a horse-drawn cart (and quite a large one) with a “ghost horse” bridled to it.
The scale of this year’s display follows the theme of “imposing,” Farina says. Every year, as he’s figuring out what to do, he settles on a word or concept and then builds to it. Last year, for example, with a creepy cryptkeeper front and center, the word was “decrepit.” This year, he says, he wanted to overwhelm with sheer size.
And the display is imposing enough for Farina to have started building it a couple months earlier than usual. Typically, he says, he starts in on a new idea in February, collecting images and materials and whiling away the winter shepherding his ideas to fruition. But for this year’s setup?
“I started in November,” he says.
In fact, last year’s setup was still up when thoughts of Celtic soul collectors came to him. As usual, he helped offset the cost of building his vision by asking for gift cards from home supply stores for Christmas. And it might surprise you to know that over the 20 years Farina has been doing something for Halloween, he’s only spent a surprisingly modest $7,000, cumulative, on everything.
It might also surprise you to know he’s been at it for 20 years, given that Vince Farina is 41 years old. But the bug to do something elaborate for a holiday celebration was downloaded fairly early in his life. Longtime Hamiltonians might recall an epic annual Christmas display on Kentucky Avenue. That was Farina’s uncle, Micai.
“We called it ‘Micai’s Christmas,’” he says. “I think he planted the seeds.”
As a young adult, Farina helped decorate the Hamilton Elks’ lodge for Halloween, and then he was asked to build some Styrofoam gravestones for his cousin’s dance studio. “Eight dollars worth of Styrofoam” was all it took to start him building evermore elaborate projects for an increasingly impressive Halloween display, he says.
When he met Deb (at Winberie’s in Princeton), he immediately knew two things—she was a keeper and she would be fine with his annual Halloween project. The couple have been married five years.
“The other part that made it take off was my niece,” he says. “She was my barometer.” As a kid, she would always let him know what was cool and what needed work in his ideas. She’s now a senior at Penn State and still a fan, he says.
Still, there is nothing quite like the creative need for continued self-fulfillment hatched from self-competitiveness, and this is what drives Farina to go big and still go home every Halloween. He doesn’t try to outdo anyone else on the block, he just wants to do better than he did last year. It’s his creative outlet.
Then again, to be fair, no one else on the block, or any block near it, does anything close to what Farina does for Halloween. For one thing, they don’t have to, because the annual Frightmare feels like more of a neighborhood thing than just one house’s thing—and some of Farina’s neighbors wish they could even have a bit more ownership, in fact.
“I tell him, ‘Hey, Vin, if you need any more room, feel free to come over to my side,’” says Jerry Di Orio, Farina’s next door neighbor. “I look forward to it every year.”
Di Orio has an inflatable dragon on his lawn. If one year Farina decides to do something mythical and medieval that needs a dragon in the mix, well, Di Orio won’t complain. Until then, though, he’s happy to let his neighbor have the floor for Halloween and says he has friends who come visit on Oct. 31 just so they can pop next door to see what Farina has going on.
Self-competition aside, Farina does draw his inspiration from others. One big influence on his creative thinking is the music of film composer and Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman.
“I love seeing his name in the credits,” Farina says. “His music gives me the feeling I’m trying to do visually.”
Farina also draws visual inspiration from movies—Van Helsing, The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street (the original one). He likes scares that get in your head with a twist of wry humor.
Beyond Deb, Farina enlists the help of his family, many of whom are in Hamilton, where they’ve all grown up. His sister and parents are “right down the street,” he says. His brother and sister and their kids pitch in to help run the show on Halloween night, but most of the legwork, from inspiration to building the displays, is all him.
The funny part about that, he says, is that no one in his family (Micai aside) was ever much of a builder or creative type.
“My father can’t understand how I got working with building things,” he says. “He was a truck driver for the state. I became the techie of the family.”
With his knowledge of computers and programming, Farina would put together lightshow displays for other people, but no one showed him the finer points of carpentry and project construction. At least not until YouTube came around. Farina is not shy about how much he likes YouTube, nor how much he’s learned about the actual construction and the neighborliness of people who make videos showing how they built their Halloween set pieces.
Given how elaborate things have been getting over the years and how much time Farina spends on constructing his theatrical sets (side note: he was never in theater in school), you’d be forgiven for thinking it takes him a long time to set up the show in his front yard. But actually, he says, he puts some stakes in the ground throughout October but doesn’t build the display until the weekend before Halloween. It’s an admittedly long weekend, he says, but everything people try to drive past before getting beckoned by the best $15 skeleton mask around goes up in a couple days.
It comes down just as fast, Farina says. And nothing gets thrown away—not because he’s a hoarder, he just never knows what he’s going to need for future displays. He can break down set pieces because he constructs them with dowels instead of nails, and he stores things in his basement and garage. One of these years, he says, he’ll have enough props to justify building into his backyard.
Until then, Farina wants to keep Halloween fans happily scared while they walk through his visions. And he hopes that in the years ahead, he’ll have planted the seeds for fun displays of a favorite holiday in someone else’s imagination, like Uncle Micai did for him years ago.
“I’m actually out there to encourage the next generation,” he says.
Judging by how many teens and young adults drop in to laugh their heads off, he says, he might be off to a good start.
Farina Family Frightmare is located on Moro Drive in Hamilton. For more information, go online to facebook.com/farinafamilyfrightmare.