Nightmare On Brandywine Street

The tidy neighborhood tucked next to Pittsfield Village, just west of U.S. 23 off Packard Road, has a terrible secret.

2727 Brandywine Drive is the site of a haunted cemetery that appears only two nights a year. With tombstones dedicated to Edgar Allen Poe and a creepy mausoleum, it seems out of place in the east Ann Arbor residential neighborhood.

On Hallowe'en (the apostrophe signals the special day's origin as All Hallow's Eve), the cemetery comes to life... or rather, undead... with glow-eyed gargoyles spitting fog, an arachnid-homage gate (no spiders, just spider webs) and a walk through a haunted forest that leads to plenty of good scares.

Robert Beech knows where all the bodies are buried. He's the mastermind of the macabre behind The Brandywine Cemetery. For most of the year, he hides his ghastly talents, going about life as a substitute teacher. During October, it's a different story. The former Disney animator opens the storage shed that holds Brandywine cemetery artifacts in the off season. He takes out and installs the elements that will create the unforgettable scene he'll share, once again, this weekend.

This year's haunt, as such special-effects events are known to aficionados, takes place on October 30 and 31. It will open beginning at dusk (7:30 pm or so) and run until around 9 pm, depending on the crowd. Beech is expecting hundreds of people to attend each night.

"The first year I started this – in 2000 – I had seven trick or treaters. Last year, I had over 700 people. I don't charge admission, but I accept donations. I raised more than $700 for Food Gatherers last year," Beech says. This year's donations will also go to the food bank.

In daylight, the grounds look benign enough. The tombstones --one double-header marks the graves of Ben Their and Don That-- look like the molded foam they are. Hoops hold hunting nets meant to hide duck blinds or the like. (Best use of a portable garage, ever!)

After dark, the camouflage netting and spray-foam creations take on a completely different aspect. Much of the illusion depends on light and sound, including a new laser light cone that interacts with the fog to create a wormhole effect. No greasy, grimy gopher guts – no guts of any species. No blood or gore, just lights, sounds, and spooky special effects to scare the tattered pants off a zombie. Or raise the hairs on the neck of a ghoul. Maybe a ghost could get through it unchastened. On a continuum from Edward Gorey to slasher films, Beech is definitely on the Edward Gorey side. He's a Hallowe'en purist, thus the lack of chainsaws.

And he isn't alone in his love of the ghostly. According to a National Retail Federation survey, 50.1% of people surveyed will decorate their yards for Hallowe'en. In an unrelated stat, 11.5% will dress up their pets. Dogs and cats were not surveyed for their opinions.

Last week, this premature visitor was permitted to enter through the forbidden gate. Chains echo a spider's eight legs. Skulls festoon "brick" fence posts.

There are two parts to the haunt: the build-up, a walk through a forest, and the Hain family mausoleum. Its name is a play on Samhain, the original moniker for Hallowe'en. The structure is disquieting even by day, still lacking its crew of animatronic skeletons that will be there to scare in a few days. We will say no more. The secrets of the grave must be left for the brave visitors who dare to venture in. A swell photo gallery of past years is available on the Brandywine Cemetery website.

Those who panic at the last minute, who balk before they step into the haunted forest, are called out by a professional scorner dressed in a chicken suit. If you take the chicken exit, you're heckled all the way to the street.

"I hope the guy who'll wear the chicken suit shows up – I don't want to have to do it," Beech mutters.

He keeps the queue entertained with more volunteers – zombies ready to take a bite out of anyone who cuts the line. They, too, are volunteer actors – or are they actors?

After Hallowe'en, everything is taken down and put away for next time – only the storage shed stays up. It's packed to the gills, right up to the ceiling: 600 cubic feet of haunt. "I leave the Spanish moss on the fence and the trees – I have to replace about half of it every year. In the spring, birds take it. In the fall, it's squirrels," Beech says.

He adds new elements every year. He works on the haunt year-round, even on Christmas, he says. Especially on Christmas. "Thanksgiving is OK – forget about Christmas. I always like to do something (for the haunt) on Christmas Day," he says.

Beech says he's always loved Hallowe'en. He doesn't remember all of his costumes, but the year he was a robot stands out. "'Boy that would be a great idea!' after half an hour became 'Get me outta this thing!' In the new movie Trick r Treat, one of the characters (dresses as) a robot and has the same reaction."

Although Beech modestly calls himself a semi-pro, he was the lead technical builder of the tombstones for The Henry Ford's haunt this year. When I previewed The Brandywine Cemetery recently, he had just returned from a two-week stint building a haunted forest for Silverwood theme park in Idaho.

Beech is a sculptor and his Brandywine Cemetery is as much as art installation as it is a haunt. Too bad he can't transport the whole thing to Grand Rapids to compete for ArtPrize.

Want a behind-the-scenes look? Check out this SPOILER-filled video.

Constance Crump is Concentrate's Senior Writer. She's also an Ann Arbor-based writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine. Her previous article was Confucius Says...

Send comments and questions here.

All photos by Doug Coombe
Video produced by Christopher "Odd" Dunham


Robert Beech at the entrance to the Hain mausoleum

The walls of the Brandywine Cemetery

Robert Beech with a friend you may meet unexpectedly meet this weekend

The graves of Brandywine Cemetery

Chickens exit on the left please