Researchers of paranormal phenomena have said that reports of spectral manifestations tend to increase as the leaves turn shades of pumpkin-orange and blood-red and when the nights begin to grow longer and colder. As Halloween approaches, the ghost hunters say, you just might see something dreadful in the dark woods behind your house.
One Fairfax Station woman, however, is having none of that. Heather E. Cooper wants Halloween to be positive, fun and enlightening. In the woods behind her house, which more than 40 little ghosts and goblins have been haunting over the past few weeks, something spooktacular is brewing.
For Cooper, a freelance artist and mural painter, Halloween is the perfect time to celebrate what is best about the human spirit. To that end, over the past five years she has written, produced and directed a series of Halloween plays starring her two children and the children of her friends and neighbors. The company, which Cooper has dubbed the Rutledge Drive Players, has been rehearsing this year's play since late summer.
The productions have all the familiar Halloween trappings: Jack-o'-lanterns, spider webs, gravestones and ghosts adorn the stage. The children dance about in their trick-or-treat best, and the play itself has an All Hallows Eve setting. But Cooper sets these productions apart from standard spook pageants by making each play a parable, building a theme around an ethical principle.
"The Halloween show brings together children from different neighborhoods and groups for a purpose; to teach them a life lesson using the spooky fun that Halloween brings," Cooper said. "We strive to teach a meaningful story to each person who comes to the show. Our purpose is to take away the scary masks and ghouls of Halloween and use its magic to create an entertaining show with an ethical lesson."
Last year's play tackled the destructive power of rumor and innuendo. Cooper said this year's parable, "Just a Little Fib," is about two children who, to try to gain an advantage in a school Halloween talent show, steal the keys to the principal's office. During the break-in, a trophy gets damaged and the ensuing coverup attempt leads to the expulsion of innocent students.
After the performance, spectators head down the haunted path, a wooded trail that leads from the Coopers' five-acre property to a neighbor's land. The path, decorated with Halloween accouterments, is "haunted" by the cast of the play.
Cooper is helped by her children Holland, 12, and Zoe, 8, and her husband, Steve, whom she met in a community dinner-theater production while they were in high school in Michigan. Cooper, who prerecords most of the plays' dialogue, said that she puts 400 to 500 hours of preparation into each year's show.
Mounting the production has become a community effort, Cooper said. Friends and neighbors -- and others the Coopers know from their church, their children's school and Little League -- contribute time, money and resources to the show. About $5,000 goes into staging each play, Cooper said.
The productions have grown increasingly sophisticated, and fog machines, projections, lasers and a sound system are used to create effects. Cooper estimated that staging the play requires more than 400 electrical connections, and said she is forced to turn off all the lights in her house when the stage is lighted to avoid blowing the fuses.
"The kids in our show come from different schools, neighborhoods, churches and teams," Cooper said. "Yet they come together to make a magical impression on each of the lives of those who come to watch the show and join us on the Haunted Path. Our show teaches everyone about how important it is to do the right thing, even in the face of danger and peer pressure."
-- C. WOODROW IRVIN
The Halloween Parables and Haunted Path event is performed behind the Coopers' house on Rutledge Drive in Fairfax Station. Space is limited because this is a residential neighborhood. Reservations are required. For reservation confirmation and directions, e-mail email@example.com. For information, call 703-489-3045.