For 364 days of the year, Van Button lives in an unassuming yellow Cape Cod house in Kensington. But every Halloween, his house morphs into an extravaganza of spider webs, crypts and Jack-o-lanterns, as do the 21 other houses on Perry Avenue.
They call it "Scary Perry." And on Monday, as on every Halloween, the street of 60-year-old bungalows and Capes closes for a great big spine-chilling, family-oriented block party that attracts hundreds or thousands of revelers each year.
"It goes up like Brigadoon. We assemble the whole thing the day of Halloween, and by the next day, it's gone," Button said.
This year, he turned his yard into a pirate's lair with the help of his wife and grown children. One year, he dressed up as Count Dracula; another, he transmogrified his yard into the lab of Dr. Demento.
Scary Perry, which has been held for the past 15 years, has helped bring the neighborhood closer together, said Button, who has lived on Perry Avenue for 12 years and works as an archeologist for the federal government when not masquerading as a pirate.
"It's a very friendly block. Because of Scary Perry, there's a lot more connections among the neighbors. Everybody knows each other," he said.
Button said the event began after residents found a dearth of trick-or-treaters on their street. "People got depressed," he said. Now the event lures children and grown-ups alike from across Montgomery County.
Residents generally have a while to get used to the idea of their block becoming a big street party once a year. But not Meredith Eriksen. She and her husband moved in on Halloween night eight years ago. She remembers putting shelf paper in her kitchen cabinets by candlelight to give her house a more spooky appeal.
"We knew about Scary Perry, but I don't think until you see it, you really understand what it's all about," she said.
Since moving in, she has become one of the display's main organizers. Eriksen, a personal chef, said the role has come naturally to her.
"I love a party, and I love being creative. It's sort of like theater and a Halloween party all at once," said Eriksen, who spent the evening as an evil horned queen, sharing her house with dragons and what she calls "all sorts of creepy critters."
This year, Eriksen said, each house gave out 1,500 to 1,600 pieces of candy. She said at least 3,000 people came to Scary Perry, more than ever before.
"This is the first year we've had no publicity at all. I think it's definitely word of mouth," she said. "We have people come, and next year they bring their friends. People on a couple of streets near here plan adult Halloween parties and then meander over here, too."
Eriksen says Halloween has helped foster yearlong camaraderie among neighbors. Perry Avenue has its own newsletter. Residents have picnics a couple of times a year. One year, neighbors constructed a Scary Perry float for Kensington's annual Labor Day parade.
"People say it's hard to find community. If you walk out on Perry Avenue, it won't be more than a few minutes before someone else is outside striking up a conversation," she said. "I give credit to Halloween for that."
That's not to say there haven't been some holdouts over the years who have not gotten into the spirit of Halloween. In those cases, Button, Eriksen and others would decorate their yards for them. Eriksen says that now, nearly everyone takes part.
The planning can be daunting. Residents begin meeting weekly in early September to discuss displays, many of which are used for several years.
Jodi Westrum and her family had an Alice in Wonderland theme for several years, with five-foot-high playing cards and a sewer drain doing double duty as the rabbit's hole, along with a fog machine and disco lights. An endless loop of the efferson Airplane song "White Rabbit" played in the background.
"When we moved in four years ago, we bought from the original owners, who said, 'There's a really fun Halloween Party.' Little did we know."
She said her children, Selma Stearns, 7, and Kemper Stearns, 5, brag about living on Perry Avenue to others at school. "They talk it up. It's kind of a status symbol," she said.
The party wraps up by 9 p.m. each Halloween to discourage teenagers and revelers from bars from descending on the usually quiet street, Westrum said. In the past, there have been costumed performers from the Renaissance Fair in Anne Arundel County. The Discovery Channel even taped the event one year but never aired the show.
Residents don't run over to CVS on Oct. 30 for a couple of bags of candy. Instead, they head to Costco or another discount store to buy in bulk the 1,000 pieces or so their home will need. Eriksen said that residents pay $200 to $300 each to mount Scary Perry each year.
As the years have gone by, more young families have moved onto the street, bringing children and a greater enthusiasm for the event.
New construction has also changed the face of the street to some extent. Four years ago, a small rambler on a large lot was razed, and three large houses went up in its place. Last summer, one of the bungalows was torn down, and construction is pending on a new home.
Over the past year, three small bungalows in a row have popped up their roofs and added major additions in the back, more than doubling their original size.
Button added a room to the back of his house. "People all of a sudden have all this equity and little houses on a street they love," he said. "They'd much rather add on than move away."
Perry Avenue resident Jodi Westrum, standing at center, talks with neighbor Kerry Button and James Oakley.