There’s a barn, just a few miles southwest of Marion, that’s full of monsters. If you’re one of the lucky few, you’ll get to see them this year just before Halloween. These monsters are the passion of local graphic designer Jeff Roberts, and when I saw some of his creations on Facebook a few years ago, I just knew I had to interview him.
Giant spiders, killer Amish boys, mud-flecked corpses and doctors from hell. Sitting in Jeff’s tidy, cheerful house, it’s hard to reconcile the quiet, thoughtful and funny man in front of me with his nightmarish creations. His enthusiasm for horror was something Deanna, his wife of 17 years, didn’t initially share with him. “When we first got together, I absolutely hated it. Over the years he’s got me used to it,” she laughs.
As an 80s kid growing up in the LaRue and later Marion area, Jeff remembers listening to Disney’s Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House and going to Halloween parties at his uncle’s house in Caledonia. When I asked him what movie scared him the most as a kid, he told me the made-for-TV version of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, which he watched with his two brothers one night while their parents were gone.
He was an artistic kid whose first passion was drawing. Comic book art, especially, appealed to him, and his favorite artist was Bernie Wrightson, of of the creators of The Swamp Thing. Jeff said he was fortunate enough to meet him a few times before Wrightson died of brain cancer in 2017. “You always worry about meeting your heroes. But he was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet,” he told me.
Jeff really got into building monsters after taking his kids out to the Horror Hotel in Chatfield, which was owned and operated by mask maker David Lady, about 25 years ago. The Horror Hotel was not a haunted house in the classic sense – no one wearing a mask would jump out of the shadows and chase visitors – but more of a display of Lady’s work. Jeff said he remembered thinking to himself How does he make all of this stuff?
While Jeff never got t a chance to learn any prop-making techniques from David Lady himself, he later found out that Lady had taught a guy from Marion, Rob Cametti, some of his craft. Rob went on to run the Mucklebones Monster Museum in Marion for a few years in the late 90s and early 2000s. Jeff eventually got a chance to talk to Rob who divulged some of the surprisingly mundane secrets to monster-making: two-by-fours, carpet tubing, foam rubber. At the time, the internet was still relatively new, and Jeff said he used to peruse a site called the Monster Page of Halloween Projects where like-minded enthusiasts could swap ideas and techniques.
About twenty five years ago, Jeff’s uncle, who was living in a decrepit farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere, decided to move out. Jeff got in touch with the farmer who owned the property, and soon enough he moved in. “The place was falling down, ” Jeff told me. When he met Deanna, she said she’d live with him on the property only if he knocked down the old farmhouse and built a new one. So he did.
An old barn was also located on the property, and that’s eventually where Jeff set up his monster-making workshop. The barn is big, though, and Jeff’s workshop occupies only a small part of it. Over time, the rest of the barn began to fill with his creations…
Jeff said that since he wasn’t really using most of the barn for much, he decided around twenty or twenty-five years ago to throw a Halloween party in it and decorate it with his creations. He called it Spookfest, and it’s become a yearly event at the Roberts home.
He said around a hundred people show up, most of them friends and family and business associates, though he added with a laugh, “Some people just invite themselves.” It’s a potluck party, so everyone brings a dish, but Jeff doesn’t charge an entrance fee or make any money off the party.
Spookfest embodies some of the fundamental contradictions of the Halloween season: the mixing of the terrifying with the fun, the trick and the treat, the grim reminders of death while experiencing the joy of being around loved ones. Among the dozens of ghastly props and horror show creations, Spookfest is, at heart, a kid-friendly event with games and candy and a costume contest. “I still remember the Halloween parties I went to as a kid, and I want these kids to remember this party for the rest of their lives,” Jeff told me.
When the Party’s Over
Between them, Jeff and Deanna have four daughters, and they’re all interested in Jeff’s work. His youngest daughter, especially, has an interest in monster making. Who knows, maybe she’ll be organizing the Spookfest parties some day?
As for future plans, I asked Jeff if there’s anything he’d like to build which he hasn’t tried yet. He said he’d really like to build a headless horseman sitting on a horse. “The horseman’s not the hard part. The horse itself is the hard part,” he told me.
Many thanks to Jeff and Deanna for allowing me into their home. I would also like to plug Jeff’s business, Lobo Awards and Graphix. If you need a poster, t-shirt, trophy, etc., he’s your man. You can check out his website and Facebook page for more information.