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'Whimsically Witchy' Halloween display raises money for Staunton arts program

Randi B. Hagi
The Dierksheide's residence is known as the "green Halloween house" to the students who attend McSwain Elementary.

Witches, haunted trees, and a ghostly graveyard are among the attractions at a drive-by Halloween display in Staunton that's raising money for a good cause. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

If you catch the Whimsically Witchy display on North Coalter Street before sunset, you can admire the intricate, period-specific black dresses on six life-size witches in Camille Dierksheide's front yard. And after dark, their translucent faces light up in different colors. Each one has her own backstory.

[sounds of traffic, crickets]

Randi B. Hagi
Sorsha the burlesque dancer's costume was modeled after a 1930's Morticia Addams.

CAMILLE DIERKSHEIDE: Esmerelda there, we call her Marge because she was a big rig truck driver like Large Marge – Pee-wee's Big Adventure. [laughs] Lucinda ran guns for the resistance. Hazel, she's a spinster librarian. Noxi, honestly, is named after Aunty Noxi from To Wong Foo. She's a drag queen. Zelda's a bootlegger, and Sorsha's the burlesque dancer.

Dierksheide made them herself, using black garbage bags and plastic sheeting for their costumes.

DIERKSHEIDE: Their insides are like a PVC pipe with PVC joints, and then their bodices are chicken wire. … I used a lot of recycled bubble wrap to kind of make them not look so boxy.

The witches are part of a colorfully-lit, handcrafted display of Halloween characters and props that sprawls across the family's front lawn. There are also giant, gnarled trees with grins lit from within, cauldrons bubbling with colorful mist, and myriad ghosts and skeletons. The spirited spectacle has grown each year since 2017 as Dierksheide has become passionate about 'extreme crafting.'

Randi B. Hagi
Camille Dierksheide is a classical singer, parent, and extreme crafter.

DIERKSHEIDE: So, the whole Halloween display was born of my husband's idea – him saying, "we should do a graveyard in the front yard when we buy a house." … But, you know, now he's a hostage. … We thought about, oh, you know, who are some people we could have in the graveyard? Again, we didn't want it to be evil or too creepy. So we have the Sanderson sisters, hanged in 1693, died in 1993. Billy Butcherson, and over here is Uncle Fester. And then we have Ichabod Crane over there – it just says he disappeared. … and then we have Jack Skellington.

You may have noticed, from the cast of witches to the aforementioned interred, that Dierksheide is constantly referencing pop and literary culture. During our interview, I counted 14 different books, movies, plays, and TV shows she brought up – and I didn't even try to catch the conductors, composers, or vocalists. Dierksheide is a classical singer, and has worked in a variety of creative settings.

It's that love for the arts that led her to set up this display as a fundraiser – for the fine arts program at her child's school, McSwain Elementary. It took some blood, sweat, and tears – like when she was finishing up the trees.

DIERKSHEIDE: The wire came disconnected. [makes popping sound] My hand got all cut up. I had to cut the wires out of here, trying to get this light out. … And I so I ended up having to partially disembowel the tree in the back, and then like cut the wires and fish the wires through!

Randi B. Hagi
Dierksheide made these ghoulish trees out of chicken wire, pool noodles, and spray foam.

Drivers-by can scan a big QR code on a banner out front to donate, or visit whimsicallywitchy.org.

Principal Kim Crocker told me how they plan to use the funds.

KIM CROCKER: I know our music teacher is thrilled to be able to increase the ability for students to have instruments that they play, so that there are enough for everybody to play. There's something called a boomwhacker that really gets the kids wound up and excited about music.

Okay, I had to look these up – they're basically plastic tubes cut to different lengths, so they 'boom' out different pitches when you 'whack' them on something. To give you a taste, here's the HarvardTHUD student group performing "Ghostbusters."

["Ghostbusters" theme played on boomwhackers]

CROCKER: And then, art – Mrs. Purdy is really looking forward to purchasing mixed media pieces in the fiber arts kind of area. She's hoping to do bookmaking, surface design – so, new experiences for our children that they haven't had before.

I asked Dierksheide why Halloween in particular captured her imagination.

DIERKSHEIDE: I guess, as a kid, I just loved dressing up. And it's kind of ironic, because my Mom's an immigrant. I'm a first generation American, and she's of Indian descent, and so this whole Halloween thing was like, "no, this is evil, and you shouldn't do this." But she worked at night, and my Dad was from Brooklyn, New York. He's like, "this is awesome, and we're going to bob for apples and I'm going to scare the kids!"

She hopes that, eventually, this fundraiser could support the arts in all three of Staunton's public elementary schools.

DIERKSHEIDE: We've all had to survive the pandemic in one way or the other, and I think that we need art and music – and all of the creative arts – so much so right now. Not only do they enhance the core subjects on a regular basis, but they help us heal from everything that we've been through in the last two years.

The display will be up through October 31st.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.