To Find, to Lose: to Create
Thomas Merton once famously wrote in No Man Is an Island, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” For Russell Seymour, that notion rings true every time October rolls around.
I first met Russell one cool, autumn evening in Charlotte, North Carolina. My girlfriend and I had heard about him on the local news—how there was a carpenter who had been building a Halloween-decorated front to his home every October for the last 25 years. Since we both love Halloween and had dedicated our evening to trying out different pumpkin beers on that side of Charlotte, we decided to check it out.
We pulled up to his house, and the sight was even more amazing than what we had seen on the television…as things always are. Six castle-like towers reaching into the sky. The intricate, stone-painted structure aglow in the southern night. A spooky graveyard out front, dimly lit by the lights that hung on a giant oak tree that stretched over his house. Passersby might think he lived in a mansion, but it was just something he had built around his modest brick house. We admired each detail, as if we were in the Louvre.
A scrawny man with parted wavy hair, probably fifty years old, approached us from the driveway. He introduced himself as Russell. All I heard was “Raphael.” This was the man we had seen on the news. For the next several minutes, my girlfriend, in her strong southern accent, asked him questions about his creation, which he answered, in his strong southern accent. I tried to follow along. The long vowels helped.
Russell told us that he sets a budget for himself each year, takes one to two months off of work, and commits to building as detailed of a castle as he possibly can within his budget. He also invited us to his annual Halloween party. It was apparent just how kind and hospitable this man was. A true southern gentleman.
When we left, however, the lingering question on my mind was: Why? Why all that sacrifice for one day? Why Halloween? Why was he so passionate about something so obscure? I’m drawn to people like Russell. I think they help me to feel less alone as a writer.
A few days later, I decided to reach out to him. I wanted to interview him. But finding him was more difficult than I imagined. Sure, I could’ve just gone by his house again, but I’m a Millennial: if we can’t find a social media profile, then how are we supposed to communicate with you? The man had no digital footprint whatsoever. It reminded me of attempting to track down friars to interview for the St. Anthony Messenger. Thirty minutes later, I found myself clicking through tax-record documents (which would make tracking down friars easier), trying to find a full name, phone number, email address, something. I eventually somehow found the name of his carpentry business and arranged an interview through his business profile on, yes, Facebook, which was managed by his wife of 25 years. My girlfriend called the whole process “creepy.” I called it “journalism.”
This time when I arrived at Russell’s house, it was a Tuesday afternoon. He was in his driveway, again, this time on the phone. Once the call ended, he apologized for the delay, but told me that he had found out the morning before that one of his good friends from his childhood had died at 8 p.m. on Saturday evening from a heart attack—the exact time his Halloween party began. He had been on the phone with his friend’s wife.
Maybe it was the grief that opened him up, or maybe Russell is just a vulnerable kind of guy, but before I knew it, Russell had guided me through his man-cave-turned-haunted-house, which he had built, to his back patio, which he had built, in the shadow of his originally 1,200-square-foot-house which was now 3,000 square feet, which he had built, beneath an awning, which he had built, next to a backyard pond where water peacefully trickled down a staircase of rocks, which he had built, and was opening up to me about why he does what he does each Halloween.
He told me that his fascination for Halloween went all the way back to his childhood. His biological dad left when Russell was only a year old, and his stepdad, fresh out of the Vietnam War, “messed up” in the head, severely abused Russell and his brother almost every day, multiple times a day, for nine years straight.
“But Halloween,” Russell smiled, “was one of those things, as a kid, where I knew that I was going to go out with my brother to go trick-or-treating and that I was not going to get abused that day. It was a big day for me.”
“But Halloween was one of those things, as a kid, where I knew that I was going to go out with my brother to go trick-or-treating and that I was not going to get abused that day. It was a big day for me.”
In fact, Russell loved Halloween so much that he asked his mom if he could celebrate his end-of-September birthday one month later on Halloween instead. So they did.
But Russell’s already-traumatic childhood somehow worsened. His mother’s marriage ended, and she eventually remarried someone else, this time a sexual abuser. Russell wouldn’t open up about it until he was 35. When Russell was uprooted to Florida at the age of 15, his mother caught him—desperate to escape the abuse—attempting to commit suicide. She immediately bought him a one-way train ticket back to Charlotte. Russell believes she was relieved to get rid of him.
“I didn’t have a place to live or anywhere to eat, but I was the happiest person in the world because I was no longer being abused,” Russell reflected.
He spent a couple of days on the street before finding someone who he could board with east of Charlotte while attending Monroe High School, where he was an exemplary student and athlete. He spent the next several years living on two dollars a day for food. He mowed lawns in order to eat and pay his rent. At eighteen, he moved to the city.
It wasn’t until Russell turned 25 that he rekindled his love for Halloween. Not having the resources to go to college, Russell had gotten into construction, audio-video installation, and pretty much any other odd-job he could find to make a living. He began to realize that he could build or fix anything.
“I’m the kind of guy who, if the world comes to an end, come to my house, and we’re going to survive,” Russell said. “I know how to make things work that won’t work.”
One day he was at a worksite pulling out black paneling to replace with sheetrock, and he got the idea to take the paneling home and build a maze in his house for Halloween. He then hosted a party, his very first at 4431 Longwood Drive, inviting the few friends he had.
The next year he got the itch again. So this time he built a complex haunted house in his backyard. More people came. The next year, he started building structures and roofed rooms out back in case it rained. These structures and rooms became more and more elaborate over the years, and sometimes, he would even start working on them three or four months before Halloween. His parties continued to grow. His knowledge for AV only intensified his spooky spaces. He fired up smoke machines and dry-ice machines and each Halloween wore his famous robot suit (which he built).
By the seventh year, he decided to extend the display to the front of his house. And, when he started building onto his actual house (by himself, of course), his world of Halloween “opened up.” He had more space to play. He started obsessing over pictures of castles. He went to work on his castle, and, like Noah building his ark, began to get the attention of the neighborhood. They might have thought he was just as crazy, but they loved it.
“I used to really be scared of people, and I was really scared of men,” Russell said. “But over the years doing this castle, it’s given me confidence.”
Each autumn, he pushed himself to new heights with his castle—metaphorically and practically speaking. He said he’s had some “close calls” with being seriously injured over the years. Try carrying a five-by-eight foot tower up a ladder by yourself to position it on your roof. “I love heights,” Russell said, beaming.
The transformation of his house into a castle was when his home went from a neighborhood party the weekend before Halloween to a family attraction the day of Halloween, where children come from all around the area to experience the magic of his haunting display.
“The way I grew up, I never had a childhood,” he reflected. “I never had sleepovers. I never had any type of normal childhood experience. I think that maybe I’m reliving it through this, in a way—when I see the kids walking up, and I can see the look on their faces, and they’re with their parents, and they’re happy, and they’ve been taken care of. Everything I did not have, I see it right in front of me, and for some reason it has helped me get over my past.”
Russell said that this might be his last Halloween building the castle because of how costly and time-consuming it has become, but maybe his willingness to let go says a lot more about his own personal healing. “Then again, it may be the thing that keeps me healed, and that’s what I’m scared of,” Russell honestly reflected.
No matter what he decides, for 25 years, Halloween has enabled Russell to participate in what Merton described about art: to find a little bit more of himself through losing himself in the creative process.
The next part of Merton’s quote reads: “The mind that responds to the intellectual and spiritual values that lie hidden in a poem, a painting, or a piece of music, discovers a spiritual vitality that lifts it above itself, takes it out of itself, and makes it present to itself on a level of being that it did not know it could ever achieve.”
Thanks, Russell, for helping us to encounter a spiritual vitality, the deeper level of things—a why so inspiring, a mind so creative, and a heart so full and willing—through your masterpiece and, now, your story.
“I like seeing people happy,” Russell said. “It’s the best feeling you can have: to make someone else happy. To be honest with you, it’s the way it makes me happy.”
Happy Halloween, Russell.
Oh, and happy birthday.
This story was first published on www.copelandwrites.com.