Twice a year, south Scottsdale resident Chris Birkett brings the entertainment to his neighborhood.
He’s a DJ, but it’s his extravagant Christmas light displays during the holidays and his spooky, borderline terrifying haunted houses every October that he considers to be his full-time job.
But when Birkett started this passion project when he was just 11 years old, little did he know what kind of an impact it would make on his community 33 years later.
Sure, Birkett’s Christmas light display – a holiday must-see – brings cheer and elicits “oohs” and “ahhs” from spectators both locally and nationally. (Last year, it won the “Great Christmas Light Fight.”)
And, yes, Birkett's annual Haunted Graveyard Arizona haunted house delivers frights every Halloween for one weekend only.
But Birkett found out his work has also done the unexpected: driven people out of sorrow, as he put it.
For example, one Christmas years ago, an older gentleman revealed to Birkett that had it not been for his grandiose light display, he wouldn’t have been alive.
“He said, ‘My life was in shambles. I was, like, I’m done. It’s over’ – like with his life,” Birkett recalled.
But as the man walked down the block and approached Birkett’s home, Birkett’s lights display suddenly turned on.
The man stood there, taking it all in.
“He said, ‘You know what, I can do this. I wouldn’t want to miss out on this type of stuff.’ He said he took it as a sign,” Birkett said.
“I went inside and realized there was even more responsibility to what I do than I knew about, there was a responsibility to my audience, to the people. So, I continue to get even more passionate after those types of stories,” he continued.
How it all began
Birkett fell in love with building haunts and Halloween displays in 1983.
His brother Steve kick-started what would become a longstanding tradition of building increasingly intricate Halloween displays in their front yard.
They started with the bare minimum: three gravestones and a pumpkin patch.
“We didn’t have any tools,” Birkett said.
It was the ultimate hands-on, DIY project for Birkett, finagling spooky animatronics with a small motor and plenty of spray-painted string, and setting up projections with an old TV and a VHS tape.
“It’s such an honor to go from no technology but be able to provide something to somebody that they were just mind-blown,” Birkett said.
Now, with better technology and more Halloween props and tools for Birkett to choose from and to play with, he continues to expand on his annual Haunted Graveyard Arizona with bigger and more impressive upgrades.
A death and rebirth
Haunted Graveyard has plenty of new features this year.
Upon approaching Birkett’s spooky front yard-turned graveyard, visitors will be hard-pressed not to immediately notice the towering, blue dragon breathing fire out of its mouth from the roof.
The dragon is also propped up next to a three-and-a-half-story castle.
Not all new additions were planned, however.
The “original tree,” as Birkett calls it, met an unfortunate death this year.
The tree has appeared in every Haunted Graveyard Arizona and in every Christmas lights display since 2002. But this year’s storm, for the most part, destroyed it.
“I didn’t know the storm was coming – didn’t mount [the tree] yet – and it was just out here. The tree hit the ground and pretty much exploded,” Birkett said.
Instead of buying a new one, Birkett built his own.
It looks almost identical to the original tree, but it is made of $1,300 worth of welded steel and 80 cans of liquid installation foam. Plus, the tree turns around a full 360 degrees, there are lights in its mouth and eyes, and its arms can reach out toward the crowd.
Bigger haunts, even more safety
Winding down the side of the house and partly into Birkett’s backyard is the haunted house.
This year’s theme is Michael Myers, coinciding with the villain’s return to theaters of the 11th installment in the “Halloween” franchise.
“Michael’s going to get you, and it’s truly terrifying,” Birkett said, adding that it’s all thanks to the actors he’s enlisted. This year, Birkett increased their number from 21 to 31.
The Haunted Graveyard Arizona tour takes anywhere from eight to 13 minutes to complete, and Birkett painstakingly ensures every inch of the winding maze is safe for everyone so bold as to walk through.
“Thousands of people per night come through,” Birkett said, “and when it’s that many people, you’re thinking, ‘safety, safety, safety, safety.’”
Every year, Birkett works closely with the fire department to meet their needs and requirements.
“Luckily, they come over beforehand, and they verify that all of the pieces of the puzzle are safe, and they give me the thumbs up,” Birkett said.
Over the years, Birkett and his team have had to change and fix several aspects of the haunted house, including adding steps, ramps and lights in certain areas.
“I just know what they need now for this style of haunt,” Birkett said. “Because we’ve been doing this repetitively, it’s like waking up and brushing your teeth.”
“Last free thing in Scottsdale”
Visitors can give a $5 suggested donation to get into Haunted Graveyard Arizona, but Birkett insists that if you can’t or don’t want to, then don’t.
In fact, Birkett calls the annual local attraction the “last free thing in Scottsdale.”
“Nothing’s free in this town anymore,” he said. “If you can’t afford it, you can go through for no money whatsoever – and we’re just fine with that.”
Birkett doesn’t feel the need to charge because this is his passion, one he spends anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000 creating year after year.
“Because it started from an 11-year-old’s perspective, I’m creating this magic for people by pure passion,” he said. “I always tell people, ‘If nobody gave a dime, I would still be doing it.’”
That’s his reason for creating it for his community, but his reason for continuing to do it for himself?
It’s a means of escape.
“The reason why I put myself in all of this is because I want the real world to just disappear because the real world sucks,” Birkett said. “I want to create fantasy for everyone. With fantasy, there’s no limit to how happy it could be. I will stick myself there in that happiness for as many years as I can.”