Haunted Hillcrest

By STEVE KAUFMAN
Contributing Writer

Centuries ago, the evil spirits of the underworld selected a slice of this river valley as their haunting place.

Today, that area has become a leafy, peaceful residential community. But every year at about this time, those spirits rise from the ground and swoop down from wherever they spend the rest of the year (Naples, Fla.?) to terrify local residents for a frightening few weeks.

The residents themselves have become resilient to this infestation, and to the thousands of Louisvillians who parade up and down their Hillcrest Avenue neighborhood of classic period bungalows to see all this evil incarnate.

Mike Ghrist, who lives at 213 Hillcrest, is a nice, amiable, blue-eyed man who lauds the good feeling the neighborhood event offers kids around the city. He also has the house with the most attention. The front of his house and his yard become a full cemetery during October, and who knows who or what is buried beneath. (Did anyone ever think to look for Jimmy Hoffa there?)

Ghrist, who has lived on the street since 1979, hints that the original devil-worshipper was his neighbor, Robert Gravatte (who is, conveniently, no longer around to talk to). Gravatte began summoning evil spirits to his front lawn about 20 years ago, with images of electric chairs and people being live-roasted on a spit.

“The Halloween tradition had been diminishing,” Ghrist recalled. “People were just afraid to go out like they had once done. The sense of neighborhood was also getting lost.”

Gravatte took the edgy approach. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it elicited a few nightmares,” Ghrist said. “But that was Robert’s personality.” For example, a few sets of legs protruded out of the ground with tennis shoes on the feet, and a sign said “Raising Kids.”

Ghrist said he joined in the effort two years later. And while the phenomenon has grown to the point where as many as 4,500 kids show up to trick-or-treat on Halloween night, Ghrist has always aimed his humorous, rhyming messages at the adults who accompany the kids.

So he uses the entire front of his house. His front lawn, behind wrought iron graveyard fences that Ghrist actually made out of wood, has tombstones honoring Telemarketer Tom (“He sealed his fate when he called past eight”) and, on a real motorcycle, Harley Charlie (along with “Big Momma Cher; They were so bad they couldn’t keep them down there”).

Just a thought, but Ghrist seems suspiciously familiar with how things work “down there.”

And, of course, he has a headstone reserved for the devil incarnate. “Osama Bin Laden: He’s run out of tricks. He and his buddies met Seal Team Six!”

There’s also a helicopter that crashed fatally into Ghrist’s roof, flown by Buster the Crop Duster. And Ghrist is planning a new display this year featuring a horse and a Roman chariot that have come to a dead end.

Up and down the street are variations on the same graveyard themes, using a lot of skulls, ghosts, goblins, witches, black cats, gargoyles, devils and other macabre omens.

One homeowner used discarded mannequins from Dick’s Sporting Goods to represent his walking dead. (The subliminal message seems to be, “exercise will kill you.”)

Bloody ghouls hang from trees and spider webs flow from front porches. Severed heads and limbs are strewn over lawns. Signs warn visitors to “Beware” and “Stay Away.” A few lawns have spooky figures coming up out of the ground.

And since even the netherworld gets hungry, one front lawn has been turned into the “Bone Appetit Cafe.”

Many of the homeowners on the street have dedicated their decorations to the University of Louisville, which might explain some pact-with-the-devil deal that has led to the Cards’ recent athletic successes.

Todd Cain, owner of Vertu Salon on Frankfort Avenue has a real coffin and electric chair in the front of his house at 227 Hillcrest, skeletons climbing up the sides of his trees and spooky music coming from the treetops. There’s a funeral going on, attended by the devil himself.

The activity tends to begin in mid-September, though it’s not a coordinated effort. “We may email one another asking, ‘What are you doing this year?’ says Ghrist. (Email is how the devil communicates these days, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.)

And then, the Saturday before Halloween, the neighbors have a coven – of course, Ghrist refers to it as “a party,” but people show up in witch’s and devil’s garb to celebrate the season, at which they accumulate candy for the upcoming trick-or-treat event.

On Halloween night, both sidewalks are jammed – kids and adults. They hire a group of off-duty Louisville policemen to just kind of be there and watch, but Ghrist said it’s amazingly under control. And the crowds are so dense that, he says, “even if you were hit by a car, nothing much could happen to you, the cars are going so slowly.”

Or . . . maybe you’d become part of the walking undead. It’s a great night for recruiting new converts.

Photos By CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune