Hay River residents will assemble on Sunday to honour Linda Carter, who has masterminded Halloween for generations of the town’s children.
The Carter family’s haunted house is a Hay River legend, a production so all-consuming that the family needed two years to plan and execute each one. There were secret doors, holes in the floor, hiding places, mannequins, and a dozen or more helpers behind the scenes.
This year, though, 73-year-old Linda – who has lived in Hay River since 1954 – is too ill to run her haunted house.
“Mom has been diagnosed with colon cancer and unfortunately, as of today’s date, it is terminal,” her daughter, Sharlyn, said on Friday.
“After mom got the diagnosis – of the treatments no longer working – we decided she wasn’t going to be able to do it.”
When residents like Erika Walton heard that, they knew what to do.
“I thought, how can Hay River give back to her when she has given so much to our community?” Walton said.
“Why not bring Halloween to her?”
From 5pm on Sunday, residents wearing their Halloween costumes (and following Covid-19 restrictions) will parade past Linda’s home. She will watch from her vehicle at the end of her driveway.
“This is almost like passing the torch over,” said Sharlyn, through tears.
“They’re already doing it in front of her, for her. It’s a beautiful thing to witness … I’m crying just thinking about it. I can’t even imagine when I start watching it.”
“I’m just overwhelmed with everything this town has done for me,” said Linda. “I’ve always been very proud of this community and I hope I’ve passed that on.”
Nothing cutesy here
Halloween for the Carters wasn’t always a sprawling extravaganza.
“Years ago, everybody was so poor that we didn’t do much for Halloween,” Linda recalled. “I just started doing little things in my house and I realized, when the kids invited friends, how much they enjoyed it.
“I thought I had to keep carrying it on, and it just exploded into this massive Halloween that I have now.”
In particular, when Hay River began holding Spookarama for teenagers each Halloween – itself now a local institution – Linda felt smaller children were being left out.
“That’s why I decided to start a van and have a haunted house for younger groups to come to,” she said.
Photos show Linda appearing in all manner of genuinely horrifying Halloween costumes over the years, usually replete with heavy makeup. (Her outfits were always “kinda spooky,” said Sharlyn, adding her mother “doesn’t like the cutesy-cutesy thing.” Linda simply says she has a “morbid imagination.”)
People would travel from Fort Smith, Fort Resolution, and Kakisa to see the haunted house. Her record, she says, is around 700 visits in one evening – including children who came back multiple times. “That’s a lot for a community of 3,500, right?”
For Sharlyn, growing up in a Halloween-obsessed family was fantastic.
“It was so much fun,” she said. “It started off small – it would be just in the house, handing out popcorn balls and homemade candy apples. Then it turned into mom dressing up. Then my family had a trailer that they turned into the haunted house.”
Sharlyn’s brothers and their families excitedly pitch in, too.
“It’s almost more exciting to our family than Christmas,” she said. “We talk about it and plan for it for two years. It’s a family event we look forward to.”
That enthusiasm was palpable to residents who turned up to be scared out of their wits.
“It’s scary as heck,” said Walton of the haunted house. “I don’t do scary but I have made it through there a few times. It’s just a wonderful event for Hay River.”
The appeal for residents to take part in Sunday’s parade has proven surprisingly successful to Walton, even though she knew how much Linda is loved. (If you want to take part, see her Facebook post for instructions.)
“It’s overwhelming to me, the outpouring expressed from everybody,” Walton said, beginning to tear up.
“It’s bigger than I thought it was going to be. I hoped it would be like this and I’m glad it is – it’s emotional for me because it wasn’t what I expected, everyone reaching out.
“I know Hay River will rally together and come out, support it, and give Linda Halloween like she has to us for years. She loves Halloween and it’s our turn to say thank-you and bring Halloween to her and to her family.”
Sharlyn said: “Mom has been a pillar in this community for so many years, doing little things like this, because she wants to give love back to the community that she grew up in.
“Somehow, with the chaos that’s happening in the world, this little town has risen above and beyond to show that compassion, kindness, and respect are still at the forefront.”
Linda, though, isn’t quite prepared to sit back, relax, and let everyone else do the work.
“We have a little surprise, too, when they walk by,” she told Cabin Radio, without divulging any details.
While her daughter howled “it never ends!” in the background, Linda added: “I won’t let it go without my little input.”