By Burt Constable
Since the start of the millennium, Michael Podlin and TammySue Margalit have turned their Arlington Heights home into a scary spectacular with lights, music, moving creatures and live characters every Halloween. The specter of Podlin's grim pancreatic cancer diagnosis hangs over this year's efforts.
"This is our 17th year, and this might be our last," says Margalit, 52, as she stands beside dozens of skeletons and tombstones.
"Death is basically our house decor," says Podlin, who will mark his 55th birthday on Saturday by going for chemo. "I don't think about being like that. We live Halloween all year round."
After his diagnosis in March 2016, Podlin underwent successful surgery, six months of chemotherapy, another six weeks of radiation and was thought to be cancer-free. Then a checkup revealed the cancer was back and had spread to his liver. His renewed treatment leaves him too weak to do "the heavy lifting," says Podlin, who was working in information technology until he got sick. "This year, I have a lot of help. I sit on the ground and wire things up."
They have a witches' shack, a skeleton band with an equally dead audience, a demented chef cooking up severed limbs, monsters, a pair of handmade 12-foot-tall wooden skeleton oracles, pirates and a host of frightful clowns.
"Tell us your darkest fears and phobias, and we'll help you face your fears," Podlin says.
Different every year, the stockpile of nearly 100 characters, including a dozen that move, with lights, music and live characters, takes about a month and a half to set up, but the couple works on their collection year-round. What appears to be an impressive wrought-iron fence anchored by massive stone corner pieces is carved out of plastic foam and was painted by Margalit, who always has been an artist, a drummer and a singer. Podlin is a computer wiz and understands machines, motors and wiring. The couple have been together for 31 years, married for 26, and get some decorating help from son Sam, a special-needs student who turns 17 on Halloween, and daughters Sabrina, 15, and Ginger, 14.
Hundreds of people stop by daily and nightly every day of the week, but 1,500 (Margalit has a clicker counter) show up on Halloween to see the display at 1119 N. Forrest Ave. Margalit warns that misspelling Forrest as Forest will, ironically, send GPS users to a nearby cemetery instead. She generally hands out full-size candy rats or tarantulas, but money is tight this year. Podlin stopped working four months ago and is applying for disability payments. The family already cashed in his life insurance policy to pay bills. In front of the skeleton band display is a guitar case for tips, but the family doesn't bring attention to it.
"We have nothing, and we're still doing this," Margalit says,
"I do it for the kids and everyone else," Podlin says. "It's fun to get handwritten letters from little kids."
The couple met when Margalit had a temp job at a manufacturing plant where Podlin worked. She came into the office gushing about the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie that had just come out. Her idea of a pet was her 15-foot albino python, piranhas, scorpions, millipedes, tarantulas and the usual collection of roaches and lizards.
"You've got to meet this guy. He loves scary stuff," she remembers a co-worker saying, referring to Podlin. "And that's how we met."
Her 10-year-old minivan sports a zombie window decal noting, "We ate your stick family," and a vanity plate "SCARY," which was her nickname long before she and Podlin started their Halloween traditions. Before they had kids, the two were instrumental in designing and building a popular haunted house for a suburban church. After 13 years, the church ended that relationship, and the couple brought their talents to their own yard. They also designed and built a scary display for the Admiral Theatre adult venue and strip club and created a spinning dreidel for a local temple.
Their first props were a "monster in a box" and "monster in a casket" that used motion detectors to activate a motor that made it seem as if something inside was trying to get out. "They still work," Margalit says. A stranger donated a once-gorgeous but broken organ that her grandfather had brought from Poland, and a skeleton has manned that keyboard for years. The 12-foot wooden skeletons (a giant version of the desktop models with moving parts) took Podlin about 1,000 hours to make, he says.
The pair makes props out of plastic piping, scrap wood, plastic foam and even an old lawn mower. "I need to get a wedding ring for his finger so it looks like it's a wife mowing over her husband," Margalit says of the skeleton hand sticking out of the blades.
Surveillance cameras keep an eye on the property, but only a couple people have tried to steal something over the years. The most common question they get is, "Where do you store all that stuff?" to which she replies, "In the chimney."
Despite their health crisis, money woes and all the sorrow in the world, Podlin and Margalit say the point of their Halloween tradition is just to give people happy memories.
"It's a passion that I live for," Podlin says.
"Forty or 50 years from now, when we're dead and gone," Margalit says, "these children are going to say, 'Remember that scary house?'"