Halloween Queen: Dressing up is as much a part of celebrating as decorating
Melinda Lewis lives up to the phrase found near her back door -- "Queen of Halloween."
Turning onto her street, the lights and decor in her yard shine brightly amid other dark homes. There are cutouts she made, including Cruella de Vil, a pirate ship and plenty of pumpkins. Inside her home, the decorations are spread out, everything from ceramics and skulls to Frankenstein and a crystal ball. Spooky sounds can also be heard throughout.
Dressing up is as much a part of her Halloween as decorating. She has a Halloween closet full of costumes, which she gets on sale or from Goodwill. This year, she will be a pirate.
"If you come here for trick-or-treating, you dress up," she said. "Even our dogs get in the act."
Ms. Lewis, 62, has done Halloween at her home for at least 18 years. Last year, she drew hundreds of trick-or-treaters.
It all started when her daughter was growing up. At the time, she said people were putting poisons and razor blades in candy, and she wanted a safe place for people to come that was not too scary for little children.
"I wanted a fun thing, not a scary thing. Some of the things are scary, but it's really mostly fun things for the children that they can do," she said.
Ms. Lewis started with small decorations she purchased on sale after Halloween, and items accumulated over the years.
At first, she focused on the front but later let trick-or-treaters come inside.
"I had a few little things they could push the buttons on. Then so many kids couldn't do that anymore without a path, so I brought them in the front door, went to the garage, and had a fun house in the garage," Ms. Lewis said.
She had up to 15 to 20 people, including family members, help her with Halloween. They dressed up and were positioned throughout the home.
When she started, she also took Polaroid photos of the children, and gave them their pictures. When the digital age came about, she would send photos by email, but children now bring their own cameras.
Over the years, she said nothing put a damper on her desire to decorate, not even a breast cancer diagnosis.
In 2000, the same year she received her diagnosis and had a mastectomy, she still did Halloween and dressed as a saloon girl. She ran a marathon the next year.
Ms. Lewis was cancer free for five years, but it has returned about four or five times.
She starts getting decorations out in the middle of September and does a little bit at a time. With her chemotherapy treatment, she typically has two good weeks out of the month where she feels up to it, she said.
Last year, she was especially sick from treatment, and a group from downtown Jacksonville, along with her friends who do ceramics with her, helped decorate.
She said she's only been able to do the front yard for the public the past couple of years, although she still decorates inside.
"I do sit out front and still have people out there (in costumes)," Ms. Lewis said. "I take a lot of the stuff outside, so they're still able to push the buttons and interact with the different things. I'm just not able to let them come through house and decorate like I used to."
Each year, the outside is a little different. She said she has a graveyard and usually has a flying witch.
"I usually have several things I did not get out this year, and some blow ups quit working. (But) I have new things they didn't see last year out there," Ms. Lewis said.
She recalled one time when she made her own version of an electric chair, and said she may put that out this year. Surrounded by her decorations inside, Ms. Lewis said one of her favorites is a skeleton that plays the song "Twist and Shout."
"I guess I love the dressing up. I love seeing all the kids dressed up and how happy it makes them to get their candy and see all the different things that we have. It's just a really exciting time for me," Ms. Lewis said.
As that exciting time approaches again, she still called her breast cancer journey "a blessing."
"It's provided miracle after miracle. The doctor, if some medicine does not work, ... he has something new," she said.
"It's just been an amazing journey. The Lord has really provided for me every step of the way. I'm on so many prayer lists, and it really does help. I know the Lord answers prayers ... Twelve or 13 years with breast cancer nearly stage four, you just don't live that long, so I know the Lord has His hand in this."
Rusty Peacock, a close friend of Ms. Lewis for more than 30 years, called Ms. Lewis "one of the most positive people you'd ever want to meet."
Ms. Peacock said her friend looks forward to doing ceramics with her friends on Monday nights in her garage. Even if she's sick, she'll participate.
One year, she said Ms. Lewis didn't have her typical Halloween, but she still helped her neighbors decorate and brought some of her decorations over to her neighbors' house.
"She's just known for that and Christmas both. It's unbelievable how positive she is," Ms. Peacock said.
After Halloween, Ms. Lewis plans to go on a cruise with friends, who are paying her way.
"I think that's a nice tribute to her," Ms. Peacock said.