The fall of the House of Horrors

FREMONT, Calif. — Chris Stelle has been working for the past three months transforming his parents' backyard into his best haunted house yet, but now it's looking like the only people he scared this year are city code enforcers.

The city is threatening to fine Stelle's parents hundreds of dollars a day if the wood-framed haunted house isn't dismantled by Oct. 26.

"It's heartbreaking. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this," said Stelle, an 18-year-old auto mechanic student who has been hosting free haunted houses in his backyard since 2005.

Stelle has added to his House of Horrors each year, but this year's was by far the biggest production, with he and about 50 volunteers erecting a structure that takes up more space than the family's adjacent four-bedroom house.

The family spent about $700 outfitting an elaborate series of hallways and rooms constructed mostly of wooden pallets and plywood with a corrugated plastic roof.

However, it was built in the heart of a residential area without a permit. When a neighbor complained about the ongoing construction, city officials paid a visit and quickly ordered the haunted house dismantled.

"It's a life, safety issue," Planning Manager Barbara Meerjans said. "Any structure with people moving through it has to meet code."

Stelle, with plenty of help from volunteers, has opened the haunted house to the public every year during the weekend before Halloween and on the big day itself.

The family estimated that they had as many as 2,000 visitors pass through last year's haunted house, which was considerably smaller. Some donated money, which the family said was given to UNICEF. This year, donations were to go to the Center for Spiritual Living, a Fremont, Calif., church that supplied many of Stelle's volunteers.

Stelle said his love for Halloween started while volunteering on Fremont's annual Ghost House and visiting spooky installations in neighbors' backyards and garages.

When Stelle was 12, he built his first haunted house with little more than sheets of plastic, plastic pipes and fishing line.

This year, Stelle's wood-framed building consisted of 11 fright scenes, including a kitchen with a butcher chopping human limbs, a bathroom with a sink that would have dripped blood, and a closet, where Stelle's brother-in-law was planning to pop out between racks of clothes to chase visitors.

Neighbors said the haunted house has become a local institution.

"I love it. It helps me get to know and meet the neighborhood kids," said Marcela Diaz, whose 15-year-old daughter was set to earn school community service credit by volunteering on this year's production.

Mayor Bob Wasserman said he hoped the city would look into sparing the structure, although he said the city's concerns were valid. "The difficult thing is it sounds terrible when they say we won't let them do their charitable thing, but there is a health and safety thing here."

Fremont does grant permits for temporary backyard structures — usually tents — for limited-invitation events such as weddings, but not for a haunted house that is open to the general public, Meerjans said.

Stelle's only hope to keep his House of Horrors alive for Halloween is to move it to a commercial lot, where it still would have to pass city safety regulations. On Monday afternoon, he said he still had enough time to move the structure if a new home could be found.

"We'd be working nonstop," he said. "But it would be doable."

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