In Diana Kirkpatrick’s basement, hundreds of lifeless eyes gaze into the darkness. A pile of body parts lies in the corner, spattered with blood.
“I buy all of this stuff at flea markets. I try not to buy from the party stores because the kids have already seen all that,” Kirkpatrick says as her army of dismembered mannequins looks on.
Every year, this menagerie of horror moves from Kirkpatrick’s basement into the barn at her home on Middle Road in Portsmouth. After 20 years, the “haunted barn” has become a Halloween tradition, and it’s open again this month every night through Halloween.
It all started at Kirkpatrick’s previous home on Miller Avenue. There, she made her first prop, a life-sized Frankenstein’s monster.
“My daughter Rachel dressed up and she was sitting on the porch and she scared these kids so bad they fell down the stairs. And I thought, ‘This is the most fun I’ve ever had!’”
With her long, dark hair and flushed face, Kirkpatrick is vibrantly alive compared to the ghoulish masks next to her, of faces in various stages of decomposition. “From then on, I was hooked,” she says. After moving to Middle Road, Kirkpatrick’s decorations only expanded.
With help from her daughter and friends John Prendergast and Carol Woodman, among others, her display now involves a carriage led by a gigantic black iron horse in the driveway, a walk-through cemetery on her lawn, and the barn itself, responsible for drawing thousands of visitors looking for Halloween thrills.
The basement, full of macabre clutter, is where Kirkpatrick stores props from years past. Each Halloween, she creates a new theme for the haunted barn.
“I’ve got this thing about Victorians this year,” Kirkpatrick says, standing over a coffin, “I’ve done fairytales, monks, … an electric chair.”
As Kirkpatrick strolls through the basement, she introduces characters from previous displays. There’s a pock-marked, slender mannequin wearing a bright red wedding dress. “This is from the ‘blood wedding,’” she says. Past boars’ heads and glass eyeballs is a blood-splattered mannequin wearing pajamas. It appears to be eating its hands.
“This is Finger Food,” Kirkpatrick says, fondly adjusting a sleeve. “I put her in these little jammies that I found.”
Kirkpatrick points to a convincing electric chair she made using insulation, belts, and power cords. A seasoned artist, she takes pride in these hand-made props. “That’s what makes it fun. If I could go out and buy everything, it just gets boring.”
Building the scenes and decorating the barn takes months of work. This year, she began decorating in July.
“You build the scene and then all of these things that you picked up here and there start to become an idea,” she says.
This year, she found an embalming table at the flea market and fell in love. It’s become the focal point for a Victorian funeral scene — a morgue, undertaker’s room, and a crematorium she made using a kitchen island, fireplace doors, and brick paneling.
Kirkpatrick graduated from Vermont College’s residency program as an installation artist. “You’re not just looking at a piece of work … you’re looking at a whole environment,” she says.
The haunted barn is packed with animatronics, lights, and noises. An old woman rocks back and forth. A young girl screams and whines as she flings her body around. Robotic doctors loom over a cadaver and turn their heads in an eerily human manner. It’s hard to predict what moves and what doesn’t in the disorienting chaos.
“This one right here is my favorite,” Kirkpatrick says, pointing to a Victorian stroller that holds a slug-like monster the size and shape of an infant. As we walk past, it opens its mouth and makes a low-pitched gurgling sound straight out of the bowels of a nightmare. “I’m going to put a baby blanket around him,” she says gleefully.
For Kirkpatrick, it’s all about people’s reactions. “I really love that memories are created by this. When I was a kid, I can remember some Halloweens that were the best part of my life — the not knowing, the magic.”
The haunted barn is one of Portsmouth’s many cherished Halloween revels. Kirkpatrick keeps it going through donations, and a few years ago, someone stole the donation box. Frustrated, she told people, “Don’t put any money in the box — I’m not even locking it.” The next night, she found a wadded-up paper towel inside with $300 and the message, “Please don’t stop doing the barn” scrawled in a child’s handwriting. It marked the beginning of a flood of supportive letters.
In her house, guest books, one for every year of the haunted barn’s life, line a shelf. She opens one and a cascade of letters and pictures tumble out. She reads aloud the entries:
“Thought it was real scary.”
“Better every time.”
“This will leave me disturbed.”
Kirkpatrick laughs. “The main drive (now) is because they write in those guest books how much it means and I couldn’t not do it,” she says.
She’s dedicated to her art — so dedicated that she’s told Rachel, “If I ever fall off the ladder and I die right here on this pavement, I want them to put a chalk mark around my body — and then leave me there until Halloween’s over.”
The haunted barn, the ghoulish displays in the yard, the basement full of frightful props — this is Kirkpatrick’s element. “This year, I’m thinking maybe I don’t take it all down — maybe I leave it,” she says. “I was at a grocery store once and this lady goes, ‘Every time we drive by your house, my 4-year-old son looks at me and says, ‘Is that where the witch lives, mom?’”
The witch smiles at her hard work. “Not a bad legacy, I think.”
Diana Kirkpatrick’s haunted barn is open every night from 5 to 9 p.m. through Oct. 31 at 292 Middle Road in Portsmouth. Free, donations suggested.