Maiden has big plans for Halloween

If dreams come true, this small Catawba County mill town will one day be known as the creepiest place in the country.

At least for one night a year.

Halloween is big in Maiden, so big that six blocks of Main Street will be blocked off come 5:30 p.m., in anticipation of more trick-or-treaters than the sidewalks can handle: Between 3,500 and 5,000.

The town, 45 miles northwest of Charlotte, has a population of only 3,400.

That's got folks here thinking that they're onto something, not necessarily for profit, but for the simple pleasure of being the best at it. Sort of like McAdenville with its annual holiday lighting displays.

“What McAdenville is to Christmas, Maiden is to Halloween,” says Robin Goodson, who is coordinating tonight's festival at the town's Cornerstone Church. “It's an unbelievable thing to see, like a gigantic parade.”

Explanations of why Maiden, of all places, and why Halloween, of all holidays, are tough to come by. Some say it's because the town – as small as it is – is still bigger than anything else in the southern half of Catawba County. Others say it's because of Maiden's self-proclaimed status as the “biggest little football town in the world,” which has already made it a popular gathering spot. Whatever the reason, momentum is building.

Police Chief Troy Church says it was just last year that the town decided Main Street had to be closed from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. for safety reasons. Crowds had simply gotten too big, he says, particularly outside the more elaborately decorated homes.

“I've seen people four abreast, lined up half a block to get inside a house,” says Church. “I'm talking about the ones with fog machines, strobe lights, animation and audio tracks of creepy sounds.”

In other words, the home of Marian and Tom Lytle , an artistic couple who have been here 20 years. Their century-old Victorian at 101 E. Main is typically the town's Halloween centerpiece, including years when it was a cannibal diner, a sinister mortuary and a mansion for “the Beverly Hellbillies.”

“It's amazing,” says neighbor Josh Grant. “It's basically like they create a haunted house, but it's out in the front yard.”

This year, the Lytles are going for a classic theme, incorporating Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolfman. The plan calls for a ticket booth, a marque, a popcorn machine and raising a movie screen for showing classic horror films in the yard. It was so complicated that the couple had to bring an audio-visual technician. They have spent $1,000 so far, including $250 on candy.

“Every year, we try to top ourselves,” says Marian Lytle, who reports serving 1,600 trick-or-treaters last year. “Reactions tend to be mixed. You've got the ones who line up to see it and ones who get aggravated, because we scare a little kid so bad. But it's Halloween, you know? If some little kid doesn't go away crying, we haven't done it right.”

Lytle is aware that not everyone is thrilled with the growing celebration, given its pagan origins.

“As our stuff got bigger, we couldn't help but notice the two biggest churches in town counteracted with fall festivals, giving out religious pamphlets, free popcorn and drinks,” she says.

Maiden's Cornerstone Church and First Baptist Church have, in fact, started festivals on the same night, with plenty of free candy and religious tracts. However, Cornerstone Senior Pastor Jonathan Foster says there is no animosity toward the little ghosts and goblins walking the streets. He points out that Cornerstone Church petitioned to get Main Street closed; 3,000 people attended the church's festival last year.

“Halloween is to Satanists what Christmas is to Christians,” says Foster. “But we believe it is not a night to shut our doors and hide. Why not do some good and shine a light in the midst of a very dark night?”

That's fine with folks like Marian Lytle, who thinks the church festivals are adding to the growing van loads coming from as far away as Statesville.

It's all in good fun, she says.

“So far, nobody has come up and said they were worried about our souls. Maybe they think it would be a waste of time.”