You've heard of the Wicked Witches of the East and West?
Well, meet the Root Beer Witch of north Modesto.
Each Halloween night since 1974, she's handed out small cups of root beer to the droves of trick-or-treaters who come to the doorstep of her home — I mean, her "haunted house."
So who is this masked mystic? She agreed to let us photograph her in costume and take photos of her home decorated with nearly 3,000 Halloween pieces only if we didn't identify her by name or address. Security reasons, she said. And the hundreds of families already aware of her annual spook-fest are enough. She doesn't need any more.
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Can't say that I blame her, even though she acknowledges that the Root Beer Witch's identity and street might be the worst-kept secret in Modesto over the past 34 Halloweens.
Someone once sent a letter addressed to "The Witch" and listed her street name, she said. Without hesitation, the carrier delivered it to her mailbox.
Come Saturday night, her home will be a must stop for more than 400 children, many of whom she knows because their parents and grandparents trick-or-treated there, too.
The Root Beer Witch began her tradition in 1974, a year after her family's home on the same lot burned to the ground.
"We got our four kids out just in time, but we lost the dog," she said. The fire happened two weeks before Christmas and dampened for a few years her enthusiasm for holiday decorating.
That year, a friend gave her the first piece — a ceramic house — of what has grown into an enormous Halloween collection.
Beginning Labor Day weekend, the Root Beer Witch begins decorating her home with witches of all sizes, jack-o'-lanterns, black cats, artwork, blankets, pillows, trinkets, spider webs and the like.
Many of the pieces move, some of them reacting to the motions of visitors. Others talk or sing. Some were given to her by friends who have since "gone to the other side" (she refuses to use the word "died"), conjuring up fond memories of those she once knew.
"I walk around the house, and it's like I'm talking to a friend," she said.
Her collection continues to grow. At any time of the year, she might look out on the porch and find a package containing another piece — some bearing notes identifying the givers and others arriving anonymously. Friends often buy Halloween trinkets for her while traveling overseas, giving her collection an international feel.
"It's whimsical," she said. "It's about having fun and being safe. I don't like the bloody, gory stuff."
Meaning that you won't find Freddy Krueger or "Saw II" action figures among her displays.
In October 1990, though, she'd just finished decorating the home for Halloween when her husband died of a heart attack. In their grief, the family made funeral arrangements. Obviously, they canceled the party, but they didn't have time to put away the Halloween decorations.
After the service, scores of mourners came to the house. They saw the elaborate displays and weren't sure what to make of it.
"They thought we'd decorated for the funeral," the Root Beer Witch said.
And if that didn't make them wonder, one of her friends noticed a cardboard replica casket in the living room. Aghast at the thought of a mock casket at post-funeral gathering, the friend picked it up and put it in the garage. The problem was that the garage door was open when mourners arrived at the house, and they saw a very real-looking casket resting atop her black sedan.
Could that be ... ? Is he ... ?
No, it wasn't, and no, he wasn't.
None of this, of course, seemed funny at the time. But over time the story earned its place in her Halloween lore.
If you happen to know her, she'll give you a by-appointment tour of her home. On Halloween night, though, all the action stays on the front porch. The home's interior is off-limits.
She wears her witch costume that includes the same rubber mask she bought in 1974. She sits in her Morticia Addams-style wicker chair and awaits each trick-or-treater. Her granddaughters act as witches' assistants.
"Kids line up down the sidewalk," she said.
She'll start to hand each child a small cup of root beer, a concoction she gives out because it costs less than buying candy for so many kids. All she asks in return is a show of common courtesy.
"If they don't say, 'Thank you,' I don't release it," the Root Beer Witch said. "They won't understand, and you'll hear some kid in the back say, 'You have to say, 'Thank you.' "
Most are thrilled to visit with her. But for many years — Halloween after Halloween — one particular girl would make it up to the porch, then turn and run away. That same kid is now a grown woman who came to the porch last year and accepted the cup, if only to conquer her fears, the Root Beer Witch said.
"You could see she was still a little apprehensive," she said. "She's 25 years old and still freaking out."
At 72, the witch isn't sure how many more years she'll be able to unpack and then put away her massive Halloween collection.
"It's like moving twice," she said. "I don't know if I'll have the health or energy to do it much longer."
But until she joins her friends and loved ones some day on the "other side," the Root Beer Witch plans to keep alive the mystique of Halloween.
"As long as I'm 'the Witch' and not 'a witch,' I'm fine with that," she said.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org