Jennie Gilroy didn't have her own black, horse-drawn hearse.
So she spent four months building one, complete with red velvet curtains, side glass windows, eerie lights and a talking skeleton for a coachman. She thinks the shiny carriage for the dead fits well with her graveyard and Gothic church, the latter actually a tall facade that obscures her Elizabeth Drive home in east Petaluma.
The regular house had to disappear, she said, so that on Halloween night little children can wonder if they're visiting a place that's not only spooky but also magical.
"I wanted to give them the same feeling that they get when they go to Disneyland," said Gilroy, a hairdresser and Petaluma High grad.
Her home's makeover may be extreme but it's hardly unique. Around Sonoma County, people are transforming their front yards into cemeteries and scary haunts, decked out with animatronic characters, smoke machines, strobe lights and sound effects aimed at creeping out both young and old.
Halloween is no longer merely a night of trick-or-treating with a jack-o'-lantern lighting the front porch. The holiday has become second only to Christmas for the money spent celebrating it.
Americans will part with an estimated $6.9 billion this Halloween season, according to the National Retail Federation. That includes nearly $2 billion on home decorations, $2 billion on candy and $2.6 billion on costumes — of which $330 million is just for dressing up pets.
While total spending is expected to decline about 14 percent from last year, the average amount spent by revelers has still increased nearly 55 percent since 2005.
For the house haunters, all the skulls and bones and spooky trappings are supposed to help children experience the fun of Halloween, much as these adults said they did when they were young. So much the better if the grown-ups get to have some fun, too.
"It's kind of my one excuse to be a kid again and to work with my hands," said Rick Nelson, a Rohnert Park resident who works as an employment recruiter in San Francisco.
Among the decorations at their Santa Cruz Way home, Nelson and his wife Erin have added "snakes" made from flexible pipe insulation. The hose-like strips of insulation were spray painted through a window screen fabric to create a reptilian look. Two golf tees then were added to each snake for fangs.
Getting everything together can take months.
"We start planning and shopping in the summer," said Nicole Griffith, standing outside her Pinot Noir Way home in Windsor.
Behind her, eight-foot-wide spiders hung along the second-story walls, while a pirate's skeleton swung from the front porch.
On Halloween, she said, trick-or-treaters will pass up a driveway featuring zombies, strobe lights, fog machines and about 2,000 plastic spiders and centipedes spread over the concrete.
Griffith, who previously worked in winery office operations, now is pursuing a marketing degree at Sonoma State University. But on Halloween she expects to be home early giving 1,500 treats to costumed children.
"It's about six hours of handing out candy," she said.
Supplying the house decorations and costumes has become a big treat for the stores that specialize in Halloween.
"For us, this is our Christmas," said Cheli Martinez, manager at Partytime near downtown Santa Rosa.