Melissa Marcus knows what she likes. She likes Halloween.
“I love Halloween!” Melissa said. “Halloween is my favorite holiday. I like to go trick-or-treating, and I can go in a costume. I can be a tiger. … I like wearing a costume.”
Melissa, who’s 20, is autistic. When she was little, her enthusiasm for costumes and candy and all things Halloween gave her dad an idea. To entertain her and his other children, Jeff Marcus erected a Halloween display in his yard. Over the years, his homemade display kept growing.
Marcus’ scenes of ghosts and witches drew a crowd. Ten years ago, the family moved to Sandy Springs and they kept putting up Halloween displays. Over time, the display “took on a life of its own,” he said.
A few years ago, he put out a collection box to raise money for Autism Speaks, a charity that funds research into autism. Last year, Marcus said, about 1,000 people came to see his “Scare Away Autism” display and, together, they contributed thousands of dollars to the charity. “This all started with Melissa,” Marcus said.
Altogether, the Marcus family’s “Scare Away Autism” project has raised about $10,000 for the nonprofit that finances research into autism, services for families with autistic children and advocacy for issues related to autism. In addition to the display itself, they take contributions online and sell T-shirts. To donate, go to the Marcus’ website at www.scareawayautism.com or to the Autism Speaks website at www.autismspeaks.org/events/scare-away-autism.
The Marcus’ display is a one-of-a-kind fundraiser for Autism Speaks, said Kaitlyn Morris, senior event coordinator for the organization in Georgia and Tennessee. And the fact it was inspired by Melissa is part of what makes the display special, she said.
“I think it’s really cool that they’ve taken that special piece of her autism and incorporated it into something bigger,” she said. “I think it’s a neat, special way to have that bonding time with kids, both with autism and without.”
Marcus says the holiday has a built-in appeal for some autistic children. “Halloween and dress up is really good for autistic kids. They like it. They like pretending,” he said.
Last year, Marcus said, donations through Scare Away Autism came from all over. The hundreds of people who came to check out his display dropped cash and checks in his collection box. Others gave online. “People I went to high school with gave $100,” he said. “People I hadn’t seen in 25 years, people from our past who have known Melissa [contributed].”
This year, the lights on Marcus’ show go on Oct. 18. The exhibit stays up through Halloween. The display is located at the family’s home at 8196 Hewlett Road in Sandy Springs.
Once he started building the Halloween display, Marcus, a doctor who usually spends his time delivering babies at Northside Hospital, found he really enjoyed planning and constructing his holiday display. He likes turning boards, duct tape, fishing line, extension cords and a lot of black paint into moving monsters and scary scenes.
“It’s a very big challenge to do it outside,” he said one recent afternoon as he worked on the display. “I deal with wind and rain. Sometimes everything blows over.”
He’s put in witches that fly, ghouls that rise from the grave, a demon dog named Fluffy. There’s a scary hospital scene, of course. This year he’s working on a skeleton that will spin like a knife-thrower’s assistant and has a friend who’s promised to build a witch that will fly from the top of Marcus’ house across the yard and back.
Marcus’ wife, Laura, says through the years the whole family has gotten into putting on the Halloween show. Son Jeff helps put up displays. Melissa helps paint. “I was a somewhat reluctant participant, but I have come to love it over the years,” Laura Marcus said. “It really is a wonderful bonding thing my husband has going on with the kids. … Melissa just loves Halloween. They love this. “
And, Jeff Marcus said he enjoys doing something for his community.
“I think it’s a way of giving back,” he said. “I have been very fortunate. It’s very easy just to donate money, but this engages people. The effort’s for a cause and the cause is a good one.”
Besides, Melissa really gets a kick out of the show. What’s her favorite part of the display? Well, nothing too scary, it seems. “I like the light-up pumpkins,” she said, smiling.