Bill Franzen’s ‘Nightmare on New Street’ returns to Ridgefield — for the last time

RIDGEFIELD — As he followed the squeaky wooden steps down into the cement-walled basement, Bill Franzen told this reporter not to mind the smoky smell — he likes to enjoy “an occasional cigarette” there from time to time

From one of the shelves Franzen produced an Apple Book, which contained images from his one of his notorious Halloween displays. The glossy pages revealed a series of haunting scenes: a skeleton grandma reading a book to a room full of baby dolls; characters enjoying the beam of a rusted-red moon with their pet, a rabid three-headed dog; and a ghoulish doctor preparing a patient for the reflex test.

These spooky situations have crowded the front of Franzen’s home on New Street almost every Halloween since 1994 — the spectacle was canceled last year because of COVID and in 2012 after hurricane Sandy pummeled the northeast.

The community-dubbed “Nightmare on New Street” has attracted thousands of visitors over the years and even earned a write up in The Wall Street Journal in 2009 when Franzen declared he would stop decorating.

“Then the next year I was like, ‘well, what if we just do a little one?’” he recalled.

But Franzen, who turns 70 this February, confirmed that this year’s display will indeed be his last.

“I’ve had a rotator cuff operation that was probably due to Halloween … and I’m getting carpal tunnel syndrome in my left hand,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, (and) it gets so intense the last week.”

Franzen likely inherited his fascination for Halloween from his mother while growing up in Minneapolis. One year, Mrs. Franzen, who was “pretty artistic,” he said, created a handmade skeleton costume for her son out of luminous paint and black cloth.

While raising his own children in Ridgefield with his wife Roz Chast — a cartoonist for The New Yorker — the humor writer often ran into writer’s block.

“It was so frustrating that I couldn’t concentrate to write, and so I think I just turned it on toward Halloween,” Franzen said.

Over the years Franzen would frequent yard sales and consignment shops, keeping his eyes open for supplies to add to his grand design. He favors finds that have a “homemadeness” about them, he said — things that can’t be found in your standard Halloween store.

“As it got bigger we started to develop scenes that had a story, and the person viewing it could add part of their own point of view to it,” he explained. “It’s kind of like an iceberg thing — you show a little bit, and then people in their minds will create the other part.”

Franzen starts preparing his “canvas” in August and spends roughly 400 hours decorating over the course of three months. “We’re not done till it’s dark on Halloween night,” he deadpanned. “There’s always a final light to put up.”

This year’s display features Franzen’s “greatest hits” as well as some new scenarios, he said. The aforementioned skeleton grandma will lend her reading talents once again, and a misdirected witch who crashed into Franzen’s utility pole is already turning heads on New Street.

Franzen described an “epic” scene located in the left-hand corner of his front lawn. In the tale “Witches vs. Hillbillies,” the latter group is living next to a toxic swamp when, one night, the former group comes passing through, looking to cook up a campfire dinner. The witches trap a hillbilly child in a cage, intent on making him their next meal, but the hillbillies attempt a dangerous rescue.

“Their two worlds are gonna clash,” Franzen said.

When the big day finally comes, the Ridgefield Police Department closes New Street between Gilbert and Pound streets, transforming the block into a festive pedestrian mall. Seeing costumed families gape at his famous front yard, reveling in the joys of the holiday, is comparable to a dream, Franzen said.

“Halloween is the best holiday because you get to be whoever you want to be,” he said. “It brings out the best in people.”

So what will Franzen do now that he has more free time on his calloused hands? He is currently working on a book about the 2003 Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., which killed 100 people and injured even more. The ironies surrounding the fated event unsurprisingly mirror Franzen’s penchant for dark humor, which remains in the minds of those who bore witness to the nightmare on New Street.

To the community who supported him for the past 27 years, Franzen said, “Keep the spirit alive.”