It’s a day she long feared, but promised, would come. On Sunday, Oct. 24, Heather Cooper will host the final Haunted Parables in the backyard on Rutledge Drive in Fairfax Station, ending a decade-long tradition in which dozens of neighborhood children put on costumes, act out an intricate plays with a real message, then turn the woods into a haunted trail.
“It’s been very hard,” said Cooper, who calls herself “Miss Halloween” without a bit of irony or ego.
The children in her neighborhood would be quick to agree. Starting Labor Day weekend, they’ve been gathering in her backyard, learning the lines she has pre-recorded for them to act out, eagerly trying on their costumes and practicing any number of choreographed dance routines that will make up the 85-minute show, which is nearly twice as long as the plays Cooper has written and staged in the past.
Cooper, who has two children, said she’s glad to know the plays are ending when children and their parents still enjoy the process, but the time has come to try something else.
“A lot of these kids are getting their licenses,” she said, adding that some of her cast members have been with her for the whole 10 year run. “My daughter started when she was 3-years old and now she’s 13. We’ve got kids in the cast from 4 to 19-years old.”
Still, her young actors and actresses knew the end was coming.
In each year’s play, the main characters have to learn a lesson, usually a moral lesson about being a good person and doing the right thing, Cooper said. But at the end of last year’s parable, the main character didn’t learn his lesson. The character, Captain Snickers, was left in the belly of a whale.
“I knew last year that this would be it, so the play was written without a final ending,” she said. With this last play, Captain Snickers will have to go back through the lessons learned in the past 10 parables in order to free himself and come out a good person.
The show will open and close with the aptly selected Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror,” because, Cooper said, that’s where all our decisions begin and end.
“We used that song in the first play too,” she said. “I really believe that song is all about what we’re trying to do here.”
Once the play is completed, the children run off to the looping trail Cooper has constructed in the woods behind her house, complete with yards and yards of white cobwebs, foods made to feel like brains and intestines, strobe lights and even more costumes. The difference between the play and the trail is that the children are ad-libbing their lines, and as a result, they’re just as enthusiastic as they were on stage, Cooper said.
“The trail is just as good as the show,” she said. “There’s a graveyard and ghosts on pulleys and I can’t tell you how much electrical wire running through my backyard. I just love it. I’m sad to see it go, but we’re ending it at a time when everyone is still absolutely in love with it.”
Plus, Cooper added with a laugh, having 400 or 500 people in her backyard for one day every fall has done a number on her lawn.
Cooper is convinced she’ll find another way to provide a creative outlet for the children in her neighborhood, like maybe converting the basement in her house to a black-box theater. She sees many of the children and their parents in church, where she also works with theatrical productions.
One of those children is Eli Downs, a ninth grader at Robinson Secondary School who has been in the Haunted Parables for the past six years.
“Miss Cooper and my mom were talking at church about the play and, since I love theater, my mom thought I should join,” he said. “I instantly loved it.”
This year, Eli will be playing the role of the mad scientist both in the play and on the trail.
“One of my good friends is my assistant Igor and we have a lot of fun,” he said.
Instead of being sad to see the plays come to an end, Eli prefers to focus on what they have given him.
“I’ve made so many friends through this and I’m so glad to be apart of it all,” he said.
His mom, Mary Driver-Downs, said she appreciates all the work Cooper has put in through the years, but is also impressed by Cooper actually gets all the children to work hard as well.
“Those kids are working,” she said. “I mean, they’re out there every Sunday afternoon, learning their lines and helping to build things. That’s the kind of commitment you don’t see anymore.”
Cooper has established a kind of community that feels genuine where other activities may feel a little more forced, Driver-Downs said. While the parents appreciate what she’s done, Driver-Downs thinks the children will take a little longer to understand what they were given.
“I think if you talk to these kids in 10, 15 years, they’re going to really be thankful for what she did,” she said of Cooper. “I really think the kids take these lessons to heart.”
Another mother, Donna Cooper, said her two daughters came out of their shells thanks to Heather Cooper and the Haunted Parables.
“It’s just tremendous,” Donna Cooper said. “She works with the kids to bring out their personalities and make them comfortable on stage. She’s really taken great care of our kids.”
Her daughters, Samantha, 9, and Brooke, 7, started asking when the rehearsals were going to begin months ago, and each Sunday they’re ready to run off to Heather Cooper’s house and get to work, Donna Cooper said.
“This has been wonderful for the whole community,” she said. “She’s given so much to these kids. I don’t know how she pulls it all together but she’s doing an amazing job. They see that she’s dedicated and they want to work just as hard.”