The house on the corner of North Seventh and East Mifflin, near Emerson Elementary, wasn’t always the most approachable. For a while, multiple small signs warned passersby to keep their dogs away from the yard. Fair enough, but this is a neighborhood where dozens of dogs walk by every day, so a little dog pee seems inevitable. For decoration, a pair of witch’s legs stuck out from under the house.

Then, next to the driveway, a couple of toy figures appeared. Stuff like a small toy castle, guarded by a dragon, black wings spread wide. Gradually more items joined the scene. Snakes and spiders. Skeletons and dinosaurs. These weren’t just toys left discarded mid-play. They were placed deliberately, in various scenes, by the house’s owner, Lezlie, who prefers to go by one name and wears all black, including fishnet stockings and black boots. Lezlie’s hair is buzzed close to her scalp and tattoos are visible on their collarbone and arms.

Like so many of us, Lezlie didn’t know quite what to do in spring 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic. Normally they would have been busy planning Art Fair Off the Square as executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance of Artists and Craftspeople. But with the event canceled that year, Lezlie was cleaning out the house and tending the garden. 

“And it turned into a very weird garden.”

As Lezlie cleaned out closets, there were a lot of toys their gender-fluid child, now 18, had collected growing up — toy castles, dinosaurs and pirates. These old toys found new life in Lezlie’s growing outdoor kingdom.

As the pandemic wore on and Lezlie exhausted those toys, they bought items from Goodwill and sometimes people dropped things off as well. The display spread into a 10-foot-long, multi-tiered diorama. 

Now, two years later, and after a post-winter cleaning and reinstallation, the display is still going strong. Multiple signs warn not to touch, and spooky content such as snakes, skulls, and a goblet overflowing with eyeball-laden green goo creates a slightly menacing vibe. But it fascinates and delights, rather than scares the kids walking by. The older set too. 

“I thought it would be only kids who liked it. But there really isn’t a demographic that doesn’t like it. Middle schoolers, sometimes they’re a little too cool for it, but the high schoolers love it.”

The aesthetic, which they call spoopy, is  “not quite scary, but a little bit creepy. And fun.” 

The PG rating is deliberate, and at a spring open house, Lezlie’s “scare-meter,” 7-year-old friend Orion Boland, is in attendance. “If I put something in there and he thinks it’s too scary I take it out,” Lezlie says, bringing out a couple of dolls with vacant faces and faded dresses, one with a smear of red resembling blood. Definitely a creep factor above the items in the garden. It’s not Orion’s first time seeing them though.

“I used to hate those,” he says. “But now I’m 7. I’m braver.” 

Lezlie notes that a younger scare-meter might be needed.

For the most part the garden has suffered no vandalism or theft. Just one eyeball went missing at Halloween. 

“People are so nice to it. They clearly value it,” Lezlie says. 

And Lezlie clearly cares about the kids who pass by on their way to school. At the open house they put out a donation jar raising funds for GSAFE, whose motto is “Creating Just Schools for LGBTQ+ Youth.” Ultimately the garden is for the kids who interact with it. “The first day of school, kids were getting their first-day-of-school pictures taken in front of it. Whole classrooms will come and look at it,” Lezlie says. 

Orion reads from an explanation of the garden at the open house. “It’s Spoopy Garden. If you took away the ‘s’ and ‘y’ it would just be poop!” he says. Burst of giggles. 

The 7-year-old has a dangling tooth clearly not long for his mouth. Lezlie offers to buy it from him. Teeth are among the many worthless oddities Lezlie collects. Creepy? Yeah, a little. But not enough to be scared away. 

By the numbers

Number of dragons currently in the Spoopy garden: 10

Number of castles: 6

Number of skulls: 74

Instagram followers of @spoopygarden: 147

Number of teeth in Lezlie’s collection: 238 (Not all human teeth. Lezlie has 13 tooth tattoos.) 

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