Weekend Wanderlust: Fairborn, Ohio’s Halloween capital
A guide to day trips across Ohio and beyond. This month: the 'year-round Halloween town' near Dayton
Mike Foy has had a busy October. I tried endlessly this month to get him on the phone, and when I finally did, he still had a rush of customers in Foy’s Halloween Store at 7:30 on a Sunday night.
“It got to a point on Saturday when I had to shut the doors and start counting how many people were coming in and out,” Foy said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
This past weekend marked the final stretch of Fairborn’s 10th annual Halloween Festival, when Main Street is lined with food vendors, spooky entertainment and lots of people in masks. We saw at least four versions of Michael Myers lurking the sidewalks. Children posed for pictures with murderous clowns, crucified scarecrows, day-glo skeletons and a chainsaw-toting Leatherface from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." There was a coordinated zombie walk on Saturday.
Foy anticipated the increase in business. With last year canceled due to COVID, visitors far and wide have made Halloween 2021 the cause for a secular, bacchanalian respite. And though the festival is over, Foy’s Halloween empire in Fairborn draws crowds almost daily from September until Oct. 31, making this city on the outskirts of Dayton the Halloween capital of the Midwest and Mike Foy the mayor of Halloween.
At full tilt, downtown Fairborn has six stores open late hours: the flagship Halloween store, one for adult costumes, one for kids, a haunted house supply depot, a “glow shop" and a haunted maze above the glow shop, plus an overflow store a few blocks away.
“I don’t want to make the whole town Halloween,” Foy said. “We have to have other businesses here. I rent out buildings to a barber shop, a beauty salon, a women’s clothing store and soon a new museum, but it’s pretty much a year-round Halloween town.”
Indeed, part of the charm is how Fairborn has built its identity around Foy’s footprint. With comic book, thrift and toy stores, it’s a bastion for nerds, outcasts and the curious. Most recently, Secret Chamber has opened. The space, separate from Foy’s, is an art gallery and house of oddities where you can find a copy of the Satanic Bible and a Fiji Mermaid. Should you want, you can also purchase a naked mole rat in embalming fluid or hair from a human corpse.
It all had a fairly wholesome beginning. Foy’s was built by Mike’s grandfather in 1929 as a five-and-dime just a few months before the stock market crashed. As a result, he closed another store in the Ohio village of Versailles and made his permanent home in Fairborn.
“I always say that the reason this place survived is because he didn’t buy a five-story building, or else he would have jumped,” Foy said.
With some resilience, the store stayed in the family. Mike was working behind the counter as early as he can remember, and in 1978 he joined his parents as partners in the business. He said his son, who would be the fourth generation, will likely take over when the store reaches its 100th anniversary.
Any other time of year, visiting Foy’s is an indulgent nostalgia trip — like entering the first few scenes of "Pee-wee’s Big Adventure" — with a rainbow of aisles crammed with plastic gimcracks and gewgaws, magic tricks and slide whistles. In the back there’s a baby albino alligator in a tank lording over a section of pipes and tapestries. Should you need a terrifyingly realistic Chucky mask in the middle of February, or you’re low on fake blood, you're in luck. But just how Foy’s became a must-see Halloween destination is a matter of circumstance.
“Since the beginning, we’ve always been a place that catered to Halloween,” Foy said. “In the '80s, though, Halloween changed quite a bit. The industry was moving away from plastic and instead creating rubber masks and more complex costumes. We couldn’t keep up at one point, so in '88 we had to expand.”
Perhaps, for the sake of the season, we can speculate on the mystical properties of the region as the reason for Foy's supernatural luck. Driving to Fairborn at night, it appears as a landlocked island, a Twilight Zone-ish town, stuck in time in a sea of darkened prairie off I-675. Most of the acreage that surrounds this east Dayton suburb is home to the purposefully clandestine Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. On that land, at Huffman Field, the Wright brothers perfected flight in the Flyer III, Cold War stratego was played, and, most infamously, Hangar 18 purportedly housed UFO technology and alien autopsies. There’s enough lore in the area to write a new season of the "X-Files," for sure.
Behind the quaint brick house that was built by Foy’s grandparents on the corner of Main and Maple, a ship of Martians has crashed and is seeking vengeance. Across the street there’s a large display of wreckage inhabited by pirate zombies. The Halloween spirit that pervades Fairborn reaches beyond Foy’s, with a number of residents creating elaborate displays in their yards that transcend cheap Styrofoam cemeteries, jack-o-lanterns and cotton spiderwebs. A complete night in Fairborn means walking into its neighborhoods to witness residents' dedication to the holiday. No doubt, it’s Mike who prompts them. His Ghostbusters-themed scene this year includes strobe lights, a decorated Ecto-1 ambulance-hearse and a 17-foot Marshmallow Man.
Ohio offers plenty of other scary excursions around the state. I’m too jaded (or too much of a wimp) for a haunted house experience, but should you want that there’s the Escape from Blood Prison attraction at the Mansfield Reformatory and a teenage favorite, the Lewisburg Haunted Cave -- which is actually eighty feet below ground, with 30,000 bats, and has been designated the nation’s longest haunt. Or you could go ghost hunting at Moonville Tunnel in Vinton County or Malabar Farm. There’s always the uncanny Circleville Pumpkin Show this weekend, but why not trek to Fairborn to see Halloween's authentic Ohio birthplace? Mike Foy promises to keep the doors open should you need that last-minute severed head.
For more information on Foy’s Halloween Stores, visit its archaic (yet fitting) website for hours and events.