Brandon Kootnekoff’s Halloween displays at 3600 Mill Rd. have set the bar for Grand Forks’ “haunt community” for five years running. Like everything else in 2020, this year’s production will be different. But, Kootnekoff is not the kind of man to let a pandemic get in the way.
It was impossible, watching Kootnekoff lighting the hand-crafted zombies on his front lawn, not to see the parallels between the artist and his work. Both reflect painstaking adaptations to sudden, unforeseeable events we might want to wish away.
He survived a brain tumour in 2012, the year the ancient Mayans told us the world would end. Surgeons at Kelowna General Hospital successfully removed his tumour, but for health reasons Kootnekoff decided to drop his postgraduate studies at UBC-Okanagan.
No one asked for the COVID-anxiety that seems to have everyone so tightly wound lately. That hasn’t stopped Kootnekoff, who choreographed a drive-by show so trick-or-treaters can take in this year’s frights from their parents’ cars. Neither had he asked for the cancer that so radically disrupted his youth — but he hasn’t let that stop him.
Now 31, he told The Gazette, “I just wanted to make something for people to come by and enjoy. I wanted them to have something to look forward to this year.”
It’s to Kootnekoff’s credit that you’re reading this at all. He first pitched this story leading up to Thanksgiving, when this reporter took him for a self-promoter.
His email to the editor was so polished, it read like a press release — not exactly the greasy boilerplate that comes in to this newspaper 100 times every week, but close enough for me to forget about it. It wasn’t until he sent me a Facebook message that I realized his last name ended in “-off” and that he had to be local. But any display as special as he was promising had to be for profit, and I have precious little time for advertising.
It didn’t help that he wasn’t eager to meet with me, much less talk over the phone. Still, Kootnekoff wouldn’t give up. He’d sent me an email explaining that he struggles with conversation. It’s easier for him to communicate digitally, he explained. It sounds cruel, but I still had my doubts.
I can devote maybe 30 seconds to each email that comes across my inbox — 45, tops — and what I gleaned from Kootnekoff’s was that he was reluctant to talk. That’s it.
He had to spell out his condition for me when I strongly suggested that I couldn’t run a story without a protagonist. I read something about a brain condition in another of his Facebook messages to me and I jumped in my car.
Meeting me at his front-yard “Zombie Bay,” he was careful choosing his words.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come out sooner,” I stammered, embarrassed for ever having doubted him.
“Yeah,” he grinned. “I sent you an email, which you obviously just brushed over.”
We shared a well-deserved laugh at my expense, after which Kootnekoff read from a prepared statement.
He reiterated that this would be easier for him than the straightforward interview I’d been after. He’s different after his surgery. Not “less than” — just different.
“I find that putting my mind on something creative helps me feel productive,” he said. “So, I have been composing music, creating sound effects, and making props for Halloween.”
The Zombie Bay offered a foretaste of what Kootnekoff has planned for the big night. Meanwhile, it’s no surprise that he was awarded the Fan of the Week last Spring by the international haunt forum, Atmos FX. “We never get tired of fantastic Halloween displays – that is true even in May,” wrote Atmos’s Steve Hansen.
He’d put his mind to everything in his display, right down to this year’s “toned down” theme inspired by the movie-franchise, Saw. He’d had some help from longtime friend, Zak Eburne-Stoodley, who gave an assist with the zombies’ masks.
“We went to preschool together,” said Stoodley. “We always trick or treated, until we got too old to keep it up.”
The pair got back into it after Kootnekoff came home after his surgery in 2014. “Let’s just go all out,” Stoodley told his friend.
“We wanted to decorate the house that as kids we’d have been in awe of,” he told The Gazette.
This reporter will be there when Kootnekoff pulls it off on Saturday, Oct. 31. I hope to meet some of you then.