The 'gentle giant'
Loss of artist felt in national haunt industry, local subculture
BRIDLEMILE - It was cold and dark, but still about 60 people - from teenagers to septuagenarians - gathered at the banks of the Willamette River to say good bye to Robert 'Cody' Reuwsaat the night of Feb. 29.
Called the 'Gentle Giant' by his friends, the 6-foot-4-inch artist was known for his lifelike creations of costumes and props for professional Halloween haunts.
Reuwsaat, 28, died from smoke inhalation during a late-night Feb. 25 fire at his home on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. His roommate was able to make it out alive, but Portland Fire Bureau's rescue attempts inside the burning house were unsuccessful.
The riverside memorial service was partly Reuwsaat's idea, though he had meant it to be for his birthday celebration. He would have turned 29 years old March 6.
Many of Reuwsaat's friends were Zoobombers (that Portland subculture that delights in flying down the hill from the Oregon Zoo on unusual bicycles), so a motley crew of pallbearers took turns carrying a stylized black coffin down to the river. There, attendees wrote their farewell notes with a white pen around the image of a partying skeleton.
After Reuwsaat's friends and family had each sprinkled a pinch of his ashes into the coffin and offered their remembrances, the coffin was sent out into the river and set ablaze by flaming arrows.
'That was really something I'll never forget my whole life,' Reuwsaat's mother, Tina, said. 'It was the way a warrior should be remembered.'
Friend of the family Vern Vertrees agreed. 'There was so much love and hugging that was going on. And the emotion: we were all in tears, it was beautiful.'
Fire officials said a cigarette left smoldering on a mattress erupted into the fire that killed Reuwsaat. It burned so hot and fast that fire investigators weren't sure if the smoke detector they found with its light blinking ever sounded, said spokesman Lt. Allen Oswalt.
Reuwsaat's body was pulled out of his bed on the second story, but the fire crew realized before they got him outside that he was already dead, Oswalt said.
A fascination with Halloween
Reuwsaat was born in Fontana, Calif., but grew up in the small Eastern Nevada town of Ely. When he was younger, he believed that every Halloween his parents would turn into vampires as The Baron and Morticia would bring out decorations to turn their Victorian home into a haunted house.
His mother, whose birthday is near Halloween, always adored the holiday and wanted her children to have the magical experience that she grew up with.
'I always wanted to bring magic and mystery into my children's lives,' she said.
Reuwsaat dedicated much of his life to the holiday, earning a degree in industrial design from the Art Institute of Seattle in 1999 and graduating from the Tom Savini FX School in Monessen, Pa., in 2002.
By the end of his life, he was creating ghoulish works of art with latex and intricate make-up designs for costumed haunts.
'He could dress the part that could scare the hell out of you, but he was so gentle to us,' Vertrees said.
Through it all, said his friend Jeremy Boutwell, Reuwsaat's fascination with Halloween had nothing to do with death and everything to do with fun.
'Once you reach a certain age, you're supposed to grow up and be productive in some way, and people like Cody . . . they don't want to be able to stop having fun,' Boutwell said, adding that Reuwsaat found a way to be both productive and have fun.
Reuwsaat's work on haunts was a year-round endeavor, and he spent part of the day he died sending Dave Helfrey, producer and creative director of Portland's FrightTown at the Memorial Coliseum, ideas for next year's event.
'We're going to keep a few of those ideas alive this year,' Helfrey said. 'Partly for Cody, and partly because they were just really good ideas.'
Helfrey declined to say what exactly the Gentle Giant came up with, though he claimed it has never been done in a haunted house before.
Last year ('before he died way too freaking young,' said Helfrey), Reuwsaat designed and oversaw the House of Shadows at FrightTown, creating make-up and costumes for the set.
Friends say they will remember Reuwsaat for his kindness, his skill and his 'stealth sense of humor.'
Some of his plaster molds recovered from his home will be resurrected at trade shows.
'He was extraordinarily gifted in many different ways,' his mother said.
Ricky Dick, owner of Pennsylvania haunted attraction Castle Blood, said he believed that Reuwsaat's abilities would have taken him to film sets and ever-larger attractions as he became better known in the industry.
He was, Dick said, 'as mercurial as any theatrical person you would ever find. And through it all he was just an amazing talent.'
A memorial trust for Reuwsaat's son, Ian, has been set up under 'Cody Reuwsaat' through FrightTown in Portland. E-mail Helfrey at baronbaronvongoolo.com for more information.