TOWN OF TONAWANDA — At Sheridan Plaza in the Town of Tonawanda, the dead walk.
An empty storefront has become a post-apocalyptic landscape.
And blood and gore — and some stomach-churning surprises — can be a labor of love.
The District of the Dead haunted house, which opened Sept. 29 for its second year of spooking Western New Yorkers, is the brainchild of Chris Haynes, a local transplant to Arizona who has returned for months the past two years to build his dream with the help of friends and family.
Before 2011, however, that dream started with the family home in Hamburg and a few pumpkins on the front steps.
"Everything started in our side yard or garage," Chris said. "My dad and I started doing it with a few pumpkins and some bales of hay ... and it grew."
David Haynes, Chris' father, who helps build and run the haunt, shook his head as he surveyed their creation a few days before opening.
"What started with friends and family and some pumpkins, has turned into what you see now," David said. "We started with pumpkins and then some bales of hay. And then it was, 'Can we build a graveyard?' And then it was some strobe lights, and then, 'Can we build a tunnel?' "
The home haunt continued as Chris went into high school then on to Canisius College, where he intended to get a degree in industrial design, but wound up getting sidetracked into marketing. After graduating, he moved with his younger brother to Arizona and started an auto detailing business, but he never stopped being interested in haunted houses.
"I knew I was going to come full circle and start doing this again," he said.
After Haynes attended a few of the biggest haunts in the Phoenix area, the Nest and Chamber of Fear, his interest was revived, and in early 2011, he placed a fateful telephone call to his father, asking him to attend TransWorld haunt trade show in St. Louis.