By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
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.
That fall, District of the Dead was born.
"This is in my blood, graphic design, industrial design," Chris said of the project. "It's something I was always into. I think it's just growing up, my dad started taking me and my brother, probably 5 or 6, to haunted houses ... I think between that and all the different creature drawings I used to do ... it really just blended all together."
Chris said that he's always messed around with design; in fact, the basic plans for the haunt were probably born at least a decade ago or so.
"That's how most guys started, though," he said. "It takes a lot of time and effort to make the dream a reality."
Chris and his father are running two haunts this year, including the titular one and the new Lake Effect haunt, from the Sheridan Plaza site. Last year, District of the Dead occupied the former Don Pablo's restaurant on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, but when the building was purchased and turned into an AutoZone, they had to scramble to find a new site, remove the old framework and transfer everything over.
"The last 90 days have been quite interesting," said Chris, who still lives in Arizona, but returned to Western New York the past two Julys to start working on District of the Dead, while his brother Dan "holds down the fort" with the business in Phoenix (while still doing graphic design long distance for District of the Dead).
Since the interior walls of the old site were part of the haunt itself, Chris and David Haynes had to build about 40 some new wall panels for the haunts, which, on the other hand, enable them to have twistier, closer corridors for visitors to navigate.
The house — its storyline based loosely on the themes of the Resident Evil and Walking Dead franchises — takes its visitors on a journey through a zombie apocalypse ... through a withered garden, a police department under siege, a TV shop someone — or something — has smashed into, into the sewers, through laboratories and out into the woods. Narrow alleyways and hallways are splattered with "blood," aged and rusted with tricks of the haunters' trade.
The storyline of the companion haunt, Lake Effect, takes place months after the "events" of first house, in the winter, as participants undertake a journey downtown in search of a underground bunker and more survivors. In keeping with the theme, air-conditioners and fans keep the air chilled, and white-strewn walls evoke an icy environment.
Small groups will move through this haunt one at a time, with only the bluish light of a tiny LED flashlight to see by, Chris said. "We hope the anxiety levels are going to be a little higher as people are shuffling through there, with only that little light."
No matter how scary the surroundings, however, without the haunts' actors (dozens of them between the two) things wouldn't be very successful, Chris said.
"You can walk through one of the greatest haunts in the country ... but if you're not getting scared, then what's the point? I think that's something that the big guys forget over the years," he said, noting with pride that one 2011 customer told him, "We jumped more times in your smaller house than some of the bigger haunts combined."
In the pursuit of better scares, District of the Dead has the assistance of Greg Hinaman of Kenmore, who ran his own haunted house at his Tremaine Avenue home for decades until this year. Hinaman's Terror Technologies is assisting with acting, makeup and costuming at District, and many of the actors who took part in his haunt are volunteering there.
"It's bigger than last year. They're growing, their sets are getting better, their actors are getting better," Hinaman said. "We're giving the actors all kinds of training lessons, teaching them how to scare. You just can't jump in front of people; then everyone will just back up and you'll only scare the guy in front. There's little tricks, little techniques. ...
"We're teaching them how to scream. They'll all lose their voice the first night if they're not careful. Screaming's not always scary, sometimes it's just a little look."
Terror Technologies (whose motto is "We Play Dead So Others May Live") is also assisting with a food drive for the Food Bank of WNY, for which Hinaman's haunt collected 1,914 pounds of food last year. Participants will also have a chance to buy raffle tickets for prizes including Buffalo Bills tickets, gift certificates and more, with that money going to the Food Bank.
Chris said that a recent tour of the food bank site made him realize how much more a monetary donation can do. Part of the District of the Dead proceeds will also benefit Women and Children's Hospital of Buffalo.
"We're really hoping to raise a ton of money for those guys," he said.
IF YOU GO • WHAT: District of the Dead and Lake Effect haunted houses • WHEN: The attraction runs various hours through Halloween. • WHERE: Sheridan Plaza, corner of Sheridan and Eggert in the Town of Tonawanda • COST: Tickets are $13. • FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit districtofthe deadbuffalo.com INSIDE See page 2C for more photos from District of the Dead.