Don Spera loves Halloween and all things horror-related. Don Spera also has diabetes. Combine these elements and you get Cemeterror – “A Haunt to Die For,” the annual non-profit Halloween “yard-haunt” that began as an extravagant lawn display in 2009.
Spera, who has worked on large commercial haunted houses in the past, sees Cemeterror as a chance to do something a little different within the haunted house genre.
“Our focus is more on a ghostly encounter rather than violence and a lot of gore. We think that the world has enough of that,” he said, citing a preference for Alfred Hitchcock movies over modern-day slasher flicks, even though he watches those too.
“With the use of live actors, props, visuals, sounds and scents, we intend to give our guests the best haunted experience. A lot of the haunted houses have to do with people getting killed or chain-sawed. Our focus is more on the paranormal. To me, that’s what a haunted house is … ghosts and zombies. People are scared more of the unknown than they are of violence, I think — I know I am.”
Cemeterror volunteer Gary Adams agreed, saying, “I definitely think a psychological scare is better than the terror of someone jumping out at you one time.”
Benefiting the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the two-day Cemeterror paranormal fright-fest will take place from 7 to 10 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 26 and Saturday Oct. 27 at 5718 Antilles Drive in “Scarasota.”
Admission is free, but donations are accepted in the name of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation as part of the efforts to find a cure for juvenile diabetes. Spera hopes to raise $2,000 during this year’s Cemeterror events, with more than $1,000 in pledges already received at the Cemeterror website, where the online fundraising effort is linked directly to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund website.
“I myself have diabetes and I am 43 years old. I want to do this for our children so they don’t have to go through this disease,” Spera explained. ”I have a neighbor across the street that’s only seven years old, and when the ambulance pulls up and takes her away it’s very upsetting.”
Planning the Big Scare
With blessings and encouragement from his Phillippi Gardens neighbors, nearly 50 friends and volunteers are involved in transforming Spera’s property into a full-blown outdoor Halloween spectacle.
Spera began planning Cemeterror 2012 back in January, followed by a series of monthly meetings that began in May. Volunteers were assigned characters and went to work developing their roles, polishing their acting skills and working on their make-up, culminating with a recent dress rehearsal.
Spera also provides each Cemeterror volunteer with a DVD pertaining to safety and safe scaring techniques.
With a small portion of Antilles Drive closed off this year, Cemeterror 2012 will feature a “Sinister Side Show” that precedes entrance into a cabin, where the storyline is unveiled before “the vortex to the dead zone opens up and all hell breaks loose.”
Previewing the Cemeterror experience, Spera said, “When you’re in the cabin, there’s a story and a little play that goes on that leads up to the craziness of Cemeterror appearing and having to escape through the vortex.”
Elaborate set designs, sound effects, remote-controlled pneumatic props and sophisticated costumes are employed in the creation and production of Cemeterror.
Donning a new costume this year, Spera will play “The Ringmaster,” serving as Master of Ceremonies. Adams will play “The Fool”—the tarot card character that leads visitors to the star of the show, Zelda, the gypsy fortune teller who puts a curse on the town of Charlotte’s Way and its cemetery.
“The costumes are very elaborate. These aren’t your off-the-rack costumes. I’d say we’ve spent over $5,000 alone on costumes this year,” Spera said, thanking sponsors such as Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Best Buy and many others that made the expenditures possible (along with his own personal generosity toward this particular cause).
Participants will navigate the haunt in small groups of six or so, and the Cemeterror 2012 experience will take approximately 20 minutes, nearly double the length of last year’s production.
“If you’re looking for a different type of haunted attraction, you should come by and check it out,” Adams said. “It’s a little more personal and a little more individualized to each group that goes through. And I think you’ll find that the actors and people involved with this are pretty into it.”
The Men Beneath the Masks
While explaining his personal fascination with costumes and creepy effects, Adams said, “As a kid I got into Halloween a lot. It was something my dad was really into, and he would dress me up in elaborate costumes for local contests.”
The adult side of Adams enjoys both the lengthy preparation process and the more spontaneous thrill of the performance itself.
The group participation aspect reminds Adams of his younger days when he played organized team sports. “It’s really challenging and I like the teamwork involved. It’s another way to get involved with a team working directly toward a common goal,” he said.
“I also like the fact that you get an immediate response from the audience in this kind of a performance. When they’re right in front of you and you can see their immediate reaction — the fear, a scream, or them jumping back — it’s an immediate gratification. That direct reaction in real time is rewarding.”
Adams, who works as a pharmacist, sees another, more personal benefit to the Cemeterror performances, saying, “It gives you a chance to get away from the daily grind of having a regular job and being professional. You get to have that other side of yourself, putting on some make-up, creating an alter ego and having fun with people in way you don’t normally do in everyday life.”
Spera, who works from home providing customer service and billing services for a friend’s upholstery business, said, “I’m involved because I was raised on horror. My parents always took me to horror movies and my mother used to put on a Frankenstein mask and scare us kids.”
Elaborating on his lifelong interest in horror, Spera said, “It’s been my hobby for 38 years. A lot of people like Christmas time and they go all out for Christmas. I love Halloween and I like to go all out for that. It’s just a thing that I’ve always done.”
Cemeterror remains a work in progress and Spera looks forward to its continued growth in coming years. “I know it’s going to get bigger, and maybe hopefully someday someone will donate a building for us and then we can go really go wild with it,” he said.
Cemeterror takes place Friday, Oct. 26 and Saturday, Oct. 27 from 7 to 10 p.m. at 5718 Antilles Drive in Sarasota. For more info, visit the Cemeterror website.