Liverpool residents Al Dombroski and his wife Katy have a knack for seeing the potential in certain things far beyond their original function. Take, for example, their gray 1992 Cadillac hearse. “We take it grocery shopping; we take it right up to Wegmans,” said Katy. “It’s so easy to get to the groceries. There’s a coffin in there, so you put them in the coffin, push it in, and when you get home, you pull the coffin out. It’s so easy to unload.”
They purchased the hearse, known by its license plate as “The Haunter,” from Craigslist after Al’s brother Tommy alerted him to the listing. During its four-year restoration, the vehicle underwent a long list of repairs that included work on the wheel wells and a new windshield installation. It also received intricate custom artwork by an airbrushing hobbyist friend named Bob Jacoby, who painted ghouls, demons and aliens along the car’s body.
Al shows off the hearse at a local car show every Sunday, where it serves as a moving billboard for his other labor of love. “I meet so many people, and I always say, ‘If you love the car, you’ll love the haunted house,’” he said.
That haunted house is called “Raven Haven,” staged throughout the Dombroskis’ quarter-acre Liverpool property at 7475 Thunderbird Road, every Halloween since 2003. It’s easy to spot from the street: It’s the only home on the block whose 10-foot-tall concrete pillar entryway contains two life-size skeletons.
After enduring a creepy walk through a pitch-black tunnel lined with cornhusks and crunchy leaves, visitors instantly find themselves among an overwhelming menagerie of horrors on the other side. This year’s theme is zombies, with scenes featuring science and military personnel trying to quell a zombie outbreak and a decaying zombie dog in a cage perpetuating the undead atmosphere.
“That’s real dog fur, because we have a couple of friends with furry dogs,” said Katy, pointing to the mangy coat on her revolting canine creation. “I just kind of glued it onto the frame in clumps.”
Practically everything on display is handmade by the Dombroskis. Al, who collects and sells scrap metal, makes creative use of many of his discoveries when populating Raven Haven. For example, a zombie baby carousel that spins to the tune of the upbeat ditty “Zombie Jamboree” was made using the base of a wheelbarrow, a cement mixer, a motor and the pulley off of a furnace.
Other elements of the haunted house are acquired though their connections with a special group of haunted house purveyors called Western New York Haunters. They regularly keep in contact and meet in order to assist one another with special projects, as well as alert each other to the availability of strange items with great scare potential. “One of our members found these surplus gas masks online for $3 a piece, so we all ordered a bunch of them,” said Katy.
In addition to Al and Katy, the scares at Raven Haven are made possible by a loyal team of volunteers, often made up of a rotating combination of family and friends. The number of volunteers fluctuates wildly from day to day. “We’ve run with as few as two and as many as 20,” added Katy.
Due to a health scare Katy endured in August, their son Scott Dombroski has been instrumental in getting the haunted house up and running. “Scott did about 99 percent of the work this year,” said Katy.
Like most of the other volunteers, Scott works as an actor in the building behind the Dombroski home. This is the setting for the main attractions of Raven Haven, where visitors navigate a dark, narrow passageway through rooms filled with startling surprises. They insist that people explore the house in small groups only. “We only allow two people at a time because the aisles aren’t huge and we find that if you get more than two, someone gets stuck in the back and misses the scares,” said Katy. “We don’t want that.”
Every once in a while, those bouts of fright produce somewhat unexpected results. “The number of women that come out of there with wet pants, it’s unbelievable,” says Al. “We call them ‘pee-talities’,” adds Katy. They claim that Raven Haven generates about 12 to 15 pee-talities a year, along with the occasional (and, they hope, more rare) “craptasterfy.” As proudly announced via their official Facebook page, the first craptasterfy of the season took place this past Saturday.
When prompted, the Dombroskis will tell the actors to soften their approach to certain guests. “If you bring a kid, and you ask us to tone it down, we’ll tone it down. We don’t want to ruin it for little kids,” said Al. However, he is quick to point out that their werewolf, one of Raven Haven’s biggest highlights, is an exception. “We can’t tone that down. It is what it is.”
The enormous, fully articulated animatronic werewolf is one of the few creatures not created by Al and Katy. They acquired it from Jim Hughes, a friend who builds meticulously detailed Halloween props for Dark Raven Designs. At a cost of $2,500, it is also the most expensive prop at Raven Haven.
“When we get too old to continue the haunt, I’ll put him in my bedroom,” said Katy. “I love that thing.”
Opening at 7 p.m., Raven Haven usually stays open long enough to ensure that everyone gets the scares they’re seeking. “We’ve been open until midnight, usually on a Friday-to-Saturday of Halloween week kind of thing,” noted Katy. Those late nights may start to become more frequent. In 2011, the Dombroskis had 26 people come through the haunted house on opening night; this year, they saw 141. Halloween is their busiest night, with close to 500 people coming through last year. They suspect they may top that number this Halloween, Wednesday, Oct. 31.
From the simple haunted garage of their first year to the intricate animatronics of the present day, the Dombroskis have always been able to count on the support and cooperation of their neighbors. “Our neighbors are wonderful and very tolerant of the traffic and the noise,” said Katy.
“We try hard because we just want to give back to the community,” added Al.
Katy disagreed. “We just want screams, that’s all,” she said with a mischievous chuckle.
Raven Haven is open Friday, Oct. 26, through Sunday, Oct. 28, and on Halloween starting at 7 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit Raven Haven’s Facebook page.