Ghosts, a werewolf and the creepy clown from Stephen King’s “It” greeted guests Tuesday in the basement of 941 Wheatland Ave. in Lancaster.
Visitors, many with disabilities, came across horrors as they made their way through the building: from detached fingers in the mad scientist room to a giant spider in the passageway to eyeballs in slime at the end.
Some people came out shaken or shrieking, standing outside afterward to calm themselves.
Others, including a Hempfield student who came with his transitional secondary special education class, emerged smiling and eager to recount the experience.
The experience was the brainchild of the Disability Empowerment Center, which hosted what it promoted as central Pennsylvania's first and only fully accessible haunted house.
Kelly Walsh, who coordinates the transitional secondary special education class at Hempfield, said she promised her students a surprise when she heard about the haunted house, then waited until Tuesday to tell them what it was.
“We all walked through holding hands, and our hands were pretty wet by the end,” she said. “We had a great time. I’m sure we’ll be talking about this for a while.”
Melissa Hawkins, executive director of Disability Empowerment Center, said the nonprofit’s mission is breaking down barriers, and as a deaf person whose favorite holiday is Halloween, she wanted to make sure disabilities didn’t keep people from having fun by getting scared.
“Often when you go to a haunted house they have a disclaimer saying it’s not accessible,” she said.
Hawkins said staff and volunteers responded enthusiastically, putting in long hours to prepare and recruiting client help for things such as a recording of a diabolical laugh.
And, she said, when word spread, they got a lot of calls about the event from people eager to experience it.
“It is important to have community events that allow families dealing with disabilities to participate and enjoy,” said Maureen Westcott, executive director of The Arc Lancaster Lebanon. The organization provides advocacy, community education, information and referral services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
Passages wide enough for wheelchairs were lined with masks and spiders Tuesday, and the sound effects included a Disability Empowerment Center client who does voice acting performing a diabolical laugh.
A “read before entering” warning sign was available in print and Braille, and the haunted house's lights and sound effects were turned off for the first two hours of the event in consideration for people with sensory sensitivities.
The experience ended with sensory bins containing items buried in corn, water beads and slime.
Kim Rowe, who works for Community Services Group, accompanied a client through the haunted house. The organization provides community-based intellectual and developmental disability and mental health services.
She said the client had been looking forward to it and seemed to enjoy the end the best.
“He got his hands in the bins and said 'eyeball, bug, skeleton,'" she said. “This is the first time we’ve ever been able to do something like this.”