Haunting for a Cure: How Ernie Romegialli Organized a Haunted House That Has Raised Over $650k for Diabetes Research

18 years ago, Ernie and Carol Romegialli got some news that changed their lives.

In late August of 1991, at the tender age of 6, their daughter Johanna was diagnosed with Juvenile (Type I) Diabetes. Motivated by two things: a desire to keep Johanna’s life as normal and filled with fun as possible, and raising money to find a cure, Ernie started a Halloween tradition that has since raised over $650,000 for diabetes research and become Southern New England’s largest Halloween attraction. We were so inspired by his ability to organize that we wanted to share his story with you, along with some of his best tips for making the most of your Halloween.

Tell us a little bit about how your organized your first Haunted House.

Ernie: Well, being that she was diagnosed in August, Halloween was the first really big kid holiday following the news on her condition. And unfortunately, it’s a holiday full of candy and sugar, things she could no longer enjoy because of her diabetes. To take her mind off of it, and to make sure she still got to really enjoy the holiday, we decided to decorate the yard, put out a jar to raise money for diabetes research, and hand out non-candy treats.

I made some very basic mannequins using two-by-fours for the bodies and then putting a ‘scary’ mask on Styrofoam balls for the heads. We had a few people from the neighborhood volunteer to be actors who popped out of bushes with masks on. We also put a couple of Styrofoam tombstones out around the yard. It was definitely more fun than scary! Johanna handed out pencils, sugar free gum and other sugar-free treats to visitors, and our little collection jar filled up to the tune of $1400 by the end of the night. Every year since then, it’s just gotten bigger and bigger.

So are you a naturally handy guy? Did you know how to make the decorations for your Haunted House?

Ernie: Definitely not! I am not a construction person at all. But there were guys on my block who knew a thing or two about it, so I’d ask their advice. Before I knew it, everybody was involved. The whole neighborhood took part in it, from decorating, to playing actors.

And today, your Haunted Graveyard is a Halloween juggernaut?

Ernie: Yes, it’s pretty incredible. We raised $1,400 the first year, and by the third year we raised $14,000…I think we had 6,000 people in the yard that year! Every year we added a few more props or ‘scares’ to the yard. We started making wooden facades, mazes, and things like dungeons and vampire sets. When we ran out of room in the front yard, we added props to the back yard. By 2000, the event had gotten so big we had to move it to a nearby family theme park in Bristol, Connecticut called Lake Compounce. Today the Haunted Graveyard is open on weekends for the entire month of October, features over twenty big ‘scares’ and has thousands of visitors. The best part of all is that so far we’ve raised over $650,000 for diabetes research. And we’ll keep it going every year until there’s a cure.

What advice do you have for busy people who want to put together a haunted house without (a) taking a ridiculous amount of time, and (b) breaking the bank?

Ernie: Well, you should be able to put together a pretty decent haunted house for less than $250.

The easiest and least expensive thing to do (that also happens to look great) is to put up a few tombstones around the yard. You can make them out of Styrofoam. Carve them with hot wires and paint them up with different color grays. It can be a fun family project for a rainy Saturday or Sunday in October. There are also some really inexpensive hot glue guns you can use to make your own spider webbing that look a lot more authentic than the fake webs you buy at the store. You can also make your own mannequins using a solid 2×4 base or PVC pipes and then putting a Styrofoam ball on for the heads. Simply cover the base frame you make with a sheet to turn it into a ghost or put it in a costume. If you’re put off by the concept of DIY, stores like Spirit Halloween (www.spirithalloween.com) offer great props at pretty reasonable prices. Finally, don’t underestimate the impact of simple acting – have your spouse, a relative, or a friend dress up as a goblin or ghost and jump out of the bushes on cue.

Cut down on the work for you by getting family and friends involved! Halloween is just one of those holidays that people love to celebrate. And just like you, your neighbors and friends may want to do something fun, like make a haunted house, but are too intimidated to give it a try. By making it a team thing, nobody has to shoulder the entire job, and you’re guaranteed to have quite a few people show up for the experience.

Any other things people should take into account when planning for their Halloween decorations?

Ernie: The best advice I can give is to focus on the fun aspect. There’s nothing like entertaining people – scaring them, making them jump. It’s easy to talk yourself out of taking on a project like decorating your house for Halloween because you think about how much work it will be. But if you focus on getting the laugh (and the jump), you’ll get lost in the creativity and fun of putting it together.

If you live in the Northeast, we strongly recommend a visit to the Haunted Graveyard – not only will you get a great scare, you’ll help raise money for diabetes research. Can you tell readers where to get more information?

Ernie: The Haunted Graveyard is open to the public starting October 2nd and runs every weekend evening in October. The gates to Lake Compounce open at 5:00pm, and the Haunted Graveyard attractions open at dusk, typically 6:30pm. Lake Compounce is located in Bristol, CT, exit 31 off of I-84. This year we have 6 major haunted houses with smaller trails and a giant cemetery. You should plan on the whole thing taking about 45 minutes to walk through. For more information visit our website at www.hauntedgraveyard.com.