“Spooky Walk” raises over $150,000 for special needs summer camp

Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck in Center Moriches is holding its 29th annual "Spooky Walk" this October.

By Skyler Gilbert and Nick Spennato

She’s dressed in red and white polka dots, the same pattern as the wall behind her. She holds a red balloon in front of her face, while a stripped bulb flickers over her head. Her face is flecked with spattered blood over her Glasgow grin. Around the corner is a two-faced pagliacci brandishing a chainsaw while down the hall, a demented Bozo lurks in a bathroom stall.

The “Psycho Circus,” horrifying by any estimation, is one of four exhibits at this year’s “Spooky Walk,” an annual fundraiser at Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck in Center Moriches. Over two weekends, the haunted house walk is estimated to raise over $150,000 for the camp, which serves children with developmental disabilities.

“One hundred percent of the money goes to the camp,” Marcella Weiss, who helped start the event in 1989, said. “What we make here goes a pretty good way, while the rest is raised through fundraisers by the rotaries and other community events.”

The camp’s total operating cost is about $800,000, Weiss said. Funding efforts like the “Spooky Walk” allow the camp to keep a near one-to-one camper-to-counselor ratio, while also helping to provide financial aid for parents sending their children to camp.

“This isn’t a business to make money for ourselves,” Marina Gress, an event vendor who has been involved with Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck for the past 25 years, said. “All of this is for the kids.”

Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck is the only overnight summer camp on Long Island that exclusively serves children with autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities.

The camp accepts up to 50 campers per week-long session, with 10 to 12 sessions throughout the summer, and requests to join have increased in each of the last four years, Weiss said. Across the country, autism is diagnosed in one of 68 children, according the latest available Center for Disease Control data, taken in 2014. The prevalence has increased over the last 30 years, from a one in 2,000 rate in the 1980s, according to the CDC.

As the camp has grown, so has the fundraising. Weiss recalled the origin of the “Spooky Walk,” nearly three decades ago, which was spurred from her own love of Halloween Her parents used to deck out their own house as the neighborhood’s haunted destination.

“We sold tickets for two dollars each,” Weiss said of the first annual walk. “We had 400 people and we made $800, and we thought that was amazing.”

Today, attendance for the event nears 3,000 people per night, with the line to enter stretching over 500 feet, a wait time of over an hour. All of the 600 “Spooky Walk” workers — set designers, actors, vendors, even the DJ   — are volunteers. There are four different “houses,” each with their own theme, scary in their own way.  

“Everything you see is put up by us,” Nicole Jakob, overseer of the “Club Boo” exhibit, said. “It’s all arts and crafts, it’s what turns one of these buildings into a nightclub.”

The whole event has grown into a community Halloween tradition in the small Suffolk County village. Even adults who had never been were taken aback from the thrill factor.

“It was amazing. The houses were awesome,” Eve Goncalves, who, with her son, were first-time attendees, said. “It’s definitely something worth supporting, though I wasn’t expecting it to be so scary.”

The “Spooky Walk” will be open again for its second weekend of the year this Friday and Saturday night from 7 to 9 p.m..