A Leesburg family is turning its garage into a haunted prison for neighbors to tour on Halloween weekend and to raise money for the town's volunteer firefighters. It's so scary that even several of its creators won't enter the Raven House Prison on Gaines Court.
The Sacco family won't reveal much about what is in the garage -- both to keep it a surprise and because it remains a work in progress -- but the family says it begins with a warden's office, which might also serve as a laboratory for the jail's crazed medic. Next is an interrogation room, which twists over to the detention center, where fur-covered, latex rats scurry around the remains of previous visitors.
The fate of those who dare press beyond is uncertain. Even the Saccos don't know what torment it will bring. Making one's way through the prison is supposed to take five minutes, but "it's really going to depend on how fast you run," said Dana Sacco.
Even the family dog, a large shepherd-chow mix named Mac, shies away from the special effects, which include revolving lights and sounds of thunder and a cat screeching.
The Raven House Prison is just part of a huge spectacle in the Saccos' front yard, which features flickering torch lights, bars on the windows, scattered gravestones and eerie waves of bluish smoke billowing above a skeletal sentry standing guard on a balcony. More than 20 plastic ravens haunt the walls and pillars, trees and fence.
Dana and Joe Sacco have lived in the two-story brick house in Woodlea Manor for four years with their children, Jacob, 7, and Alexis, 5. This year's spooky walk-through in their garage is the third of their progressively more elaborate Halloween creations.
"We just put up a few decorations and started building, and then started building more and more," said Dana Sacco, 31. "And now it's turned into this."
Two years ago, the Saccos' Halloween haunted house facade on their porch, along with flashing lights and a small graveyard, drew "oohs" and "ahs" in the neighborhood. Last year was their first walk-through haunted house, a tunnel-like tent in the front yard that kept falling down during last October's storms.
More than 400 people went through during the two hours it was open. As they were taking it down, Dana Sacco was struck by the idea of transforming their two-car garage into a prison. Previously, there hadn't been much logic to the random collection of witches, spiders and zombies presiding over the house. "It was just a conglomeration," Joe Sacco said. "There was no theme."
In May, they attended the Haunted Attraction National Tradeshow and Convention in Charlotte, where Dana Sacco spotted a creepy fiberglass bird that became the inspiration for the "Raven House" prison theme. Upon their return, they started work almost immediately, drawing floor plans and ordering supplies.
The Saccos have already booked their travel to next year's "HAuNT Con" in Dallas, where they again hope to meet with vendors and get more ideas on how to spook the neighborhood.
In September, they put up a menacing wall constructed last year and built matching twin pillars in their driveway. All three structures are actually plywood covered with a layer of plastic foam insulation that has been sanded, painted and aged with acetone. Tendrils of Spanish moss peek out from between the cracks of the faux masonry.
At the beginning of this month, the Saccos put up an imitation wrought-iron fence around their front yard, and that's when the neighborhood started to pitch in.
"Once the kids see the fence, they know it's time to put up the gravestones," said Joe Sacco, 40, an air traffic controller.
Kids as young as 5 to teenagers helped decorate the front yard, rummaging through the Saccos' basement to bring up this year's props. After the pillaging, the basement was still crowded with severed heads, a mummy and other scary goodies that probably won't make it in this year's display.
But the children haven't been allowed inside the garage for more than two weeks, so as not to spoil the surprise. That doesn't keep some local kids from sneaking into the Saccos' yard after dark trying to get a peek, but to no avail.
The Saccos were able to reuse many of their favorite Halloween decorations by changing them to conform with this year's concept.
"The skeletons we just 'corpsed' " -- dipped in latex -- "and we put them in police attire," Joe Sacco said.
Other than a pumping heart, there's not much in the way of blood and guts. The frights are more the suspense and surprise kind.
"We go for the actual good scares," Dana Sacco said. "You don't know what's going to come around the corner."
One winding passage has an infrared heat sensor to detect the approach of the next victim and time a frightful surprise perfectly.
The Saccos declined to say how much they spent to create their elaborate scare fest, except that it was more than $1,000. After turning down a few donations last year, they thought, why not let those generous offers go to a good cause? At least two members of the Leesburg Volunteer Fire Company will be on hand Friday, Saturday and next Sunday to accept contributions.
"It's just incredible how a group of friends and family will work together for something that's not just amusing for their friends and neighbors but also has such a positive effect on our organization," said Martin Mantell, deputy chief of the squad, who said the money would go toward the purchase of a defibrillator. He said the company needs three more of the devices, which cost $3,000 each.
Dana Sacco said the goal was to raise at least $1,000 for the firefighters. "We know that they work hard," said Sacco, who runs an on-line consignment business, the Basement Treasure Shoppe.
Joe Sacco said he enjoys building the haunted structures because "it doesn't have to be pretty." For months he has toiled straight through weekends, rising about 6:30 a.m. to get started.
"If you make a mistake, just paint it black," he said.
The Raven House Prison, 317 Gaines Ct., Leesburg, will be open from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and from 5 to 9 p.m. next Sunday. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted for the Leesburg Volunteer Fire Company. The Saccos are seeking volunteers -- especially older teens and adults -- to help frighten visitors and can be reached at 703-887-5850.