The ScareHouse: A Frightening Pittsburgh Haunt
By Noah (AKA Jolly Pumpkin)
The ScareHouse is one of Pittsburgh's most frightening professional haunts. From its Hollywood style sets, insane details and amazing actors, this is a haunt to watch out for. This is The ScareHouse. We speak with Scott Simmons who's history with haunted attractions goes back 20 years and his dedication to The ScareHouse is bar none.
What's the history of The ScareHouse and how did you first get involved?
I’ve been a Pittsburgh-based haunter for more than 20 years now, having started way back in the day with local non-profit haunts and various fundraisers. There was a small group of kids on my street who were always creating haunted houses in our parents’ basements and backyards – doing all kinds of goofy stuff with sheets, crazy foam, and Kleenex dipped into a mix of water and red food dye... and we started volunteering at a YMCA haunted house around 1985 while I was still in high school. This was back in the days when you had $500 to spend on your entire attraction. Over the years, I worked within a few non-profit events and my dad (Wayne) jumped into the mix to create and construct the more elaborate sets and projects. I met my wife Barb while working on a haunted house for the Pittsburgh firefighters and MADD in 1990.
Barb, Wayne and I knew that we wanted to eventually open and operate our own haunted attraction, especially after we first experienced the original “Terror on Church Street” in Orlando. We had never seen an attraction that so effectively incorporated adult actors, professional costumes, and highly detailed and designed environments. Now, I think that level of sophistication and expense is certainly a lot more common – but back then, in the mid-90’s, it was mind-blowing and highly inspirational. The success and passion for “Terror” proved to us that a haunted attraction could appeal to older audiences.
Our first production of The ScareHouse was inside a cavernous warehouse in 1999. We moved around for a while, dealing with the hassles of short-term leases and a “gypsy” lifestyle, before finally securing our long-term location inside a FANTASTIC building with a ton of history. It’s nearly 85 years old, and was originally a vaudeville-style theater ... then became an Elks social hall/theater ... and is now the home for the ScareHouse. The front of the building is more atmospheric than just about any facade I’ve seen, which is why we incorporated it into all of our artwork and animation (the background featured on our home page – www.scarehouse.com – is based on an actual photo of our building).
Our location is just under 15,000 square feet – and we’ve been able to incorporate much of the actual structures and history of the building into our haunt. It’s a perfect location because it has a ton of character and history.
What are the 2 haunts that people will experience at The ScareHouse?
The first haunt – The Hall of Nightmares – is an assortment of highly-detailed scenes and characters that are very much influenced by EC comics, Italian horror movies, and what I’d call “classic haunted house stuff” like crypts, wine cellars, closets, etc. The EC influence really drives the lighting and use of color (which is very vibrant) as well as some of the dark humor.
Screamatorium is much darker, realistic, and intense ... taking place inside an “abandoned,” industrial research facility. Even though the style of haunt is more modern, taking inspiration from movies like SAW and SILENT HILL – we still try to keep everything inside the haunt looking dated and crusty. The lighting is very dim, with lots of faded and flickering incandescent bulbs. The sets are smaller and less elaborate, but the scares and tension are much higher.
It looks like people will encounter some frightening actors when they walk through The ScareHouse? What goes into transforming these actors into scary convincing creatures?
All of our actors have to be 18 or over, and that really helps us create and maintain a mood of serious threat and danger inside the attractions. We also have a team of artists (Don Bumgarner, Jennifer Bailey, Dejah Harnish, Chris Gilgour, Wally Brown, and others) who transform everyone into their various characters every night, using a mix of air-brushing and standard make-up techniques.
Early in the process last year, we all worked together to create several iconic or “Hero” characters that would require more in-depth design and custom costuming. For example, our Dentist (aka the “Killer Driller”) started with a sketch from Don, which was the basis for everything that followed with the character – including lifecasting, sculpting, and creating the actual silicone mask ... and a complete costume from Jennifer, our costume designer.
The artists spend 2/3 of the year working on design and sculpting, but also work within the haunt as various creatures. Jennifer, for example, portrays our iconic Bride character (“UnHoly Matrimoana”)
We also push all of our actors to stay in character all night long, which helps maintain the illusion. I think that the other cast members take a lot of inspiration from actors like Dave Jones, Tracy Campbell, April Radzanowski, and Gretchen Wiesner - because they tend to end-up in high-profile roles where they can’t really break character at all. These actors created characters on their own that have built up a local cult following.
Who are some of the other people who are instrumental in the success of this frightening haunt?
There are dozens of people who are instrumental to the success of ScareHouse, and I sometimes feel like they don’t get nearly enough credit. Any event of this size needs a reliable stage manager (Kory Holtzman) as well as a great staff of security, cashiers, parking attendants, and traffic officers. Ted Ricci installed a video surveillance system that greatly reduced the amount of incidents and bad behavior, Chris Fisher installed our network of airlines and pneumatics, and our team of Jessica’s (Zbozny and Romano) provided invaluable help with promotion.
Glenn Ricci is a musician from DC who has been a part of my haunting history since I got started. He composed the ScareHouse theme and suite, which you hear on all of our advertising. It’s also referenced (not unlike the “Grim Grinning Ghosts” theme in Haunted Mansion) in all kinds of variations throughout the entire attraction. Glenn also composed and created nearly an hour of audio soundtracks for the entire haunt.
Our original ScareHouse logo and artwork was created by Brainstorm Studios, but just about everything else you see on the website was created by some insanely talented people working on graphics, video, and web design (Steve Benton, Chad Cooper, Rich Schutte, Scott Ripper, Dave Aikins, and others).
I read that many of the effects at The ScareHouse are created by professional special effects artists, technical engineers, and costume designers with experience in multiple film, television, and theatrical productions. What is the process of transforming a seamlessly normal building into a horror house?
It’s a collaborative process, and the design phase starts very early in the year. The 3 owners (myself, Barb, and Wayne) will determine what areas need to be tweaked or revised, and will decide on the new concepts and theming we want to explore ... then we will incorporate the artists and core crew to provide more detail and depth to the concepts.
There are very few limitations within the building, because it consists of a series of large halls and banquet rooms. We’ve deliberately built all of our sets in a way that they can be easily adapted and moved around, which enables us to switch scenes around year to year. Winter and spring is all about brainstorming and coming up with ideas, then I’ll grab hold of the floorplans and try to cram everything we want to do into the space.
The key is to make sure that everyone on your team has a clear idea of the vision and mood of the haunt. We spend a lot of time dealing with visual references and inspirations before any construction begins.
Where do you get inspiration to create the various scenes people will walk through?
We get inspiration from everywhere! Horror movies are a big one of course, but we also find inspiration in video games, artwork, pop culture ... just about anything. The building itself probably provides the most inspiration. Our furnace/boiler room set is housed inside the backstage area of a former theater from the early 1900’s ... complete with rafters and original rigging hanging 2 stories above you!
Have you ever filled in for an actor who has been sick or do you play a character yourself at The ScareHouse?
To be honest, we don’t really have the time or freedom to step out of our roles as managers. Fortunately, we have so many talented actors working for us that we can relax knowing no matter what, our guests coming through will always get a great show.
Are there any haunts in Pittsburgh that you get inspiration from and make you want to strive to create a better haunt?
We got into this business because we were all fans of haunted houses, and going to see other haunted attractions is still an absolute thrill for us. We try to see other attractions, both locally and in other parts of the county, as often as possible. I think it can become far too easy for haunt owners to become insulated and wrapped up in their own show – but you have to keep going out there and seeing what the other attractions are doing if you want to really grow.
The trailer for your haunt is pretty intense and resembles something you would see in a movie. Who created the haunt trailer and what was it like being part of that?
Thanks! Around the same time that I first became interested in haunted houses, I also became interested in movies and video production. I worked as a writer/producer/editor within the Creative Services department of the local NBC affiliate for about a decade before starting my own production business – www.bigwigproductions.com – and I edited the trailer myself on my Avid Composer system.
I hired a crew of people whom I’ve known for many years, and we all had an absolute blast. This was certainly much different than the usual commercials, training videos, and television promotions that most of us deal with all year. It was the first time I had ever produced and mastered a fully digital HD project, so there was a definite learning curve.
There was very little post-production tweaking to anything we shot, because I wanted to make sure that the footage was representative of what people could expect to see when they visited our attraction.
Are there any childhood Halloween memories that inspired you to get involved in the haunt industry and everything scary?
Two words: Willy Wonka.
That movie was a huge influence on me, and largely inspired my passion for creating themed entertainment. As far as I’m concerned, Gene Wilder’s tour of the chocolate factory is an extended theme park attraction ... and my first real exposure to that kind of entertainment.
My first “haunted house” memories involve long-playing LP’s like “Sounds to Make You Shiver” which were extended recordings of 60’s and 70’s style sound effects and narration that would take you on an audio tour through the haunted house. Once I started imagining scenes to match those sounds, it was in my blood for good.
It looks like many of the props, masks and sets at The ScareHouse are home made. Have you ever thought of creating your own company that would sell custom masks and props? Haunts such as Spooky Woods have successfully done it and made money in the off season.
Not really, to be honest. Between the ScareHouse and my production business, I barely have enough time to eat or sleep as it is. Plus, there are plenty of highly talented, professional vendors out there already. But if any of our crew people started their own business or product for the haunted attraction industry, we would certainly help promote them as much as possible.
What are some things that have gone wrong while The ScareHouse was open and how were the problems resolved?
Last year, we had a woman have a full-blown panic attack! Our paramedic led her out to the rest area so that she could decompress and escape all the noise and scary stuff, which was good.... but the actors kept walking into the area in full make-up and character, which was bad.
She would slowly relax and be ready to walk out, when some new creature would enter the room and thus get her all worked up again. It completely confounded our actors – who weren’t used to hearing gasps, cries, and hyper-ventilating every time they walked into the break area.
Finally we were able to block the break area and lead her out safely. I know that it was a potentially volatile situation but honestly, as a haunter ... it was kind of awesome to watch.
What is the most popular room at The ScareHouse and which is your favorite?
My favorite room is probably the furnace/boiler room set I mentioned earlier. The size and authenticity of the area is fantastic.
I’d say the two most popular rooms among guests are the Dentist’s office and the swamp where our Bride waits for her groom ... they’re highly detailed, but also work as great performance spaces for our two most iconic characters.
If you weren't involved in the haunt industry, what would you be doing to fill up the time?
Going to see other haunted houses!
Where do you see ScareHouse 10 years from now?
One of the things I’ve learned in this business is that you can’t look too far ahead, because things can change in the blink of an eye. So many of the haunts and people that have truly inspired us over the years aren’t even around anymore, and I think it really makes you appreciate the time and opportunity you have in any given season.
In ten years, I’m just hoping that The ScareHouse is still operating, still scaring people, and still the end result of a team of highly creative people from a wide variety of backgrounds working together to create something truly memorable.
For more information of The ScareHouse, please visit www.scarehouse.com