The Haunting of Western Pennsylvania
Groan if you’ve heard this one before: the Halloween boom in the Rust Belt
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For Scott Simmons, the dream of owning a haunted house started in 1985, at the Cloverleaf Area YMCA. He was fifteen and growing up in Baldwin, Pennsylvania, a suburb ten miles south of Pittsburgh, and he was a shy, awkward kid. “A monster kid,” he says, who adored old horror movies and was glued to Chiller Theatre, a hit local late-night horror and science-fiction show that ran for two decades—for years over Saturday Night Live—on Pittsburgh’s Channel 11.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Pittsburgh’s haunted-house scene was booming. Simmons remembers perusing long lists of Halloween happenings printed in the local newspaper, then grabbing twenty dollars and spending the whole night hopping between attractions. There were no websites or phone numbers; the haunted houses would stay open until people stopped showing up. The era of big-budget haunted houses didn’t exist yet, and almost all of them were for charity, run by volunteer fire departments, Elks Clubs, Make-A-Wish, and the United States Junior Chamber, also known as the Jaycees. The Jaycees’ haunted-house fundraisers became so successful that they circulated how-to manuals to their chapters nationwide; many experts credit the Jaycees with putting a haunted house in every city in America.
“When [I]’d be at the haunted house, I wasn’t Scott,” Simmons tells me. Everything was low-tech and do-it-yourself: black plastic garbage bags on the walls, red paint for blood, latex masks and capes, tubes of clown-white makeup bought at Kmart or the now-defunct Children’s Palace, cassette tapes of looped sound effects played on answering machines. The haunted house also relied entirely on volunteer actors like Simmons, a mix of teenagers, “some volunteer firefighter with a potbelly wearing a Jason mask,” and PTA or community members, who all put on two- to three-minute campy skits to herd visitors through. (“Oh no, Frankenstein’s going to throw the switch! The monster is loose—we must run into the next room!”) One year, the YCMA’s theme was a spooky fast-food restaurant called “Boo-ger King” that advertised “fresh hand-wiches.” After five years volunteering, Simmons was running the creative side of the haunted house. Now working in a team of young adults to make it happen, he thought: maybe I don’t ever have to give up Halloween.
In 1999, Simmons, his then-wife, and his father partnered to open their own haunted house. The ScareHouse, in Etna, Pa., started with thirty actors. Simmons (aka ScareHouse Scott) had been working full-time at a local television station and tried to carry those skills forward, as well as the communal, DIY spirit from the Cloverleaf YMCA. The haunted house produced all its own ads, and the team was savvy enough to buy up the domain ScareHouse.com in “the early days of the internet,” then load it with promotional photos and videos.
ScareHouse first received national attention in 2008, when it was featured on the Travel Channel as one of America’s scariest Halloween attractions. Simmons felt it was the result of “work[ing] ten years to become an overnight success,” and of their long-standing internet presence finally paying off. ScareHouse still frequently makes top ten lists of the country’s scariest haunted houses. Currently, it operates three haunted attractions and an “extreme” haunted house, employing nearly two hundred staff for its season. Last year’s offerings included the “Sunset Lodge,” a sleazy Eighties roadside motel overrun with serial killers, and “Nocturnia 3-D,” a circus-themed attraction where visitors wear 3-D glasses, encountering clowns and demons as they move through black-light-illuminated rooms and a swirling psychedelic tunnel. Simmons, now forty-eight, and more “dorky suburbanite than Marilyn Manson,” still serves as ScareHouse’s creative director and jack-of-all-trades.
At first glance, Western Pennsylvania seems like an unlikely place for one of the country’s most successful haunted-house attractions. In part, that success is a result of the huge growth of Halloween in America. Last year’s Halloween season marked the highest level of Halloween spending ever, up from a record high the year before, with 179 million Americans spending a total of $9.1 billion dollars. Each year, more and more Americans pay to visit a haunted house: nearly one in four in 2017. Some in the Halloween industry joke that Halloween will soon outpace Christmas—it’s already edged out July 4 and the Super Bowl.
But Western Pennsylvania is a haunted-house mecca. While most major cities can support multiple haunted houses simply based on their large populations, there are about forty haunted attractions and escape rooms (which involve solving puzzles) within forty miles of Pittsburgh. The “haunts,” as their purveyors call them, can draw nightly crowds of thousands during the Halloween season. They run the gamut from Hollywood-style, high-budget horror—like the Kennywood theme park, of Adventureland fame—to shoestring upstarts that hark back to the industry’s roots. Most operate fewer than thirty days a year, a precarious financial position that relies on drawing consistent crowds (“throughput” is the industry term) for their businesses to succeed. A 2009 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled “The Business of Boo: From Cornfields to Kennywood, We Love Our Haunted Houses,” cites a combination of “Rust Belt resources” that help haunts succeed: “cheap rent, dilapidated buildings, autumnal weather, and a decent amount of people looking for something to do.”
Clustered around Pittsburgh, the region’s archetypal story is well-known through hackneyed 2016 election coverage, with voters still hoping for the return of the steel mills, mines, and factories. But the haunts revel in this ruin, in some cases capitalizing on literal ghost towns. More practically, they take part in the $300–500-million haunted-attractions industry, help infuse their local economies, bring in out-of-towners—and, naturally, are a lot of fun. There’s nothing quite like wandering into a fully-realized torture room, down an abandoned coal mine, or into a cabin-in-the-woods murder scene; or (inevitably) running into a clown jumping from a closet, laughing.
The haunt crowds also become more explicable in light of Pittsburgh’s history: the region has long been a hotbed for horror, dating back a half-century to the films of George Romero. Romero’s genre-defining zombie film Night of the Living Dead was filmed in rural Evans City, Pa., thirty miles north of Pittsburgh, in 1968. (Evans City still celebrates the movie’s legacy with an annual Living Dead Weekend festival and a year-round Living Dead Museum.) Shot in black-and-white and featuring lumbering undead swarming an old farmhouse, the film is largely credited with popularizing the modern conception of zombies. Romero, hoping to circumvent Hollywood and stretch his production budget further, made the movie when he and nine friends formed a production company, Image Ten, initially investing six hundred dollars each. Many of the sets were dressed with Goodwill furniture; the film had almost no professional actors; its cast included mostly Romero’s friends and clients and a mill hand, who played the sheriff.
“I think there’s something so uniquely Pittsburgh about how that movie was made,” Scott Simmons comments. “That spirit of them all coming together—‘oh, I got a barn! I got a curtain!’—is indicative of the whole Pittsburgh mentality.”
Subconsciously, Simmons says, both the can-do indie-movie spirit that drove Romero and the success of “an epic zombie movie” like Night of the Living Dead must have informed the region’s haunted-house culture. (This season, ScareHouse is resurrecting one of its most popular haunts, “Pittsburgh Zombies: Reanimated,” paying tribute to Romero and the movie’s fiftieth anniversary.)
“Pittsburgh’s a wonderfully weird town and doesn’t get enough credit for that,” Simmons adds.
Romero also put the region on the map for horror when he launched the career of special-effects legend Tom Savini. Romero asked Savini to help with his next entry in the series Dawn of the Dead, filmed at the Monroeville Mall east of Pittsburgh, in 1977. It remains a cult classic and one of the most successful independent features ever made. Working out of his basement, Savini, a Pittsburgh native, delivered visceral, gory horror: zombies taking bites of flesh from their screaming victims’ heads, decapitation by helicopter blade, stomachs ripped open and humans being pulled apart by hungry zombies. To make scenes with zombies eating people’s limbs, Savini used whatever food the movie’s craft services had on hand, with actors gnawing on sausage, bologna, and chicken “with some kind of a blood-colored barbecue sauce.” Savini was christened the “godfather of gore” and “sultan of splatter” for bringing such grisly effects to cinema. The effects drew horrified audiences in droves and set the standard for horror before the advent of computer-generated imagery.
Today, Savini oversees one of the world’s only accredited schools for special effects and makeup in Monessen, Pa., which continually attracts a new generation of “monster kids” to the region. Its graduates go on to work in special-effects shops in Hollywood, television, theater, the toy industry, prosthetics, and more. Many students also work in local haunts—where Savini’s pioneering tactile effects live on—as they’re completing their degrees, and some stay on after they graduate. I asked Savini at the school’s annual graduation, as one of its originators, why this stuff is so beloved, and why it’s taken root here.
“Why do you love going to an amusement park and paying somebody to scare the hell out of you in some machine? You—we just love it!” Savini exclaims. “It’s very godlike to have your thoughts create a physical world that’s really as physical as this,” he says, rapping on a textbook. At seventy-one, Savini still enjoys sneaking out of bed at two in the morning, jumping over his fence, and scaring neighbor kids with Fluffy, the apelike monster he created for Romero’s Creepshow (1982).
For a handful of years, 2004 to 2008, the Savini School operated its own haunt—Tom Savini’s Terror Mania—which employed students and is now the stuff of local legend. (“The best one was here in Monessen!” Savini says.) Terror Mania is so mythic in the minds of Pittsburghers that it’s difficult to suss out what’s real and what’s hyperbolic. Savini remembers that the haunt’s first years were inside an abandoned Kmart. There were twenty-seven rooms: a swamp, a subway, caves full of swamp monsters, and an entire hallway with crawling spiders projected on the walls. Terror Mania staff hung fishing line from the ceiling to lightly brush visitors’ faces in the dark, spread packing peanuts on the floor, and, about halfway through the haunt, contrived a situation where groups had to hold on to a sixty-foot section of rope “for their safety,” which got wetter and slimier as they moved forward. “We had pants-pissers,” Savini beams.
Across the Monongahela River, the “theatrical haunt” Castle Blood has been running for twenty-five years. It operates out of a former funeral parlor in Monessen, six blocks from the Savini School. Its owner, Ricky Dick, fifty-nine, dons a top hat, suit, and tails every Halloween season to become Gravely MacCabre, a mustachioed groundskeeper who maintains the “castle” for a group of vampires. As a self-described Halloween person, Dick looks and sounds as you might expect: “I’ve lost two marriages and three houses so far for Halloween,” he says, “and I just keep going.”
Even among Pittsburgh haunts, Castle Blood is unique. It began in 1993 at Ricky Dick and his first wife’s house in Beallsville, Pa., a quarter-acre off Route 40. Dick’s background is in clowning and costume-making; in his twenties, he owned a costume shop on the Jersey Shore. After a pirate-themed first year, Dick and his wife made elaborate vampire ball-gown costumes—“punky, gothy, serious anti-Disney-prince and -princess,” Dick says—and decked out their house in the same style. They overheard a kid say to his father, “I really like this castle.”
“Like the bad sitcom story, things just kind of started getting out of hand,” Dick says. Though Beallsville’s population was only five hundred, Dick and his wife noticed they were handing out between four and five hundred trick-or-treat bags per year. By 2000, they had started going all-out, creating a 3-D area with glasses, preempting several theme parks—and they’d begun charging money.
In 2012, a city redevelopment program called Monessen Rising allowed Castle Blood to lease-to-own its current building from the county for a hundred dollars a year. Originally built in 1905 for one of the city’s founders, the old Victorian house had been converted into a funeral parlor before World War II. (Like many of the haunts, the building is reportedly haunted; Dick invites ghost hunters during the off-season.) The funeral parlor operated until 2009, when it was more or less abandoned. “It had been gutted, looted, urban-explored, there were empty Sudafed boxes all over, the whole bit,” Dick said. Savini School students liked to sneak in and party; most of the pipes and the electrical cables had been stolen, requiring Dick to fully rewire the building. Castle Blood is located south of Pittsburgh in the Monongahela Valley, a region that has not seen the same post-industrial economic recovery as the city of Pittsburgh itself. “Without us here, I think the building would be torn down by now,” Dick speculates.
Today’s Castle Blood runs like a community theater. It doesn’t rely on traditional jump-scares, instead moving visiting “mortals” through different scenes in a haunted library, Gravely’s office of oddities, a fortuneteller’s den, and “Crowhaven,” his wife’s domain, an outdoor maze with hay-bales, hanging scarecrows, and a raspy witch who curses visitors, played by Dick’s wife. All the action relates to the MacCabre vampire family’s history, which goes back twenty-five seasons. (Dick admits to including “Easter eggs” for longtime fans and cast members.) An all-volunteer cast arrives from fourteen different states and two provinces of Canada each year to perform in the “castle.” It looks like the Addams Family house, decorated with spooky portraits and assorted funereal accessories, some of them, like a kneeler, original to the funeral parlor. Mortals are asked to solve puzzles and collect three talismans (often alliterative in name) in the hopes of winning a prize at the haunt’s end. Dick believes it’s no coincidence if this sounds like an escape room, and is slightly hurt by their recent popularity: “My own industry told me I was crazy for what we did for twenty years!”
“For Halloween to work, it has to be magical,” Dick tells me. “I grew up in a charmed time. I grew up in that neighborhood from the first Halloween movie. My neighborhood looked like The Wonder Years. It looked like E.T.’s trick-or-treating neighborhood. It was all ranch houses built on an old farm and the farm was still in the middle. And the little old lady would bring you up on the porch and give you cider and donuts like in Hocus Pocus. That was real. … And that’s what I’ve tried to do here for everybody.”
Dick’s free-flowing usage of film and TV references connects the haunted-attractions business to nostalgia, which is one of the reasons they persist. I found when I asked haunt owners what a haunted house is, or why they’re so beloved, their answers were disparate and dreamy. The idea of community theater and DIY came up repeatedly, as well as: thrills, feeling alive, escapism, entertainment, fantasy, misfits, carnival, art, artists who get to make actual money, conquering fear, rites of passage, “living performance art,” interactivity, choose-your-own-adventure, 360-degree environments, running a tour, and putting on a show. (“The set-up for a joke and the set-up for a scare are very similar,” Scott Simmons remarks.)
Like the blockbusters of today versus those of the Eighties, the industry trend is toward bigger and more spectacular experiences. “Extreme” haunts have also increased in popularity in the past five years. These require a waiver to enter, and allow actors to touch visitors and subject them to low-level intimidation and torture. Scott Simmons said ScareHouse’s extreme haunt “The Basement” grew out of local experimental theater, and focuses more on one-on-one interaction with actors than gross-out experiences. It’s important to him that it stay fun and not feel “like a fraternity hazing.” Another Bethel Park, Pa. mega-haunt, Hundred Acres Manor, is premiering an “extreme horror experience” called Buried Alive, voiced by Tom Savini, which seals visitors in a coffin, plunges them into darkness, and simulates burial.
However, on the whole, Pittsburgh-area haunts seem to resist the trend, staying true to their charity roots. One of the newest haunts on the scene (and one of my favorites) is Suzie and Troy Flesik’s Crawford School of Terror in Connellsville, Pa. The haunt uses mostly teenage actors to spook visitors as they move through a former elementary school, built in 1916, and relies heavily on setting and atmosphere. The storyline involves a deranged sixth-grader, Margaret, who becomes romantically obsessed with her English teacher and murders him and his girlfriend, another teacher at the school. (Until this year, the teachers were played by the Flesiks’ nephew and his girlfriend.) There are scenes in the principal’s office (think: screaming children being thrown into closets), a school bathroom, and the cafeteria, where evil lunch ladies serve plates of blood and guts. The haunt also includes a “laser swamp,” where visitors walk through a black, enclosed room filled with waist-high fog, and then a swamp monster in a black morphsuit slides across the floor and slowly ascends. (Last year, the monster was the Flesiks’ seventeen-year-old son.) The effect relied on black paint, a haze machine, and one actor doing multiple scares.
When I compliment them on their minimalism, Suzie Flesik jokes, “that’s a result of not having a whole lot of money. That’s our secret!”
But even with an unlimited budget, the Flesiks say their approach might not change that much. Suzie Flesik grew up in a Halloween family, the Molinaros, known for throwing elaborate Halloween parties at their house, a tradition that lasted twenty-five years. A family of entertainers, the Molinaro-family marching band has been playing for more than a hundred years, imported directly from Italy to Connellsville when the family immigrated. Suzie is the youngest of ten, five feet tall and ponytailed, and she does most of the talking. “Normally, I’m the girl that does your nails—normally,” she says. She still runs her own nail salon out of the family’s garage. For the Molinaro-family parties at her brother Johnny’s, Suzie and her husband Troy, a machinist, would help decorate. They made moving props using windshield-wiper motors: a witch stirring a pot, a Frankenstein-monster mask skimming a barn window; one year, in a cemetery display, they buried a Shiatsu massager and placed a fake head underneath it so that the head appeared to bob. The idea of owning a haunted house came naturally to them.
“I have ideas, he’s got the brawn,” Suzie says. “He builds, I come up with the crazy stuff.”
“I come up with some things,” Troy replies.
In 2008, when the Crawford School building went up for sale (it had been school-district offices since 1976), Suzie’s brother Johnny called: “And he’s like, that’s it, that’s where the haunt’s going to be.” Troy remembers that they called the building’s former owner so quickly, he said he’d barely put up the for-sale sign.
“What we didn’t realize was, no one was trying to buy this place,” Suzie laughs. The building was falling apart, had an ancient boiler system, and required a near–top-to-bottom remodeling to look like a school again. Also, local rumor is that a kindergartner fell to her death there in the late 1960s and is still a presence in the building—though the Flesiks have researched it and have never been able to corroborate the story. But during the school’s renovation, one of Suzie’s sisters found a disturbing children’s drawing tucked behind a heating grate.
“It was a cemetery and one of the tombstones said ‘Sony,’” Suzie explains. “And it was a drawing of somebody. And my sister flipped out! ‘Oh my God! Was this the name of that girl?’ I don’t have any confirmation that ever happened, but … it was an old crayon drawing. It could’ve been from that time.”
In addition to realizing their dream, the haunt was “an opportunity to do something we felt was kind of needed in this area.” Connellsville was formerly a booming coal and coke town, once called the “Coke Capital of the World.” At the peak of its prosperity in the early 1900s, Connellsville had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States. But over the course of the twentieth century, the Great Depression hit, and the city shrank as evolving technologies rendered Connellsville’s coke production methods obsolete.
Similar to redevelopment efforts in Monessen, the town has recently been building back up, welcoming a hotel, a frozen yogurt shop, and a brand-new coffee shop. But the Flesiks noticed that their haunt draws people from the entire region, some driving several hours, and bolsters local business. “You can get coffee anywhere,” Suzie Flesik says. “You can’t just go into any town and get a haunt.”