Pittsburgh’s The ScareHouse is regularly named as one of the scariest haunted attractions in the US. Co-owner and Creative Director of The ScareHouse, Scott Simmons (below left) and his “Scream Team” use high-tech production technology and Hollywood-quality props and prosthetics to create “monsters, mutants, and mayhem”. Scott has been kind enough to share with Blooloop the secret of a good scare…..
Please can you tell us about how you got started in the industry and about The ScareHouse
I’ve been in the haunted house business for more than 25 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 in the 90’s. 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 other frustrations, 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 (right).
Our location is just under 18, 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 decades of character and history.
The ScareHouse was voted as the #1 haunted house in the world by Tophaunts.com – one of America's Top 3 haunts by both Haunted Attraction magazine and HauntedHouseRatings.com – featured in the pages of Fangoria, Money, Funworld, and Pittsburgh magazines – profiled online by USA TODAY, Forbes, and many other websites – and highlighted in two national TV shows airing on Travel Channel: "America Haunts" and "America's Scariest Halloween Attractions."
We now have a staff of more than 150 cast and crew members – including actors, make-up artists, scenic & costume designers, and multimedia experts. All of our characters, concepts, and “haunts” are totally unique and original, with no recreations or likenesses of existing characters from other movies or TV shows. We’ve come quite a long way from our modest start. We have a core staff of designers who work year-round on our attraction.
What's the formula for a great haunted attraction?
I think there’s no one formula when it comes to concept and execution, and that’s why this industry is so exciting. It’s very much a matter of style and knowing your market. Some haunted attractions might feature very intense action and graphic violence, while another might embrace a more “family friendly” style of pumpkins and witches in pointy hats — but that doesn’t mean that anyone haunt is better or worse than another.
The secret is making sure that you maintain a high level of detail to your production, your promotion, and your customer experience. And most of all, you need to remember that this is still a business. Yes, it’s tremendously fun to scream and scare thousands of people, but you still need to make sure you are hiring the best people, focusing on effective marketing, and keeping an eye on your budget. I’ve know so many haunts that were obviously a labor of love and featured some really fun and artistic ideas, but failed to spend any real time on marketing or solid business practices.
In our case, we focus on realism. All of our actors are 18 or older, our sets are highly detailed and organic, and we take the production very seriously…but we also strive to keep our show fun and entertaining. It’s not just about scares – you need to push as many emotional buttons as possible. The moments of dark humor really help add some breathing room before the intensity and in-your-face scares start again.
We're just getting into haunted attractions with live actors over in the UK. Last year we featured an article in which Jason Karl, a UK haunted attraction operator, hypothesised that in the UK we seem to like more of a play/theatre performance with an overall storyline whereas in the US, scare attractions seem to go more for references to unconnected iconic elements of classic horror films. What do you think?
There are so many thousands of haunts in America that I think it’s hard to generalize, but I do think you’re on to something. I think the majority of haunts in the US just feature a series of loosely-connected scenes with no solid plot or connecting narrative, BUT it’s the haunts, such as ours, that do spend the time to create unique concepts and plots that really resonate with the audience and stand out from the norm. There are a few haunts in the USA that still lean towards a more theatrical and slow-throughput kind of experience, but they are in the minority …which is a shame. But having said that, I think there are some interesting approaches to haunting happening right now that could really influence the future of the industry. I’m fascinated by the “ALONE” haunt offered by Bush Gardens Howl-o-Scream event in Tampa, for example, in which customers pay a premium price to experience a haunted house by themselves.
IN our case we do build up stories and concepts for our characters, which helps focus our creative team – and I think our diehard fans appreciate that — but we make sure that you can still enjoy the attraction even if you’re just taking it on a surface level. I use the analogy of the Disney rides all the time. Some people pick-up on the narrative and character points and appreciate the attraction on a deep level, others just “go for the ride” and have a good time, but everyone still comes away being entertained. The ScareHouse tries to operate on the same level.
How do you come up with fresh scares each year?
We take inspiration from EVERYWHERE. Not just horror movies, but cartoons, comics, video games, and current events. I think the best horror entertainment is relatable to the audience. In 2011, very few people are having nightmares about vampires in capes or spooky castles …no one is worried that a Pirate Ghost is going to jump out of their closet…but we do have fears of contamination, of outbreaks, and the walking dead. We’re not afraid of the ghost in the manor, but we do believe that a demon could possess our daughter. That’s why the “Paranormal Activity” series, in my opinion, is doing so well. All of us have been in bed, heard a noise, and assumed the worst…
With The ScareHouse, we design our haunts to be as current and contemporary as possible. What’s scary now? What’s going to impact the most people? And also, what are the topics and concepts that we would want to spend an entire year living with? We love zombies (being that we are in Pittsburgh, the zombie capital of the world) so it was easy to get excited about spending 12 months creating our very own zombie apocalypse this year.
How important are high tech effects compared to storytelling and actor-led experiences?
We’re largely moving away from audio-animatronics and hiring more and more actors. While there are certainly some amazing effects available to haunt owners now, I think they are never as effective or as memorable as an intimate experience with a living, breathing performer. Plus, the most you can hope is that a customer sees an effect or animation and says, “Wow, what a great effect” – which totally ruins the sense of realism we’re trying to achieve. The second a customer sees something as an animated and mechanical effect instead of a very real and organic threat, we have broken the illusion.
How’s business going this year?
I’m sorry, but we don’t speak to our numbers specifically – but I can tell you that our attendance continues to grow every year! I think our fans appreciate our willingness to try something new every year, and our commitment to new and unique characters. This does mean that sometimes we run the risk of disappointing fans when we retire a well-loved icon or haunt, but I think that creatively you have to be willing to always try new things and not become too dependent on pulling out the same scares and scenarios every year. Your audience will get tired of your stuff a lot sooner than you will!
Images: Kind courtesy of The ScareHouse. Copyright All rights reserved by ScareHouseScott