- Heather Schur
- Phantom Fright Nights at Kennywood
Pittsburgh goes by many names — Steel City, Renaissance City, and, at one time, Blitzburgh — but one stands out: Unofficial Zombie Capital of the World, a moniker owed to the locally filmed Night of the Living Dead and its sequel, Dawn of the Dead. But the city’s horror roots reach farther than its undead fame and have quietly created a tourist boom.
The Etna-based ScareHouse built a spooky reputation after being cited multiple times as one of the country’s best haunted attractions and earning endorsements from celebrities such as director Guillermo del Toro and actor Elijah Wood. Pittsburgh native Scott Simmons started ScareHouse with his dad, Wayne, in 1999 as a way to build on “those nonprofit, really low-budget haunted houses” that he visited as a kid in the 1980s.
What started out as a small operation — 30 cast and crew members using store-bought costumes and masks — has expanded into a more elaborate affair with nearly 200 employees, including seasonal help and full-time hires who now receive healthcare benefits. Among them are local artists, technicians, and performers, some with side gigs as costumed actors at Princess Parties.
“They’re dressing up as Cinderella during the day and then they come here and [we] turn them into zombies,” Simmons said.
Although it only operates around 24 days out of the year between September and November, ScareHouse is flocked to by thousands of visitors eager to see if it lives up to the hype. Simmons cites one group that traveled from New Zealand to tour haunted houses all over the U.S. He also sees people from the likes of Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and New York.
Besides the crowds that come for the more accessible, PG-13 main attractions, a loyal core of fans returns annually for the ScareHouse basement, where the scares are more extreme, interactive, and adult-oriented.
To better accommodate out-of-town visitors, Simmons collaborated with Hotel Indigo in East Liberty to create a package where guests receive two tickets and shuttle service to ScareHouse. Garry Mintz, director of sales marketing at Hotel Indigo, says the hotel plans to continue the package after a successful run last year.
But ScareHouse isn’t the only game in town. Since its start in 2009, the annual Living Dead Weekend brings in hundreds of visitors with guest appearances from Living Dead cast and crew members, film location tours, and other activities focused around George Romero’s iconic works. It expanded into two events, one at Night of the Living Dead location Evans City, and another at the Dawn of the Dead location Monroeville Mall.
Nick Paradise, director of public relations at Kennywood, agrees that Pittsburgh is a great place for horror, as reflected by the continued success of Phantom Fright Nights. Launched in 2002 in a small portion of Kennywood, the event has expanded to nearly every corner of the park. As a result, visitors on any given night between September and October are immersed in a fog-drenched world of costumed vampires, zombies, and creepy clowns.
“The reception was there, the demand was there,” says Paradise.
But Simmons questions how well the city’s tourism industry capitalizes on Pittsburgh’s horror appeal, adding that he thinks people still dismiss his business as “just kids in rubber masks.”
“It’s still kind of in a bit of a blind spot,” says Simmons, adding that ScareHouse wouldn’t exist if a clear Halloween tourism trade wasn’t “coming into town and swarming the city every October.”
He believes the city should better embrace its scary side, which comes alive during the Halloween season and is unrivaled by other cities.
“I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but we in Western Pennsylvania are so used to growing up and knowing there are haunted houses and Halloween hayrides in October, without realizing that’s not as widespread across the country,” said Simmons. “The atmosphere of Halloween and fall mixed with that Romero legacy, you’ve got a perfect storm of all of these things that make is such a great horror town.”
Follow senior writer Amanda Waltz on Twitter @AWaltzCP.