Modern Halloween celebrations have some core staples — costumes, trick-or-treating, jack-o-lanterns, and summoning our dark lord to do our bidding. Those all date back a relatively long time. But haunted houses, which we tend to consider similarly longstanding staples, don’t. When ancient Celts were carving up turnips for All Hallow’s Eve, they weren’t finishing up the night with a few pints of ale and a trip to the local community center to get scared by some acned teens dressed as ghouls. The first haunted attraction didn’t show up until 1915, and the style of attraction that most of us grew up with arrived much more recently than that.
This relative modernity is one reason these haunts are so fascinating. They are part of an industry that’s still undergoing constant change. To learn more about the scare industry, we reached out to Scott Simmons, the Creative Director of Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse — which lands in the top ten of most haunted house roundups. Located in a 100-year-old-Elks Lodge, ScareHouse now presents four unique attractions, including an ultra-immersive experience called The Basement. The Basement is 18 and over and you have to sign a waiver to enter; it’s also insanely popular.
Simmons has been running ScareHouse since it’s inception in 1999, when things operated on a much smaller scale. If anyone knows the fright biz, it’s this man. We spoke with him about trends in the industry, the process of developing a new program each year, the rise of extreme haunts, and about whether or not the business of scaring people is actually filled with sadists.
Your background is in writing and production, correct?
Yeah. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh my whole life and I’ve had two overlapping separate but equal paths. When I was in high school, I started volunteering at a YMCA haunted house, the kind which used to be all around Pennsylvania. They don’t really exist as much anymore, but these were the really low budget kind of things with clown white makeup and rubber masks from Kmart. I was doing that and loved it. At the same time, I have always been a huge movie nerd, and I got into video production and making videos. The two informed each other in a lot of ways. We’d be building the haunted house, and also figuring out how to shoot the videos for it and the photos for it.
Back in the 1990s, before there really was a haunted house industry if you will, you couldn’t really say, “Okay, I’m going to be a full-time haunted house guy.” That’s when I got into television production — doing marketing, news topicals, and videos, and that kind of stuff. The whole time, I never gave up on haunted houses. I never gave up on figuring out a way to be a full-time haunter, if you will. It took a long time because I believe the first time I volunteered at a haunted house would have been all the way back in 1985. We’re coming up on 33 years now I’ve been doing this. It wasn’t until the late 1990s/early 2000s with the internet that other haunted house owners and potential haunted house owners all started finding each other and exchanging information and ideas. We figured out, “Hey, let’s make an industry.”