Faced with a location move, permitting delays, and a season that didn’t open on time, one of “America’s Scariest Halloween Attractions” (as ranked by the Travel Channel), found scary success after opening late.
With many attractions delaying the start to their season out of an abundance of caution in the wake of COVID-19, the story of ScareHouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will resonate with several attraction owners and operators.
ScareHouse owner Undead Productions made the atypical decision to open three Halloween-like haunts in February for extended runs—after unforeseen circumstances.
During the past 20 years, ScareHouse spooked around 40,000 visitors each autumn with a variety of ever-changing Halloween experiences.
However, following the 2018 season, Undead Productions realized the attraction’s longtime location—an old 18,000-square-foot Elks Lodge built in the early 1900s—was no longer adequate.
“While we loved the atmosphere and authenticity of the 100-plus-year-old historic building, the reality was that we’d completely outgrown the limitations of both the structure and the immediate surroundings,” says Scott Simmons, ScareHouse’s founder and creative director. “Our operational costs continued to rise, yet we had no real ability to expand the attraction’s scope or seasonal offerings within that building.”
Therefore, ScareHouse began looking for a new location. Still, while searching for its next permanent home, Undead Productions found a smaller location that offered a big opportunity.
New indoor space within the Strip District—an urban food and nightlife area located in one of Pittsburgh’s trendy neighborhoods—was perfect for Simmons’ refined vision. The new location allowed Undead Productions to build two new escape rooms and recreate ScareHouse’s “The Basement” attraction, a personal 30-minute fright experience catering to just two guests at a time.
Simmons says Undead Productions signed the lease at the Strip District in June 2019 and had the three attractions of the new “Scream District” ready to open by September. But opening on time for the start of the Halloween season was not to be.
“The same explosive growth that inspired us to locate our new attraction in [the Strip District] has also created an unprecedented flood of permits and proposals for local building officials,” Simmons says. “The submission, review, inspection, approval, and permit issuance required nearly seven months of navigation.”
Rocked by missing 2019’s Halloween season completely, Simmons had an unconventional spark of inspiration: open the trio of haunts on Valentine’s Day. Springtime and haunted houses could be polar opposites, but Undead Productions used the delay in its favor.
“We had great fun identifying Valentine’s Day as ‘the second most frightening day of the year’ for our
opening!” Simmons says enthusiastically. The media embraced the concept, generating positive press of the Scream District.
“Everyone who missed [visiting] last fall seems thrilled to finally get their fright fix. This is their chance to ‘win’ the best-weekend conversations at work or school on Monday. While everyone else stayed at home watching Netflix or had a mediocre dinner they’ve already forgotten [on Valentine’s Day], our visitors got to personally perform an exorcism or match wits with a serial killer!” Simmons explains of the frightful options.
“The Basement” reopened as an intense half-hour series of interactive vignettes and physical challenges between two guests and several costumed actors. (Simmons notes it’s not a traditional haunted attraction, and some may find the attraction contains controversial content.) Reservations are presold online, allowing the Scream District to know at what level they should properly staff the location. Access is limited to guests 18 and older who are required a signed waiver.
What Undead Productions brands as “Bold Escape Rooms” are a pair of year-round attractions.
One attraction places eight people together within an escape room filled with fog, where they solve clues and puzzles, while reaching into dark, wet places, or playing with body-part props.
The second escape room, dubbed “data/bass,” asks guests to “break into” an abandoned nightclub to discover what happened to the venue’s owner. Armed only with flashlights, the group must reboot the nightclub’s systems to bring the club back to life. Once the pulsating music and lighting is activated, the group solves a series of digital challenges. The game has five distinct endings.
“I’m really thrilled by what our design team cooked up,” says Simmons, using the delay to their advantage. “Our designers wrote 14,500 lines of code, programmed 20-plus Arduinos, and incorporated a whole slew of DMX lighting, fog, lasers, and computerized audio.”
The first few weeks of operation for the out-of-season attractions proved to be what Simmons describes as a “smash” success. He says Undead Productions was forthright with its guests—communicating the recreated “The Basement” would remain open, only if ticket sales warranted. Like many attractions, the Scream District closed in March, respecting the practice of social distancing during the spread of novel coronavirus. Simmons used his website to let visitors to book reservations beginning in April on a week-to-week basis, allowing his team to navigate the complexities of safely reopening following the COVID-19 pandemic.