Scott Simmons - Creative Director of The ScareHouse
Dieselpunk/Steampunk haunted house in Pittsburgh, PA
Lights out, everyone.
Halloween is almost here, and the harvest moon is hanging heavily in the skies. It reminds us to board our windows and prepare for the long nights ahead.
But what is creeping out in the darkness? Ghouls, spectres, and other boogeymen? Or is it something worse?
Let your imagination run free, for today we're speaking with Scott Simons, the Creative Director of The ScareHouse in Pittsburgh, PA.
Originally opened in 1999, The ScareHouse has changed considerably over the past decade. Never content, Scott and his staff have continually raised the bar to stay on par with Hollywood's biggest scares. And this year, visitors to The ScareHouse have a chance to take part in RAMPAGE, an interactive dieselpunk nightmare inspired by Orwellian nightmares and dieselpunk mad scientists.
Read on... if you dare!
Hi Scott. Thanks for joining us today. Other than the obvious, what should people know about The ScareHouse?
This all started more than 25 years ago, many years before the haunted attraction industry really exploded, and back when most haunted houses were really just volunteer-based fundraisers that could only find their costumes and make-up from the local department and kids stores. Even then, back when one had to use answering machine cassettes for soundtracks and clown-white make-up from Toys-r-us for our ghouls, I found that our ideas and designs were always very ambitious and high concept. I met my wife Barb while working at a volunteer haunted house in 1990, and we spent most of the next decade trying to figure out we could open and operate our own haunted attraction. It wasn't really until the internet allowed us to connect with other owners across the country, and our first visits to the industry conventions and gatherings, that we finally started gaining an education into the process of operating a for-profit haunted attraction.
The first production of The ScareHouse was in 1999, and I believe we had less than 30 people on the entire cast and crew. There was a core group of myself, Barb, our parents, and a few others who essentially handled all the design, construction, organization, marketing, and operation... all while still maintaining our regular day jobs. It was exhausting, but also exhilarating.
Now our haunt has a seasonal staff of more than 120 actors, artists, managers, and other crew managers. We employ vendors and artists from all across the country, and some of our designers start working as early as January on new concepts for the upcoming season. It's a massive production that relies on teams of some of the most talented and creative people imaginable, but it is still very much rooted in the same "hands on" and multi-tasking spirit of our original productions. Even though the scale of everything we do has expanded substantially, it is still very much a family business that is owned and operated by myself, Barb, and my father Wayne - and many of us are involved in multiple aspects of the production.
Introductions are in order. Please tell us a bit about yourself, your background with The ScareHouse, and what you bring to the table when it comes to creating one of America's best haunts.
We created The ScareHouse in 1999, and it was originally just one attraction that featured a variety of thinly-connected scenes that were all vaguely gothic and creepy. We took a great deal of influence from EC comics, and combined plenty of dark humor with all the ghoulish content. We bounced around a bit until we realized that we needed to secure a permanent, year-round location to really make this business work. It took many years to finally find the perfect location, but we finally secured a historic Elks Lodge located just about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. The building dates back to the early 1900's and it's filled with history, as well as some fantastic architectural elements that we always attempt to utilize as much as possible. Because it was used as a banquet hall, we are able to set scenes inside the industrial kitchen that was used to feed 100's of customers - and also to convert all of their equipment into all kinds of twisted machinery and equipment. Another part of the building was once used as a stage, and I love the contrast of the exposed brick with some very old-fashioned pulleys and gears and furnaces and other equipment that dates back into the 1940's.
I'm the Creative Director of The ScareHouse, and I also produce all of our marketing and PR materials (such as the website, videos, commercials, etc) - but what that really means is that I try to find the most talented artists and designers I can, bring them together to influence each other, and then stay out of their way! The most interesting and successful concepts and characters have been born from the contrasts in tastes and interests among our designers. It's like the chocolate and peanut butter thing... what happens if we mix techno rave music, cybergoth, and puppets? Could we combine steampunk with gas masks, George Orwell, and HP Lovecraft?
I think that's why we've been lucky enough to gain attention from the national media. There are thousands of haunted houses out there, and many of them have the same kind of highly detailed sets and effects that we do, but very few of them regularly create completely unique and original concepts and characters. There are hundreds of haunts that feature clowns and chainsaws, and probably a growing number of attractions have steampunk and/or dieselpunk influences, but we're the only one to offer something quite like RAMPAGE!
When developing your scenes and characters for The ScareHouse, where are you pulling your inspirations from? Are you recycling the same old plastic fangs and capes like other haunts, or do you really step it up for your audience?
We take inspirations from everywhere, and I can tell you that it never stops. All year long, you never know when a certain movie or video game or piece of artwork will suddenly start your mind racing. I always push everyone to make our attractions as contemporary as possible, and as relevant as possible to modern audiences. Our customers are playing video games like Bioshock and Dead Space, they're watching LOST and True Blood, and they're buying tickets for movies like Inception and SAW... which means that most of the scenes you see at many haunted houses are in no way connecting with modern audiences. When was the last time you saw a popular horror movie about a spooky castle? Or vampires with capes? Or a witch in a pointy hat?
It's not that you need to be more graphic, but you certainly need to ramp-up the intensity and creativity to match what modern audiences demand. Also, I think you have to realize that people are able to absorb so much more detail and story elements than before. They're surrounded by stimulation and information every day, and are able to process huge hunks of data very quickly. These enables us to create attractions like RAMPAGE, which is filled with all kinds of inside references and plot information, and have it be recognized and processed by our audience in a way that might not have been possible even five years ago.
I don't want to make this sound opportunistic. It's not like we sit down in January and say "I think dieselpunk will be hip this year so let's do something with that" - most of our ideas just come about from absorbing new ideas and artwork online, through video games, and just generally sitting around and brainstorming. The ScareHouse always features 3 attractions under one roof, and each one is always radically different in tone and style. That makes it more interesting for both the customers and the designers, because it means that you're always using different parts of your brains every day. DELIRIUM 3-D has a definite cybergoth vibe, with lots of color and UV lighting - while RAMPAGE is very industrial and totalitarian - and THE FORSAKEN is all about shadows and moonlight.
When you were younger, what really scared you?
EVERYTHING. Having an active imagination, and also more than a little anxious energy, is definitely a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because I was and still am constantly having very vivid images and ideas pop into my head, and it's a curse because those ideas usually occur when I'm trying to sleep or right after the power goes out. The bad news is that I rarely get a good night's sleep, the good news is that I no longer need to work in an office. The creature under the bed haunts my dreams, and also pays the mortgage on my house.
When I was younger I was really freaked out by anything supernatural. Anything dealing with ghosts or demons or possessions would really freak me out, and I think that's still very potent... which is why it's a big part of our new attraction, The Forsaken. The image of Reagan in The Exorcist trips some kind of almost primal nerve that still freaks me out to this day. But as I've gotten older, I find that I'm much less scared by the paranormal than I am by regular people, honestly. I was very happy to get away from working in local television news, because the constant stream of incidents involving violent crimes and hateful behavior was really starting to impact me.
I see that SyFy Channel's "The Ghost Hunters" are coming out to The ScareHouse to meet their fans and talk about ghost hunting. Have you ever needed their services on site?
It's very suspect when the owner of a haunted attraction tells you that his building is haunted. I'm the first one to admit that. And yet, after so many years in this place, there is no doubt that paranormal activity occurs here. Now, when I say "paranormal" I don't mean that to say - "there's clearly a ghost of murdered sea captain looking for his lost love" or anything, but I do feel comfortable saying that many of us who work here on a regular basis have all experienced similar experiences and vibes - and it always seems to be in the same specific sections of the building. It's easy to dismiss what we say, but it's been confirmed by members of the Elks who occupied this space for decades before we moved into it. I'd love to have a serious paranormal investigation of this place, I just don't know if anyone would truly believe any evidence they might find because of the nature of our business.
What other events are happening at The ScareHouse that aren't related to the haunts?
We're really trying to expand our creativity and energy to other projects outside of the haunt and I'm hoping we'll be able to do more and more stuff next year. We really have a fantastic team of creative and enthusiastic artists, perfomers, and designers and while it takes a full year of preparation for us to create a new attraction, we are always looking for other opportunities during the year. The ScareHouse helps promote and program a film series at a local movie theater, and it's great fun to present 35mm prints of some classic cult and genre hits all summer long. We also just produced a music video about the zombie apocalypse and that was incredibly fun and rewarding to do.
If you had any Hollywood help, who would you want on set? Whether they're behind the scenes like Tom Savini, or right up front scaring the piss out of people like Doug Bradley is up to you.
Guillermo del Toro. Most definitely. I think he's one of the most talented conceptual artists, designers, and story-tellers alive right now. I would love to have him hang out with our creative team for a day and offer his guidance. He has such a fantastic ability to bring fantastic characters and sets to life, and also to have those creations strike an emotional cord with his audiences.
Let's talk about Rampage, aka "The Steampunk Haunted House." Who spearheaded this project, and about how long did it take to create from start to finish?
In 2007 we first started brainstorming ideas for a 3-D attraction, and it was our design manager Dejah Harnish who suggested that the entire attraction be based around one central character (aka "Delirium") I knew that I wanted it to be fun and lively, but that I also wanted the attraction to still feature some level of conceptual design and detail. We were kicking around ideas when our costume designer, Jennifer "Vontinka" Bailey, started talking about both steampunk and cybergoth as potential influences.
I have to admit that at this point, in January 2008, we had no idea what she was talking about. Fortunately we had internet access.
The decision was made to incorporate cybergoth and tribal designs into Delirium 3-D that year, but the steampunk stuff really touched a nerve with all of us. Barb and I, as well as many other haunters I've met over the years, had always been obsessed with Jules Verne and Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea - as well as the obvious gothic and Victorian influences that impact just about every Halloween and haunt fan - and we honestly didn't realize that the steampunk movement was really happening until Jennifer mentioned it.
Our design managers, Chris Gilgour and Dejah Harnish, started sketching out concepts for characters within an existing attraction that was called Screamatorium. Screamatorium was supposed to be an industrialized research facility from the 40's, so honestly I'm not sure that "Daphnie" and "The DieRector" really fit in - but they were so cool that we felt compelled to incorporate them into the attraction and our marketing... and they connected with audiences in a HUGE way.
In 2009 we decided that we wanted to scrap Screamatorium, but also wanted to elevate Daphnie and The DieRector. In the same way that we had designed an entire attraction around the character of Delirium, we thought it would be fun to create a very elaborate backstory and attraction for these iconic characters. I think the success of Delirium 3-D, which was certainly very high-concept and unusual, really enabled us to go way out of comfort zone and create RAMPAGE!
I don't know that we can say that we've fully finished RAMPAGE yet, because it continues to evolve every year. It's definitely one of the most ambitious attractions we've ever created not so much because of the size and scope, but because of the concepts and unique nature of it. If I tell you that you're going into a basement with a psycho killer waiting for you, you instantly understand the kind of experience that you are about to have... you have seen enough movies and read enough stories to grasp the stakes of what's happening, and why you should be afraid. RAMPAGE is much more difficult, because we have to establish a definite mode and setting before introducing the elements of danger and surprise.
This is our second year with RAMPAGE, and I'm pleased to hear that more and more customers are really responding to it... but there was definitely some resistance at first. As I said earlier, customers don't want you to keep giving them the same scenes and scares they've seen countless times before - no spooky castles and no vampires in capes - but you can also run the risk of creating something so new and so unique that people don't actually know how to respond to it. This is the 2nd season of RAMPAGE, and I'm happy to report that customers are reacting right away once they enter the first scenes. Last year many of them seemed a little unsure of what was happening, now I see them engaging and interacting with the oppressive forces in a very fun and entertaining fashion.
In the end, I think the attraction works because we've devised it to work on two different levels. We took a great deal of inspiration from how the big theme park attractions at Disney and Universal approach their story elements. If you just want to go through RAMPAGE and react to the loud noises of the equipment and machine guns, you will still have a great time without needing to fully understand the story... but the people who pay a little more attention can appreciate the show on an entirely different level.
When we started this most haunters said "Steampunk isn't scary" - which is EXACTLY why we wanted to play around in that world. In fact, some genre fans have argued that RAMPAGE isn't really steampunk or dieselpunk because of the content, or of the other influences that we've combined with it. Believe me, I'm well aware that the wikipedia definition of steampunk does not contain "superwomen in gas masks and fishnets firing steam-powered machine guns" I think our haunt is clearly heavily influenced by steampunk and dieselpunk more than any other one genre, but we are definitely mashing it up with other visual and artistic inspirations.
What can you tell us about it? Who are the stars and what can the audience expect?
The DieRector is very vain, and definitely not the kind of guy who likes to get his hands dirty... but he's also clearly a murderous psychopath bent on world domination. We wanted to reference some images and concepts from George Orwell and create a very clear fascist world. The DieRector made a lot of promises about unity and a new utopia and everyone bought into it, and then he essentially enslaved everyone who displeased him. So your trip starts deep at the bottom rungs of this society, with the oppressed workers enduring endless propoganda and working long hours in the hot furnaces and industrial plants... but it's clear that the workers are ready to rise-up and fight for their freedom, and that tensions have been building on for years. Each new area reveals more of the DieRector's experiments, more of his mutations, and finally it all ends with an epic battle between all the forces. Bullets fly, monsters are unleashed, and you are right in the middle of all the chaos.
This video, which also appears on the haunts page at www.scarehouse.com gives our guests an idea of what RAMPAGE is all about.
What kind of obstacles did you have to get around when it was being developed?
Getting everyone's head around the concept was certainly a big one, as well as "making it scary." Honestly, I think it's all gelled a little better this year with some simple but significant tweaking to some of the designs and characters. There were so many decisions and challenges to face: making sure customers understood the story, as well as the difference between the rebels and the oppressive military was a big one. The costuming was also a major challenge, particularly since Jennifer know lives in Burbank. Our haunt is open for 28 nights, and while most of our iconic characters are played by the same actors every night there is still quite a bit of rotation among the cast. With other haunted houses you can always run out to the costume store or second-hand shop to create outfits for zombies, ghouls, and scary creatures... But there is no steampunk section at the local Spirit store, and certainly no dieselpunk/military section at the local Goodwill. We have spent quite a bit of time and money tracking down accessories and costume items from all over the world and then tweaking them to fit into RAMPAGE. I have to say that our shopping lists are often quite hilarious: fishnets, gas masks, vintage medals, Victorian corsets, nerf guns.
What effect or costume design are you most proud of?
I don't think it's an effect or costume as much as it's the reaction to the combination of Daphnie and The DieRector. There's something very powerful and effective about the two of them sharing time on screen or in person. It definitely looks like something right out of a comic book or video game. I also love the dark humor of their situation. I often joke that they are like a dark and murderous version of "Wallace and Gromit." The DieRector does all the talking nad posturing, while it's Daphnie who's really doing all the work and keeping everyone in line.
Did you leave anything on the drawing board because it was just too big or too expensive to set up in time?
Constantly! We've really maxed out every last inch of our building, but I wish we had the ability to extend the world of RAMPAGE a little more so that we could see more of The DieRector's experiments The nature of a haunted attraction means that we had to really focus on the stuff that's dark, scary, and loud... so the attraction is really limited to seeing the world from the point of view of the oppressed rebels, and that means lots of darkness and industrialized sets. But eventually we hope to show more of what The DieRector has really been doing from his high perch, and also to further expand the scope and scale of that last battle scene. Every new season of RAMPAGE is like a sequel to the last year, and you always have to go bigger for the sequel don't you? Of course, I have no idea how we're going to top the 13 foot tall robot with a machine gun on his arm.
How many people are you expecting to visit The ScareHouse this year?
We never reveal exact attendance numbers, but it's definitely a considerably larger amount of people that we saw when we first started 10 years ago. We're all very fortunate and grateful for the continued support and enthusiasm of our fans, some of whom travel for many hours each year just to see what news things we have in store for them.
Where can people check in to learn more about The ScareHouse, and where can they buy tickets?
Our website, www.scarehouse.com has dates, directions, and tickets... as well as an interactive HAUNTS page that features tons of content created just for the web, a behind the scenes gallery of photos and videos, and the latest news about everything happening at the haunt.
Is there anything our members at Dieselpunks can do to help spread the word?
I'm a very active supporter of social media, and love interacting with people via twitter and Facebook. We have all the social media links posted on our website, so check 'em out!
Thanks for the scares, Scott. I encourage everyone interested in haunts and *punk culture alike to check it out. You won't be disappointed.