Saturday, October 29, 2011

Battling Hordes of Pittsburgh Zombies at The ScareHouse

By Brizblack

Well, once again we saved what most people consider to be one of America’s scariest haunted houses for last. After another spine-tingling season that resulted in Bratzilla and me visiting too many local haunts to review, we wrapped things up at The ScareHouse, which had left us blood thirsty for more after an appropriately unpleasant visit last year.

While two of the three attractions (“The Forsaken” and “Delirium”) in The ScareHouse contained most of the same elements from 2010, a new ‘Burgh-focused “Pittsburgh Zombies” haunt was a welcome overhaul of the old steampunk-themed space, which was cool, but a little lighter on scares. Seeing our fellow yinzers as flesh-eating ghouls (one of them might have been our neighbor) and some of our most iconic sights—such as the Steelers proud Strip District—was an experience not to be missed by any fiend who loves the Steel City. Luckily, since they seem to cycle through attractions every two years, it stands to reason that this will be around in 2012 too.

Here is what keeps us going back to this impressive showpiece of Pittsburgh spookitude:

Scareativity – One of The ScareHouse’s greatest strengths is its “out-of-the-box” thinking on what makes something scary. From scene design to props and costumes, the scares that lurk inside the haunt don’t always come from the most obvious places, or when you expect them. In fact, just about everything becomes suspect in this place, where even a chair can make you feel uneasy!

Creative Reuse – The ScareHouse’s knack for using “found” items is not only a testament to their scareativity, but also to their ability to create a high-quality, high-detail haunt without having to buy everything new. Even monsters like to recycle, so I hope this trend catches on.

Makeup – Most, if not all, of the actors are painted up with ghastly results. Interacting with characters whose purposely not-so-good looks are achieved with makeup instead of masks is far more frightening because it enhances, rather than hides, the fearsome creatures in front of you.

Lighting – The use of lighting (and darkness) to intensify scare zones is also very skillful at The ScareHouse. There is good overall balance between scenes that are lit well enough to highlight detail alongside scenes of total darkness, which puts patrons on edge. Both lighting design methods were punctuated by the actors, who took advantage of times when their unfortunate visitors were distracted by a cool prop or clumsily feeling their way through the blackness.

At the end of a long, dark day, from the level of detail to the quality of the overall production, it is clear that The ScareHouse owners and employees take a lot of pride in their work, and, for that reason, I think we can continue to expect great and evil things as designers continue to improve and retool it, giving us new nightmares to face each year. Now, if only we could shorten those devilishly long lines …

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Going Old School Goth at Castle Blood

by Brizblack

Anyone who knows Bratzilla and me relatively well also know that we make no bones about the fact that Castle Blood is our favorite local haunt. We revere it not because it is the one we consider to be the scariest, the most intense or the most perfect, but because it embodies the heart, history and soul of classic horror. And, in the same way we love our ancient, gaseous hound of hell (okay, he’s a beagle), we have unconditionally loved the place since we first visited it way back in late October of 1998.

For us, a big part of what makes Castle Blood so special is its ability to capture the very essence of Halloween – you know, that feeling you get when you see an iconic glowing jack-o-lantern or a black cat. Gravely MacCabre and his denizens seem to accomplish this by skillfully combining gothic scenes, compelling storylines and a high level of interactivity to create a deeply personal, theatrical and darkly humorous “choose your own adventure” haunt experience. And, by some black magic, these elements also work seamlessly together to invoke a sense of nostalgia so strong it makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into a time machine and been transported back to the most magical moment of your youth.

So, at the risk of spreading my guts too thin, I’ll go ahead and gush a little more about the specifics that not only make Castle Blood our Best Fiend Forever, but also a place worthy of anticipation every year:

History – Castle Blood does classic horror like no other haunt in the area. Spending time in here is like hanging out on the set of a Hammer film, which is pretty much every monster enthusiast’s dream. Picture, if you will, torches, caskets, dust, skulls, pumpkins, tombstones, wrought iron, makeup, storylines that actually require you to pay attention, and set designs with a vintage feel, and you will have visualized a good bloody chunk of what makes Castle Blood one of a kind.

Acting – From the actors who take the tickets and manage the queue line to the tour guides and castle inhabitants, the entire cast carries out their roles creatively, passionately and expertly. You get the sense that each one knows his or her character intimately and, as a result, brings personality and a whole history to their roles that make them memorable. Bratzilla and I wished we could have spent an entire evening with Uncle Vlad, who is reminiscent of Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

Attention to detail – Everything in Castle Blood has a painstakingly handmade feel, and this goes a very long way in maintaining your sense of make believe. The aforementioned scene design, props, costumes, and makeup all keep within the gothic horror motif, reinforcing the world in which your journey takes place. When you look around, you only see ghoulish things that fit within the Castle Blood world, ensuring the kind of immersive experience that we all hope to have when we enter a haunt.

If ever there was a haunted house that existed first and foremost for the love of the craft, it is Castle Blood. And, like Chilly Billy Cardille, decaying steel mills, gloomy weather, and zombies, it is definitely an important part of our spooky western Pennsylvania heritage. So in addition to visiting other haunts that are touted as being scarier or more extreme, try taking take a trip to Beallsville for a change of pace. We swear on our unearthed graves you’ll be treated to an experience that you won’t soon forget!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Scent of Rotting Flesh at Phipps Conservatory

by Bratzilla

“What the hell is so scary about a place that puts on flower shows,” you ask? Well, you’d be fiendishly surprised. Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens—a magnificent and looming Victorian glasshouse situated in historic Schenley Park—not only has a ghastly glow after dark and a living mass of tangled tree limbs that fight each other to reach the light, but somewhere beneath the palms and between the ferns, at least one ghost has to exist in its elysian gardens, too.

Founded by Henry Phipps—a quiet, quirky old benefactor who gifted the structure to the city in 1893—the Conservatory may appear to have a pretty benign past at first glance, but look a little deeper and a few dark historical points creep to the surface. One of these falls into the “scary by association” category: Shipped via box car to Pittsburgh, the first stocked plants came all the way from the Chicago World’s Fair—an exhibition infamously plagued by the serial murders of one H.H. Holmes. The other is the suicide of George W. Burke, the superintendent of the Bureau of Parks who died in the original entrance in 1926 after suffering a nervous breakdown. While there have been no official reports of a haunting, it doesn’t mean that he, or anyone else for that matter, doesn’t still roam the grounds.

Beyond these spooky tidbits, Phipps—which interestingly enough used to be the venue for Fright Nights from 1986 to 1990—also happens to be in possession of the rare Corpse Flower (or Amorphophallus titanium, if you prefer), a native of the equatorial rainforests of Sumatra that smells like rotting flesh when it blooms. It hasn’t flowered yet, but when it does you better believe we’re going to be there. In the meantime, while they don’t hold a candle to Morticia Addams’ ravenous African strangler, you might also wish to visit the patch of carnivorous plants in the Discovery Garden, or the gothic After Dark ‘Black Pearl’ Orchid that was recently acquired by the Conservatory and put on display.

But seriously—whether there are apparitions and stinky, murderous flowers or not—Phipps is a remarkable place and always worth a visit no matter what kind of weird interests you have. Nature is a universal dead spirit lifter and we are lucky to have it preserved more prettily than a pickled brain here in our great city. For tour times, admission prices, upcoming events (including the Fall Flower Show on display Oct.13 – Nov. 6), please visit their website … and be sure to let us know if you see any ghosts.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Picking Up Strange Frequencies on "The Afterthought"

by Bratzilla

Even werewolves, zombies and vampires purportedly like listening to music, and we do too! So for this reason, and many others, we were scared silly to discover that “The Afterthought” mastermind David McWade would be laying down more spooky tracks as part of his annual Goth Halloween show this Sunday and next from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on 92.1 WPTS FM. And, this isn’t your typical monster mash either because, with David, you can always expect a few obscurities to be released from the vault no matter what time of year you listen to his show.

Without giving too much away, we have it on good authority from McWade himself that you might just hear from the likes of such creeptastic crooners and beastly bands as Nick Cave (pictured left), Bauhaus, Lowlife, Clan of Xymox, Cocteau Twins, Jill Tracy, Legendary Pink Dots/Edward Ka-spel, and Dead Can Dance, among many others, this year. So, don’t miss out on the chance to fill your next two Sunday afternoons with the beautiful sounds of doom and gloom no matter where you live. Whether you listen on the radio, or online by visiting the WPTS website and selecting the “Listen” tab, your rotting little ears are certainly in for a terrible treat!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Spiraling into Madness at Hundred Acres Manor

By Brizblack

Traveling down a dark and remote road leading deep into the bowels of South Park, Bratzilla and I reluctantly attended Hundred Acres Manor for the first time this Halloween season. I say “reluctantly because of our fear of being disappointed: I consider myself to be very pessimistic about things that are highly praised these days. Happily, we were horrified and impressed by what we found deep within this urban forest.

Upon our arrival, we were immediately enthralled by the monstrous castle façade complete with very realistic-looking and creepy stained glass windows. Turns out the disturbed and demented creatures inside would be equally captivating as our trip through the Manor resulted in me both having temporary hearing loss (due to nearly 40 minutes of Bratzilla’s screaming) and feelings of great relief that the haunt—which has been named as one of the top in the country—was worthy of the hype.

Unfortunately, haunts by nature and design can often be mere gimmicks to make a fast buck by moving people through as quickly as possible without regard to their enjoyment and experience, or respect for the act of haunting, which is so sacred to many of us freaks and creeps. Hundred Acres Manor, however, is a haunter’s temple, filled with décor, props and actors that astound and terrify those who dare pay for the pleasure of exploring such a fiendish design. Here’s what sets it apart from the myriad black plastic nightmares that call themselves “haunted attractions”:

Variety – From the entrance funeral scene to the ghastly Tool and Die Shop, and the many points in between, Hundred Acres Manor allows its patrons to explore such a great variety of locales that your sense of wonder is always piqued. Variety also comes in the form of lighting, scare angles, ratios of human actors versus props, and the physical environments, which sometimes require you to duck, scramble down walkways, or squeeze through tight passages.

Attention to Detail – It is obvious that every inch, whether it be Hundred Acres Manor’s gothic castle exterior or the main entrance of the decaying South Valley Hospital, is painstakingly hand crafted. I cannot recall one aspect of the haunt that did not powerfully contribute to the haunted experience.

Acting – All of the actors, from those with speaking parts to those whose jobs were to scare and flee, performed their roles with an exactness that exemplifies the importance of both actor training and having the right people. Although Hundred Acres Manor is a high traffic and long running haunt, each actor’s energy level was very high, even late at night.

Queue Line Management – Queue line management was very good, although there were a few spots where we had a group behind us on our heels. Most of the time, however, we felt as if we were left to explore the Manor and ward off its horrid denizens on our own. This is a great achievement considering the amount of patrons passing through its abysmal halls.

Value – Admission to Hundred Acres Manor is $16. We spent almost 40 highly interactive and engrossing minutes in the haunt, and we were moving at a fairly brisk pace. Although the maze portion can get pretty tedious after a while, there are rarely any moments where you feel like a scene is merely being used as filler. Most of your time in the haunt is either spent taking in the props, décor and costumes, or being scared.

Heart – Hundred Acres Manor is 100% volunteer run and its profits (after expenses) go to two great, LOCAL nonprofits: Homeless Children’s Education Fund and Animal Friends. I don’t think I need to say anymore about that!

So if you are like me and have a death grip on your wallet and worry about how to best spend your time during this deadly time of year, do yourself a favor and visit Hundred Acres Manor. The evil masterminds behind the attraction really understand what goes into making a good haunt and are meticulous about the kind of experience that patrons have when they dare to visit. You won’t be disappointed!

P.S. We are now on Twitter. Follow @PGHExhumed for updates and terrorific news all year long!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Going Underground with the Cannibals at Terror Town

By Brizblack

Pittsburgh’s newest haunted house, Terror Town, twists and turns around the gigantic basement below Club Zoo, which we older yinzers remember as being the home of Metropol and Rosebud. Prior to visiting, Bratzilla and I read a great article on the space supposedly being haunted and so, with bellies full of veggie Kung Pao and bladders bursting with endless pots of oolong tea, we decided to check it out on opening weekend.

Although I have been around the block as far as haunting is concerned, I must say that I walked toward the Terror Town façade with some of those old, familiar moths in my stomach. The alleged “real” haunting, the industrial locale, the lack of any reviews (because it was only the second night that it had EVER been open), and the fact that we did not see one human being lurking outside led my imagination a little astray. And, of course, Bratzilla’s well-vocalized and -displayed nervousness did not help in deterring visions of me releasing my oolong tea somewhere near the second scene.

But although it took a little bit to find the main entrance to Terror Town, and despite the fact that there weren’t any other patrons to speak of, we finally forced our way inside, quickly paying and walking through the foggy pallet maze to the haunt’s front door. While psyched that we didn’t have to wait in line, we were also more than a little freaked out by the screams and bangs coming from the walls, and the fact that we were alone and about to enter an immense haunt without knowing what was inside.

It was with this apprehension that we were thrown into the first scene, where we learned from a gruesome funeral director that the underground community inhabitants we would soon meet had run out of food and thought of a great way to restock: invite patrons like Bratzilla and me down for dinner. The majority of time that we then spent in the haunt involved us having to avoid being eaten, or turning a deaf ear to captured patrons who begged us to liberate them from a certain culinary fate.

Without giving away the gory details of our journey, I will say that if you choose to spend your hard-earned cash on a visit to this macabre haunt, you will endure a very unique experience, simply because Terror Town has a lot going for it. Although Bratzilla and I were treated to a highly-immersive trip as two of very few “living” entities there the night we went, I believe that even on the busiest late October nights you will find a tour through the rotting bowels of this foul place to be ghoulishly special.

Here are some of the aspects to Terror Town that make it a one-of-a-kind haunt:

Atmosphere – The fact that the haunt takes place in a musty, dusty, foggy, and “haunted” warehouse built in the early 1900s gives it a huge advantage over almost every other haunt I have ever been to. The entrance, which is in a dark alley in the Strip District, is a great set-up for evoking the “I may leave this place with some sort of infection” feel that exists in the subterranean world of Terror Town.

Story Line – I found the storyline about a fully imagined community whose citizens have run out of food and must lure people like me and you into their world so they can eat us to be pretty cool and effective in its ability to tie together the great variety of scenarios that play out. It also worked well to support the interactivity of Terror Town, where you‘re constantly reminded of your role as “dinner.”

Actors – Most of the actors played their parts with intensity and creativity. From those with leading roles to those whose only purpose was to jump out at you, each seemed to bring their own “takes” on their characters. One we found very interesting was a creepy, shy creature who lived in a room full of dismantled mannequins and kept asking us to tell him about what life was like “up there.”

Variety – There is a great variety of scenes, frights and actors inside Terror Town, but all stay within the ghastly cannibalism theme instead of incorporating a mish-mash of unrelated ideas. This is quite a feat for a new haunt and it definitely allowed us to more fully immerse ourselves in the story.

Overall, Terror Town is a very good haunt. It does not have the precision of some of the more venerable local haunts that we’ll soon review but, in some ways, that is what made our experience visiting this first-year fright spot so memorable. I look forward to many more years experiencing Terror Town’s evolution, as I believe that it will continue to take a creative approach to haunting that will allow it to set itself apart in a city that is quickly becoming a Mecca of all things spooky.