It's pretty scary stuff at Pittsburgh's haunted houses

Like your haunted house with a safe word? Try 'The Basement.'

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There was really only one question left.

Would I scream "bunny"?

In front of an unremarkable metal door well around the corner from where hundreds of people were lining up for the ScareHouse's main "haunt" last weekend, I had just come through an infinitely smaller queue and was face to face with a stern security guard who was staring me down through her aviators.

I had signed the waiver for The Basement, the new, intense and very up-close-and-personal R-rated experience offered by the Etna haunted house, avowing my willing participation and my intent that the release should "bind the members of my family, spouse, if I am alive, and my heirs, assigns and personal representative, if I am deceased."

I had endured the strict lecture about the protocols -- including my impending exposure to dirt, water, physical contact, darkness, tight spaces and heavy adult material -- and been quizzed about my physical ability to crawl.

Last, there was the safe word.

The Basement Bunny Board next to the entrance had 36 tally marks for the number of times since the Sept. 27 opening night that the word had been invoked to bring the roughly 30-minute experience to a premature halt by patrons unable to take any more.

No refunds, no resets. Once "bunny" is uttered, out you go.

The guard banged on the door with a baton, then opened it.

All I had to do was step inside.

'Push the envelope'

"The Basement" was birthed by the unique opportunities afforded by the giant former bank building and Elks Lodge at 118 Locust St., which the ScareHouse has leased on a long-term basis since 1999, says Scott Simmons, ScareHouse co-owner and creative director.

The main haunted house, which features three attractions -- The Forsaken, Creepo's Christmas in 3-D and Pittsburgh Zombies -- is on an upper level of the nearly 100-year-old building, leaving a mostly unaltered lower floor that presented intriguing possibilities for Mr. Simmons and his crew.

"It took us over a year to really figure out how to make it work," Mr. Simmons said, adding that he realized the space would limit the number of people who could reasonably pass through in a given night. "We said, 'Let's go ahead and really push the envelope a little bit.' "

The ScareHouse's "main haunt" is an impressive achievement in its own right, perennially ranked as one of the best in the country by media outlets and trade publications, with richly detailed rooms, costumes and makeup, deadly serious actors (the ScareHouse uses only paid staff) and a truly bizarre take on Yuletide reminiscent of an Alice Cooper Christmas carol.

The walking dead in Pittsburgh Zombies lurch, growl, snarl and hiss with the best of them and come so close you'll swear they're about to take a piece out of your neck or arm. You'll see zombies in Steelers jerseys and a TV newscast documenting the outbreak of the "YNZR" virus, recognize signs from Primanti Brothers (double meat only $1.99!) and be hailed in the local dialect ("Are yinz crazy? There's zombies in there!").

'Life's too short'

But all the while, you have the relative comfort of constant motion, large numbers of other people and the knowledge that the ghouls will get only so close. The family in front of me included an 8-year-old girl named Ava from South Park who seemed unaffected by the whole thing, making me feel more than a little sheepish. Kids these days, right?

The Basement is something else entirely.

In many places it's so dark you can't see your hand in front of your face -- usually the same time something is about to grab you -- and the maximum size of your group is two. I was on my own, meaning I had the basement dwellers' undivided attention.

There are few frills or effects. The focus is entirely on ratcheting up the intensity of unavoidable encounters with the actors in purposely vague, strange, suggestive scenarios that, without giving away any spoilers, involve a degree of skin-crawling close contact (with no regard for your particular gender preference) virtually guaranteed to make you massively uncomfortable.

"Upstairs is 'Evil Dead II,' " Mr. Simmons said. "Downstairs is 'The Shining.' "

There are medical, sexual and scatological themes but no nudity, although in one encounter the only thing avoiding an NC-17 rating is a pair of soiled-looking BVDs. In some scenes, you will be physically restrained. In others, you participate in your own scare, not unlike a warped "Choose Your Own Adventure." You will also be verbally abused, occasionally in humorous fashion, and the actors at all times will do their utmost to creep you out.

Mr. Simmons says the actors compete over who can score the most "bunnies," with the far-and-away leader as of last weekend the actor in the very first scene, I was told.

The experience, billed as the "atomic wings challenge" of the haunted house world, is survivable ("Bunny" did not escape my lips), but it helps if you fully engage and interact with the actors to break some of the tension. The open-mouthed stares from the people standing in line for the upstairs haunted house, which you pass as you come out of the basement with dirt smeared on your head to go with your dazed expression, is nearly worth the $29.99 cost of admission.

Just after I came out, Lisa Vollberg, 48, of Lincoln Place, and her 18-year-old son, Richard, emerged aglow with that gift of evolution, the pure endorphin rush of survival.

"The worst part was hearing my son screaming," Ms. Vollberg said. "This is a step up from everything else."

Her son shared his internal observations as he stood alone in the dark surrounded by terrors.

"It's not something you can prepare yourself for," he said. "You realize life's too short."

At the Manor

The Pittsburgh area is an embarrassment of riches for Halloween thrill-seekers, as befits the home of "Night of the Living Dead," the 1968 movie by George Romero that helped make zombies a permanent part of our cultural fabric.

With at least 15 major haunted attractions, ranging from hayrides to Kennywood amusement park's Phantom Fright Nights, spread out across the area, there is some serious competition for your dollar.

At Hundreds Acres Manor in South Park, also ranked among the nation's best haunts, you might get more than you bargained for with the $18 "per victim" admission, including access to all six of the themed haunts in what can be a mentally and visually taxing endurance test. They include Dead Lift, a shudder-inducing elevator descent, Damnation, a twisted tour of the Acres family "manor" and its demented inhabitants (who yell things like "Why don't you come in here with me and I'll show you what your insides look like?") and The Family, an atomic-age clan of cannibals a la "The Hills Have Eyes."

Bring a lunch for the 7,500-square-foot black-walled maze that follows, because I don't think I could have found my way out unassisted. Tyler Kozar, an Art Institute of Pittsburgh graduate and Hundred Acres' director of marketing, told me that patrons can wander around the maze for 45 minutes or more before they get gently ushered toward the exit by its chainsaw-toting denizens. I found the most terrifying of Hundred Acres Manor's offerings to be South Valley Hospital.

Strait-jacketed patients bounce off the walls and each other when you first walk in. The high-pitched whine of spinning bonesaws and shrieking lunatics is drowned out by a loudspeaker that pages doctors to the "hospital's" various grisly wards. Plastic-wrapped bodies swing from the ceilings, and I could have sworn I saw a live man being fried in an electric chair, though I was assured it was just part of the show.

The more than 100-person cast and crew of Hundred Acres Manor -- 90 percent of whom are volunteers -- are masters of mixing the standard haunted house animatronic figures that crudely mimic live motion with real actors for maximum effect. Many times, I walked past something I assumed was a doll only to have it leap out at me. They are also big believers in the olfactory experience, with dispensers wafting the smell of smoke and rotting flesh, for example, throughout many of the gruesome tableaux. The "eau de corpse" lingered on my sweater for hours afterward.

Indeed, the experience at Hundred Acres Manor, a nonprofit that donates all proceeds to charity, is such a constant stream of scares that when there's a lull, the anticipation of where the next jolt might come from is sometimes worse than what's actually around the bend (or behind you).

If it all gets to be too much, at least you're in good company.

Ethan Turon, 27, Hundred Acres Manor's creative director and operations manager, has worked for the haunted house since he was 17. The actors still get him when he walks through his own creation.

"I hate being scared," Mr. Turon said. "I am terrified of haunted houses."

'More zombies'

Maybe you're not into submitting to a scare, placing yourself at the mercy of a controlled, claustrophobic environment or subjecting yourself to the one-upmanship of haunted houses engaged in an all-out gore war.

For a less passive experience and a more family-friendly setting, there's Zombies of the Corn a new seasonal event at Three Rivers Paintball in Freedom, where you can take your fate in your own hands and mow down the undead from the safety and comfort of a paintball gun platform towed by a tractor.

"We're not competing with the hardcore Halloween things," said Debra Krischke, who owns the 30-year-old business with her husband, Ryan. The idea was borrowed from other paintball locations across the country looking to co-opt some of the zombie craze fueled in part by AMC's "The Walking Dead" and last summer's "World War Z." But it seems a natural fit for the rolling countryside just 12 miles from Evans City, where the famous opening cemetery scene of "Night of the Living Dead" was filmed.

Real radio communications from soldiers in Iraq were pumped out through the speakers in the trailer to give our outing the proper military feel as we rolled into the woods with about 20 paintball guns bristling from each side of our "battle wagon." The zombies that stumbled out of the trees and into range were no match for the massed firepower and went down in a hail of paintballs, the thwacks echoing off their bodies.

You definitely felt a little sorry for them.

"I thought it was very fun," said Dave Vetter of Cranberry, who brought his 10-year-old son and his friends. "There's no morality to shooting something that's already dead," he joked.

Ms. Krischke couldn't fathom the zombie craze but was happy with the response from her patrons.

Hundreds stood in line on a recent Saturday night, the same day as Pittsburgh's Zombie Fest in Lawrenceville, for a chance to pop a few of the living dead.

"I can't figure it out," she said. "There is something about zombies."

After our first round of shooting, the trailer dropped us off in the woods, leaving us free to sit down by the bonfire or wander up the hill to a foreboding maze of tall corn staffed by more listless walking dead, though they were conscientious ones. Children who didn't want to be menaced by the ghouls could put on glow rings provided by the staff. After another pass in the battle wagon and vanquishing a few more thickly padded undead who stumbled valiantly forward before collapsing in a heap, the trailer rolled up to the main buildings, where there were outdoor movies, a fire and a storyteller.

Our guide asked the crowd for any suggestions.

"More zombies" was the unanimous chorus.

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Robert Zullo: or 412-263-3909. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM


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