What to do this weekend: Beware what lurks beneath the Strip District's Terror Town
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The sounds of Halloween: Spooky music, a beating heart, rattling chains, creaking doors, crashing thunder.
And squeals of delight.
The last of those, of course, are not produced by the "ghouls" who jump out of the dark corners at Terror Town in the Strip District each weekend night through Halloween. The actors specialize in maniacal laughter.
The nervous, high-pitched shrieks of hilarity are from the customers, who not only come to be scared out of their wits but pay for the sensation.
Terror Town is owned and operated by Sam and Bernie Firman, the brothers who own the adjoining nightclubs Static and Exit. It made its debut last year with a cannibal theme. This year, it's more of a traditional haunted house experience -- although the "kitchen" still cooks up a gruesome menu.
The Firmans employ a stable of about 50 young actors who stake out the dark maze on October weekends. As many as 30 or more characters might be working on any given night, painted up in zombie makeup with outlandish costumes and props.
Having experienced this and other haunted houses from the perspective of someone trying not to be scared, I thought this year I'd try it from the other side. The dark side.
Eric James, whose daytime job is as a gravedigger in Shaler, is one of the makeup specialists. Each night, after Sam Firman and others decide who will work in which "room" in the haunted tour, Mr. James uses liquid latex and paint to add scars and wounds to grisly effect.
Some of the employees are aspiring actors. Others just enjoy the work. There are paychecks involved, but let's be honest. These guys aren't getting paid hand over dismembered fist.
Cat Moffat, 20, of Lawrenceville, is a student at Community College of Allegheny County. Her character is a disturbed little girl who taunts, shrieks and scares people while playing hide-and-seek with her similarly made-up "sister."
"It's a fun job," Miss Moffat said. "We are in the child's room, with all the toys, and we're jumping out and yelling at them from all different places."
It's great, she said, to see the women hide behind their arms or cling to their boyfriends. But the best feedback, she said, is when people are so scared they can't continue. Or if they -- how do you best say it? -- lose control of bodily functions.
"We've had couples that didn't make it past the third room," Mr. James said.
My character, bearing a few nasty facial wounds, was stationed in the second room of the tour. I didn't have a costume, so I had to rely on facial expressions and the way I acted to unnerve customers.
It is definitely acting. As different groups took their turns wandering through my area, I would try various characters. Sometimes I'd be a "Rainman" whispering warnings. Or a "Beetlejuice" or a "Joker" talking crazy. I tried to be "Angry Man" a couple of times, but I didn't find it as much fun.
"You've got to stay in character for each group," Mr. James advised me. "Some of the guys who come through will try to just talk to you, try to break through. Because they want to look cool for their girlfriends, like they're not scared. But you can't blink."
The haunted houses seem to be most popular with young couples. Perhaps there's something primal in the girl being terrified and the guy becoming the protector.
But I don't know how comforting it is when the guy is refusing to make eye contact with the actors and seems intent on getting through the experience as quickly as possible.
Groups are fun to watch. One member emerges as the leader and the others form a hand-clutching daisy-chain of nervous followers. The last one in the group tends to get the worst of it.
My experience showed that the scariest thing I could do was follow them. Just keep following them. I didn't have to say anything. I just kept following.
"Is that guy still back there?" one of the women would anxiously ask.
"Yes, and he is creeping me out!" was a common response.
Terror Town, which is billed as "Pittsburgh's Largest Underground Haunted Attraction," is at the corner of 17th and Smallman streets in the Strip. It is open tonight, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday at 7 p.m. Admission is $18.99.
First Published October 26, 2012 3:45 pm