ScareHouse: How a Famously In-Your-Face Haunted House Is Using the Pandemic to Its Advantage

ScareHouse is serving up a ton of (socially-distanced) terrors in Tarentum, Pennsylvania.
ScareHouse is serving up a ton of (socially-distanced) terrors in Tarentum, Pennsylvania.
Photo courtesy Nick Keppler

During its first 20 years, every face paint-caked zombie or masked ghoul working at Pittsburgh's ScareHouse was taught one maxim: Get into people’s personal space.

"We told them, 'Don’t touch anyone, but get as close as you can,'" Scott Simmons, founder and creative director of the longtime haunted attraction, tells Mental Floss.

Things are different this year. Like so much else, that rule has been canceled due to coronavirus. Halloween is just the latest annual tradition to require a readjustment because of the current pandemic. Health officials are discouraging costume parties and people are buying candy chutes for trick-or-treaters. Haunts—the industry term for the mazes of frightful sights and sounds that crop up every October—have faced a choice familiar to event organizers: skip a season or adjust.

To Scare or Not to Scare

ScareHouse

After weighing the options, ScareHouse (a particularly high-production venture that has gotten nods from the likes of Oscar-winning horror master Guillermo del Toro) decided to adjust—and even took this unexpected change of plans as a unique opportunity to create a haunt built specifically with COVID-19 precautions in mind. Due to limited parking, Simmons abandoned the former Elks Lodge that ScareHouse has called home since 2007. In March, he signed a lease for a new location, a former H&M store in a half-empty shopping mall in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, located about 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Simmons and his collaborators were in the midst of planning their labyrinth of terror when they saw Plexiglas go up in grocery stores and social distancing become the norm. With a wide open space as a blank canvas, they realized they could incorporate elements of COVID-19 restrictions into ScareHouse's design.

Though the actors can no longer invade a visitor's personal space—they have to stay six feet away and wear a face mask at all times (as do customers)—there are plenty of other tools in the haunt master's toolbox.

This year's iteration of ScareHouse relies on techniques that are either very advanced or completely basic. "It’s light sensors and animatronics or it’s characters pounding on glass and people moving around wearing something glow-in-the-dark and some stuff I haven’t seen since I was 15," Simmons says.

Back to Basics

Photo courtesy Nick Keppler

ScareHouse's first segment is a demon-possessed family home. Actors play supernatural specters, the now-crazed residents, or urban explorers and nuns who became trapped after they entered the home to either document or exorcise it. Built into each room is a reason for the actor to be masked and distant.

In a children’s bedroom, an actor in a teddy bear outfit leaps up from a stack of stuffed animals, which creates a barrier from each passing group. A demented housewife character appears in a kitchen covered in (plastic) guts and spoiled food. She stays in a corner behind an open refrigerator door and a manic smile is painted onto her facemask. When passing through the darkened bathroom stage, patrons see a mirror that’s actually a replication of the bathroom stage behind Plexiglas. An actor can then startle them and pound against it.

In a bedroom, a woman writhes in a bed (in tribute to The Exorcist); a pair of fake legs gives the appearance that her body has been contorted. The bed is covered in plastic resembling bed curtains. ScareHouse has provided the actor with recorded screams and growls she can summon with a button, so she doesn’t have to release her own spit into the air.

This year, the staff has been reduced from the 200 usually employed seasonally to just 90 people. Simmons said he wanted fewer actors trading costumes and spending time in make-up chairs.

Technology and props have taken over some of the work of frightening teenagers and other scare-seekers.

Eerie Adaptions

Photo courtesy of ScareHouse

As patrons enter the attraction, they are given flashlights and come into a darkened parlor, decked out in antique furniture. The flashlights are another adaptation; they give a way to explore the room without touching anything. And they interact with photon sensors to create some eerie effects.

In the parlor, a motion detector causes a piano top to rattle but once a patron points their flashlight at it, a photon sensor causes it to stop. The same trick works on a Ouija board sitting on a table. A motion detection signal causes the planchette to vibrate. A photon detector causes it to stop at the touch of a beam of light. This creates the impression that a poltergeist is responding to patrons’ actions.

The ScareHouse has also made use of animatronics and puppets. A werewolf and a set of dinosaur jaws pop out of darkened spaces. An animatronic woman removes her face to reveal a mesh of blood at the signal of a motion detector.

Another segment of ScareHouse is a “fever dream” employing a freakish mesh of body parts twisted onto the walls and glass tank of smoke and light, in which an actor plays some kind of creature (exactly what it is is left up to the patron's imagination). “We don’t even need a costume,” operations manager Maryane Kimbler tells Mental Floss. “You can’t see them. They create these fantastic motions and shapes.”

Haunted Ambitions

Photo courtesy Nick Keppler

Perhaps the most ambitious scene is the “courtyard” of the possessed house. Patrons walk through a backyard scattered with skeletal bits and see a character called the Specter of the Forest, dressed in branches and grass. He rings a bell and tells them to come forward. “But he’s a total distraction,” Kimbler admits.

As they walk toward him, a terrifying animatronic called the “nun lunger” pops out of doorway. She’s just a doll in a nun’s habit and gown with a face that looks like it was borrowed from Marilyn Manson circa 1993, but she's moving on a track and rushes 12 feet across the room under flashing strobe lights.

Once again, concocted terror belies actual safety considerations. In years past, the nun may have been played by an actor, commissioned to come close and scream and snarl. None of that can be done with ScareHouse's careful social distancing measures in place. Instead, the actor—that Specter of the Forrest—is given a secondary role in the thrill. The idea is that, startled by the sudden sprint of this decay-faced nun, they run past him, as he stays behind a fence-like barrier.

In 2020, it’s the safest way to be terrified.

7 Ghost-Hunting Tools Recommended by Paranormal Investigators

Etekcity / Olympus / Amazon
Etekcity / Olympus / Amazon

My former apartment was haunted. The ghost, who seemed to be friendly, delighted in knocking container lids off the kitchen counter when no one was in the room. Sadly, I never documented the evidence because I didn’t have a night-vision camera handy.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Whether you're a full-fledged believer in the spiritual realm or a hardcore skeptic looking for some spooky fun, you can conduct your own paranormal investigations with just a few essential tools. “You don’t want to get lost in the gear,” says Jason Stroming, founder and lead investigator of the New York Paranormal Society. “Some people bring so much stuff to investigations that it looks like they’re about to launch the Space Shuttle.”

Here are seven expert-recommended devices to get you started.

1. Olympus Digital Voice Recorder; $32

Olympus/Amazon

On any ghost-hunting TV series—A Haunting, The Haunted, Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Asylum, or Ghost Adventures—the investigators will whip out a digital voice recorder to conduct an EVP session. That stands for “electronic voice phenomena,” but can encompass any mysterious sounds or voices from spirits in the vicinity. These handheld, battery-operated devices are an essential tool for any ghost enthusiast, Stroming says.

He recalls an EVP session at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden in Staten Island, New York: Just before midnight, during an otherwise uneventful investigation, Stroming and his crew heard the distinct creak of footsteps on the old wood floors. “We went to see if the security guard had come back in, but you can’t really get in to the front door without it making a lot of noise. We would have heard that,” he tells Mental Floss. At Snug Harbor a few months later, the crew had his digital recorder running when “the same thing happened—the footsteps. That to us was exciting, because it was the same time and the same activity,” Stroming says. “We all heard it.”

If you’re ready to capture your own EVPs, the Olympus VN-541PC recorder offers 4 gigabytes of storage and a one-touch record button.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Canon PowerShot; $249

Canon / Amazon

Stroming approaches the paranormal from a more skeptical point of view. “We try to debunk things first and look for rational explanations,” he says, so a digital camera with a night vision function is a must-have. They’re essential for capturing everything from unexplained light anomalies and shadow figures to mysterious creaks, thuds, and footsteps. The pocket-sized Canon PowerShot SX620 digital camera takes still photos and 1080p HD video in low light. Basic camcorders will record movement and sound (and not disrupt electromagnetic fields like a smartphone can). Those adapted for ghost hunting, like the Cleveland Paranormal Supply Co.’s model ($189 on Amazon), record in night vision and let you switch easily from infrared (also known as thermal imaging) mode to full spectrum mode.

“We try to take a lot of photos,” Stroming adds. “You just never know what’s going to show up.”

Buy it: Amazon

3. K-II ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELD (EMF) DETECTOR; $60

Electricians use inexpensive EMF meters to locate sources of electromagnetic radiation from homes and offices (common culprits are older appliances and cell phones). Ghosts are also thought to emit EM radiation or disturb the existing magnetic fields in a room. Stroming’s team uses EMF meters primarily to debunk spectral sources of EM radiation. “We’ve had cases where people are sleeping right next to an old alarm clock, or they don’t realize that their fuse box is right below them and could be giving off huge electromagnetic fields. That can cause hallucinations or the feeling of being watched,” Stroming says. “We say, ‘Move the alarm clock for a week, call us back and let us know.’ They always say it stops.”

On the other hand, an anomalous EM field in the middle of a room with no obvious source merits further investigation. While Stroming prefers the basic K-II EMF Meter, the ghost-hunting supplier GhostStop suggests its Rook EMF Meter. This fancier version can block man-made frequencies and indicate EMF disturbances with light and sound alerts, says paranormal investigator Graham Ober, GhostStop’s customer service tech.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Etekcity Lasergrip INFRARED THERMOMETER; $16

Etekcity/Amazon

A regular thermometer can measure the ambient temperature in a given environment. An infrared thermometer, commonly used by electricians and HVAC technicians, can take the temp of specific object with a laser. They’re handy for detecting cold spots in a potentially haunted area, which ghost investigators say can be signs of otherwise invisible entities.

Stroming uses an infrared thermometer to identify drafts around windows or air conditioning vents before an investigation begins, as well as for measuring thermal radiation during the session. When held about 14 inches in front of the object to be measured, the Etekcity Lasergrip 774 infrared thermometer can detect temps from a frigid -58°F to a broiling 716°F, although most paranormal entities seem to shift the room temp just a shade in either direction (3 degrees is the threshold for possible spectral activity, Ober tells Mental Floss).

Buy it: Amazon

5. Portable Home Security; $71

Any serious paranormal investigator will use motion sensors or vibration detectors to pick up movement in empty rooms. A basic portable home security system, with a couple of sensors and a receiver, is an inexpensive option. Just place the sensor on a table or shelf in an unoccupied room and carry the receiver with you. The receiver will emit an alarm or chime when motion is detected in the empty location, and you can then send in the unluckiest member of your ghost-hunting crew to check it out.

Vibration sensors (sometimes called geophones) work in a similar way. They can be set on the floor to detect phantom footsteps or other unexplained movement, and will light up when anomalies are sensed.

Buy it: Amazon

6. BINARY RESPONSE DEVICE

Binary response devices, or “yes/no boxes,” are another important tool. Investigators can ask suspected spirits simple questions and allegedly receive answers through the device—the theory being that spirits can harness the energy in the machine and use it to respond. Different replies are indicated with lights on either side of the gadget. GhostStop’s Flux Response Device features green and red lights to facilitate yes/no questions (green for yes, red for no) and to obtain answers to slightly more complex inquiries, such as “which corner of the room are you in?” (red for left, green for right). The steampunk-style Gyroscope Digital Talking Board from Paranologies has a yes/no/maybe function along with a full alphabet for longer words, much like a 21st-century Ouija Board ($17 on Amazon).

7. P-SB11 GHOST BOX; $130

NUATE / Amazon

A ghost box is a catch-all term for a device used to verbally communicate with spirits. Many of these gadgets continually scan radio frequencies, creating a din of white noise. “The idea is the spirit can use that white noise to communicate in some way, either verbally or through EVP sessions,” Ober says. Users can simply listen for disembodied voices, or yell questions into the void and hope for an answer from beyond.

There are numerous models on the market, from the popular P-SB7 Spirit Box (and the more advanced P-SB11) designed by Gary Galka of DAS to GhostStop’s Sbox, a similar device with added recording capability. “A lot of people are interested in recording the audio from the SB7,” Ober notes. “We’ve taken that technology a step forward, so you’re able to record that audio without having to have a second device present.”

One of Ghost Adventures’s fave devices is the Ovilus, designed by Bill Chappell of Digital Dowsing. Instead of scanning radio frequencies, the various Ovilus models generate words in response to environmental fluctuations or EMF anomalies, supposedly translating the spirit’s communications into English terms. Not everyone is sold on the device (“It’s like a high-tech Magic 8 Ball,” Stroming says), but Zak Bagans, lead investigator of the Ghost Adventures crew, is very fond of shouting rude questions at local spooks through it.

Buy it: Amazon

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11 Fun Pop Culture Christmas Ornaments

Christmas ornaments for every pop culture passion.
Christmas ornaments for every pop culture passion.
Hallmark, Kurt Adler, Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

If there’s one place you can find Bob Ross, Jack Skellington, and Baby Yoda (besides the nearest Spirit Halloween store in October), it’s probably on a Christmas tree. The festive indoor evergreens offer the perfect opportunity for us to show off our varied pop culture passions. Help your friends and family fill every branch this holiday season with these 11 eye-catching ornaments from all their favorite fandoms.

1. Baby Yoda Ornament; $43

The Christmas spirit is strong with this one.Hallmark/Amazon

Every fan of The Mandalorian deserves to have Baby Yoda rocking sweetly in a pram on a branch of their Christmas tree. This one measures about 3 inches by 3 inches, and according to one reviewer, there’s enough space between the Child and the top of the pram to “perch a gift card for an extra special present.”

Buy it: Amazon

2. The Office “World’s Best Boss” Mug Ornament; $9

A not-so-corporate Christmas.Hallmark/Amazon

Whether or not Michael Scott lived up to the statement on his mug is debatable, but he’s definitely one of the most memorable bosses of all time. The serial The Office binge-watcher on your gift list will surely get the joke, and everyone else will just think that person happens to be a really great manager.

Buy it: Amazon

3. A Christmas Story Leg Lamp Ornament; $19

It's glorious!Hallmark/Amazon

A full-sized model of the infamous leg lamp from A Christmas Story might not jive with every decorating scheme, but this pint-sized one is perfect for any Christmas tree—especially if that tree belongs to someone who considers watching the film an important holiday tradition. The ornament even lights up when you pull the cord.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Bob Ross “Happy Accidents” Ornament; $13

Makes a nice trinket for an art studio during the off-season.Kurt Adler/Amazon

Anyone who learned to paint with Bob Ross might appreciate making him part of their Christmas celebration (even if the evergreens in their paintings don’t quite look like the one in their living room). This smiling figurine holds a palette with one of Ross’s most important lessons: “There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Hermione Granger Ornament; $27

"It's 'Levi-OH-sa.'"Hallmark/Amazon

Fictional though she may be, Hermione Granger has truly been a role model for clever kids (and adults) who know books hold the answers to just about everything. You’re probably already buying them a book for Christmas—here’s the ideal ornament to gift with it. It’s part of Hallmark’s “Storyteller” series, which plays scenes from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when all the ornaments are connected with the special power cord (available from Amazon for $29). Other pieces in the series include Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hagrid, Dumbledore, and Hogwarts.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Jack Skellington Ornament; $9

Nothing like doffing your head to wish someone a merry Christmas.Hallmark/Amazon

Strong opinions abound when it comes to deciding whether 1993’s A Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie. If you know someone who’s particularly outspoken about calling it a Christmas flick, you can help them prove their point by adding a Jack Skellington ornament to their Christmas tree.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Stranger Things’ Dustin and Demogorgon Ornament; $13

Ready to turn the holidays upside down.Kurt Adler/Amazon

There’s a good chance the ’80s nostalgist in your life thinks a baby Demogorgon is a necessary Christmas tree fixture. If it happens to be held by a grinning Dustin Henderson? Even better. If your budget is higher, you can spring for the whole Stranger Things crew—Dustin, Lucas, Mike, Will, and an Eggo-wielding Eleven are $100 altogether.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Buddy the Elf and Narwhal Ornament; $20

There's room for everyone on the nice list.Hallmark/Amazon

Though the narwhal only made a brief appearance in 2003’s Elf, his line “Bye Buddy, hope you find your dad!” was iconic enough to earn him a spot on this charming ornament (which actually plays that scene aloud). Everyone knows at least one Will Ferrell fanatic who has the whole movie memorized; this gift symbolizes your permission to let them recite the entire thing on Christmas morning.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Schitt’s Creek Rose Apothecary Ornament; $25

David would approve.Living the Dream/Amazon

Schitt's Creek's David Rose would probably look upon most kitschy pop culture ornaments with derision, so it’s only fitting for his fans to adorn their trees with something classy—like this handmade porcelain and leather ornament from Living the Dream. It’s not actually a product from Rose Apothecary, but it sure seems like it could be.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Doctor Who TARDIS Ornament; $10

The TARDIS looks lovely in snow.Kurt Adler/Amazon

With multiple Christmas specials in the history of Doctor Who, it’s no surprise that most avid viewers consider the holiday an integral part of the show as a whole. Help them celebrate with this 4.5-inch replica of the TARDIS, complete with flashing lights that one Amazon reviewer called “freakin’ EPIC.”

Buy it: Amazon

11. The Year Without a Santa Claus Heat Miser Ornament; $19

He's Mr. One Hundred and One.Hallmark/Amazon

For many, it doesn’t start to seem like Christmas until they’ve watched at least a few Rankin/Bass holiday specials. And while classic characters like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman are common Christmas tree occupants, the same can’t be said for Heat Miser, one half of the polarizing fraternal duo from 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus. This hilarious ornament will add some pizzazz to any empty branch.

Buy it: Amazon

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