Scream City: Why Pittsburgh Loves to Be Scared

Pittsburghers can trace our fascination with the macabre to George A. Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead — and even centuries earlier.

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There’s a darkness on the edge of town.

Sure, when Bruce Springsteen sang those lyrics, he was talking about New Jersey. But it fits Pittsburgh, as well — from pop culture to folklore, this is a city that is comfortable with its shadowy corners.

Here, families skip rosier sightseeing tours for a thorough report on Pittsburgh’s haunted buildings. Tickets sell out for Halloween attractions that promise more visceral, up-close chills than you’ll find at the average haunted house. Fans flock to meet-and-greets with cinematic serial killers, telling the actors behind the maniacs how much joy they take at their big-screen slashing — and they bring the kids.

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TOM SAVINI

“Everybody I know is a fan of horror movies,” says Tom Savini, the actor, director and special-effects master — known for dozens of big-screen terrors, including the likes of “Friday the 13th” and “Creepshow” — who lives in Bloomfield. “When it began for them, I don’t know — but it certainly helped that ‘Night of the Living Dead’ started here.”

The iconic film has emerged as a wellspring of horror fiction and fandom. In the 1960s, George A. Romero was a Carnegie Mellon (then Carnegie Tech) grad working a variety of behind-the-scenes jobs in Pittsburgh, including a stint on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He and some friends, under the name Image Ten Productions, pooled some money together — about $114,000, a small budget even 50-plus years ago — and set out to make a horror movie.

Romero often admitted that the plot was mostly cribbed from the Richard Matheson novel “I Am Legend,” subbing undead, flesh-eating ghouls for Matheson’s vampires. Much of the atmosphere and structure of “Night of the Living Dead” was a result of the limited budget; black-and-white, 35-millimeter film was cheaper than color, for example.

The ferocious events of the film, however, were all Romero’s. Hollywood was scandalized — and that emerged as a selling point. Variety called the film an “unrelieved orgy of sadism,” just the sort of attention-grabbing quip necessary to send fearless young audiences to drive-in theaters and midnight screenings.

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GEORGE ROMERO

Meanwhile, Romero continued making movies in Pittsburgh. Witchcraft takes over the North Hills in 1972’s “The Season of the Witch.” In 1973’s “The Crazies,” a viral outbreak turns residents of Evans City mad. Most vitally, the 1978 follow-up to “Night of the Living Dead” would reach an even larger audience — including an influential run in Italy — and firmly establish the Pittsburgh region as the oft-cited “zombie capital of the world.”

“Dawn of the Dead,” memorably filmed by night in Monroeville Mall, had five times the budget of “Night of the Living Dead” and effects to match. A triumph of social commentary as much as one of terror, “Dawn of the Dead” set a standard and a pattern for zombie movies still followed decades later.

“I would not have a career if it wasn’t for George and ‘Dawn of the Dead,’” says Savini. “If it weren’t for ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ there wouldn’t have been a ‘Friday the 13th’ for me.”

In addition to his effects and makeup work on dozens of projects — and his directorial efforts, including the locally shot 1991 remake of “Night of the Living Dead” — Savini now operates the Special Make-Up Effects Program at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen. “We had 50 students come in last October, and we’re expecting 60 to 70 this time,” Savini says, noting that over the 20 years the program has been in operation, they’ve welcomed students from Singapore, Belgium, Japan and France.

From all over the world, they come to Western Pennsylvania to learn how to make zombies and monsters.

Plenty of other Romero-adjacent productions, including cult favorite “Creepshow,” have been made in the area, giving rise to a generation of local filmmakers (including “The Walking Dead” executive producer Greg Nicotero). The list of Pittsburgh-shot thrillers goes beyond the Romero family tree, however; “The Mothman Prophecies,” “Stigmata,” the 3-D remake of “My Bloody Valentine” and others have used the Steel City as a filming location. Perhaps most importantly, 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” still the only horror film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, shot many of its scenes in the area.

Those locations include the unassuming house where the film’s villain, Buffalo Bill, is ultimately cornered. The home, in Perryopolis, was recently sold to Chris Rowan, a fan of the film; he has converted it into an overnight rental property, so that fellow fans can spend the night where the gruesome action occurred.

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BRIDGE OF SIGHS

While the cinematic ties between Pittsburgh and horror can be traced back to Romero, there exists a traditional fascination with the supernatural that extends centuries into the past. According to Michelle Smith, the co-owner of Haunted Pittsburgh Tours, a company that hosts walking tours of spooky sights around the city, “the macabre is etched in Pittsburgh’s DNA.”

Smith attributes that link to two main influences. First, folk traditions: as immigrant communities grew around the city, many brought old-world traditions to their adopted land — some of which were rooted in fantastic beliefs. “They looked to God, but they also looked to the supernatural,” Smith says.

As industry boomed, “Pittsburgh also was heavily influenced by the Victorians, [and] the Victorians were very into spiritualism. The newspapers … reported ghost stories. We’ve gotten a lot of our stories reported from old newspaper accounts, where they report ghosts and strange sightings and creatures that are unexplained.”

Accordingly, the subject matter of Haunted Pittsburgh’s events is much different from the pure myths and heard-it-from-a-friend ghost sightings typical of many ghost tours. “We kind of shunned the urban legends; there’s a lot of great urban legends of Pittsburgh that don’t have any basis to them,” Smith says. “A lot of them come from the newspapers, and a lot of them come from firsthand accounts at the time.”

Actor Doug Bradley, best known for playing the imposing villain Pinhead in the “Hellraiser” franchise, first came to Pittsburgh to attend a horror convention in 2008. There, he met artist Steph Sciullo; the two are now married, and Bradley calls Pittsburgh home.

“Pittsburgh, as a city, reminds me to no small extent of my hometown in England, which is Liverpool,” he says. “One of the first things I thought was, ‘Oh, this is a river city. I get it.’ … There is something about rivers that creates a restlessness and that sense of movement in the psyches of people who live near them,” a fact that he believes lends itself to appreciation of imaginative, dark fiction. “Pittsburgh has a very strange geography.”

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PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

Geography made Pittsburgh a vital part of American folklore tradition. Thomas White is an adjunct instructor of history and university archivist at Duquesne University; he also has written several books on folklore and legends in Pennsylvania.

“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, folklorists tracked the folk traditions that came into the United States,” he says. Researchers found a clear path traced by those traditions: they “funneled into Pennsylvania and came to a point in Pittsburgh, traveled down to St. Louis and then funneled out through the country.”

“Authentic folklore and legends, the stuff really resonates and stays here,” White says. In his lectures, he often cites a common remedy passed down in families: If you have a wart, rub a potato on it. “Every time I give a talk, at least half the audience [knows about it],” he says.

What those crowds aren’t considering: Technically, they’re engaged in witchcraft.

The full tradition: “Basically, they would take something like a potato, rub it on the wart three times,” before making the sign of the cross over the potato, then bury it, throw it in running water or feed it to swine. This wasn’t an all-natural cure; it was an attempt at “transferring the evil of the wart into the potato.”

No need to worry, White says; your grandma wasn’t trying to add you to her coven when she told you about the potato-and-wart thing. “Witchcraft is part of a system of folk magic. It was way more common than people thought; people don’t often realize they’re encountering it when they are,” he says. “People see meaning, and the supernatural implies perceived meaning … If there’s supernatural evil, there’s supernatural good.”

While such traditions are prevalent in many locations, they seem to hold added power in Pittsburgh. “We’ve preserved a lot of traditions,” White says. “Stuff continued here that may have faded in other places.”

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JONES & LAUGHLIN PITTSBURGH WORKS | PHOTO: • DETRE LIBRARY & ARCHIVES, HEINZ HISTORY CENTER

That spirit has made the supernatural, or at least the superstitious, a part of everyday life for generations of Pittsburghers. One well-known regional ghost story concerned the restless spirit of Jim Grabowski, a former mill worker for Jones and Laughlin on the South Side. In a terrifying — but not particularly uncommon — accident, the story holds that Grabowski was killed when he stumbled into a full ladle of molten steel.

While Grabowski himself may be apocryphal, there’s a macabre truth in the story; this happened frequently enough that the mills had a procedure for it. The steel in the ladle, now mixed with the remains of the deceased, was hardened and buried in a dedicated area behind a slag pile in Hazelwood. Mourning families were given an ingot from the batch to bury.

As the legend goes, the steel containing Grabowski’s remains was misplaced, staying at the mill. When it was later cracked open, the haunting began; millworkers heard Grabowski’s cries and angry shouts above the din of the furnaces.

The story was told, in matter-of-fact terms, to new hires at the mill; one worker White cited estimated that 30% of workers believed it as factual. White says that’s a prime example of the supernatural informing everyday life.

“These stories serve a practical purpose … [management told the story] to all the new guys so they know, when they go up there, to be careful.

“These things are like a dark mirror to society. Ghost stories let you address things you are otherwise uncomfortable addressing.”

If the receptions at local horror conventions and events are any indication, modern fans are very interested in gazing into that dark mirror. Conventions and annual events such as Steel City Con and Living Dead Weekend draw fans in droves, eager to meet horror heroes or even players who may have only had a shot or two of screen time.

“I went to Steel City Con” earlier this year, Savini says, and “it was packed. You couldn’t move. A July event “was the most people I had ever seen at Living Dead Weekend … there were fans from all over the place.”

“Fans come in all shapes and forms,” says Bradley. “Yes, they mostly wear black cotton, and most of them are in their 20s. But I have visits from teachers and nurses and doctors and attorneys. And morticians — not unsurprising, that.”

Smith points out that the crowds for Haunted Pittsburgh aren’t what many people would picture. “We get a lot of middle-aged to older people, too. A lot of times, when people think of horror, they think of younger people … that hasn’t been the case at all. We get families. We get Girl Scout troops.”

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GREEN WALL AT SCAREHOUSE

In Pittsburgh, horror is for everyone — from families looking for history to die-hard aficionados looking for deeper thrills. The region has also emerged as a destination for fans of Halloween attractions; Kennywood Park’s annual Phantom Fright Nights weekends — this year, rebranded Phantom Fall Fest — is well-known among theme park fans, and seasonal haunts the ScareHouse and Hundred Acres Manor are frequently included among national rankings of the best terrifying attractions.

In addition to the main attraction, the ScareHouse offers “The Basement,” an extreme alternative to the traditional jump scares. (It’s on hiatus this year due to COVID-19 concerns.) In this experience, actors can touch and otherwise torment guests, including moments where guests are hooded, bound or closed in coffins.

Those details aren’t deterrents — they’re selling points. Most nights of “The Basement” fill up quickly.

“The same way that growing up in Pittsburgh gives you a certain affinity for a wooden roller coaster, I think the connections with George Romero and Tom Savini have probably created a nice culture of appreciation for horror,” says Nick Paradise, Kennywood’s director of public relations and social media. He’s quick to point out that the park doesn’t just seek to terrorize seasonally — many of its rides, including the iconic Old Mill, have always carried a horror theme.

“That goes back generations, [including] lots of rides that aren’t there anymore — from Laff in the Dark to [modern attraction] Ghostwood Estates. Even during the summer season, people like to be scared. Whether that’s in a roller coaster or a spooky ride … that safe fright is something that people really, really enjoy.”

Ultimately, that’s the appeal — whether it’s a terrifying movie, an extreme haunted attraction, a ghost tale handed down in grandma’s kitchen or any other corner of scary storytelling, such content is meant to be enjoyed. And, in a tradition that runs from ancient folklore to foundational zombie movies, Pittsburghers are hungry for this macabre brand of fun.

“As audience members, we have an imaginative connection to the story that’s being told,” Bradley says. “They’re scary, and we love them because they’re scary, and we love them to scare us.”

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