Last week we made our annual trip to “Tom Savini’s Terrormania”. It’s the Halloween season, and for the last few years, it just hasn’t been the holiday without this trip.
There are a couple million haunted house attractions around the world, I’m sure. Pittsburgh alone has over four thousand of them—some of them next door to each other and at least two built on top of the remains of previous ones. Between the professional attractions, the ones for kids at zoos and museums, and the abandoned buildings bought up by charitable organizations, Pittsburgh, home of the zombie, is a mine-field of folks jumping out and going “boo”!
But “Terrormania” has always been something special for us. It’s not just the “Savini-factor”, though it doesn’t hurt that I grew up down the street from the legendary horror master and he was a constant in my life growing up (his movies, I mean—I don’t mean to imply he was a surrogate father or anything). Seeing him around the neighborhood was always a bit of a thrill for me as a kid. “That guy makes movies!” I’d tell my grandmother (who didn’t care but knew that his father was the contractor who put in her sidewalk).
The thrill of “Terrormania” for us is in the design implemented by Gary “Gutch” Mandarino. Gutch and Tom designed the original concept of “Terrormania” five years back. It first opened in an old Giant Eagle supermarket leased by the Douglas-School (site of the Tom Savini Special Make-Up Course) and it had a huge façade of Tom in pseudo-werewolf make-up looming over the building. The thirty-or-so rooms had been built from the ground-up by Gutch and a bevy of students working out their required externship for their degree in the course. It had some amazing murals provided by a young artist named Aaron Schweikart. Outside were performers on stilts and carny booths. Three of the four times we visited, the moon hung full over the building.
As I’ve reported here before, I covered the opening for a local paper and was one of the first non-students inside and it was, without a doubt, disturbing. “Terrormania” didn’t have the trappings of a haunted house thrown together by the neighborhood eccentrics (or the local Jaycees). There were rooms slathered with blood, but it was strategic. The tiny, bloody hand-prints near the baseboard of the haunted nursery; the uncomfortable and painful looking machinery dredging out the fluids of the skinned patient on the autopsy table.
Some of the rooms were so bizarre that I freaked myself with the lights on. I was lining up a shot in the autopsy room and I stepped back, accidentally triggering a pressure-pad on the floor. What jumped up was not the thing on the table, but something in the wall behind me. I was close enough for the fucking thing to touch me and I jumped a foot in the air. I’m an old “haunted house” aficionado. I’m not an easy mark. And no, I didn’t wet myself.
As Tom told me for the first article, “Anyone can jump out and go ‘boo’! And we have plenty of ‘boo’ moments, but there’s a lot of psychological stuff we built in there too. There’s a lot of stuff that will make people uncomfortable before we scare them.”
It was Tom’s philosophy, executed by Gutch, that made “Terrormania” work for us. The place had a friggin’ moat, for Christ’s sake! With a swimming Gill Man! And there was a very strange room whose walls were covered with neon blacklight dots. As you got further into the room, a man all in black, covered with similar dots, jumped into the room, frightened, and dove away, scaring the shit out of everyone. It was the highlight of the tour.
This year marked the first time that “Terrormania” was not at the Monessan Giant Eagle. In true Pittsburgh entrepreneurial spirit, “Terrormania” moved to Century III Mall, where it now occupies two full store spaces. It actually has more square-footage than the Monessan space. The Douglas-School had opted not to return to the old supermarket for a variety of reasons, most of them boring, and searched high and low for a new location. The only problem was, once they found it, Gutch only had five weeks to build the place.
As long as I’ve known Gutch, he’s always looked relaxed, but he’s never looked rested. He’s a gaunt man and tall, over six feet, but he’s quick with a grin and usually accompanied by his significant other, Liz, who delights in leaping out of odd places to hug me after she’s shaved a few years off my life (a whole haunted house and it’s usually Liz who gets me before the monsters!). Every year, he’s wound up sleeping on site to make sure the attraction would open on time.
He’s also anal about his actors. They’re usually played by Savini students who provide their own make-up, but sometimes, like this year, they audition stage performers. Gutch’s captains this year were my friends Stacy Bartlebaugh-Gmys (“Severe Injuries”) and her husband Ron. Their task was to find the right people to play the right monsters, and occasionally step into roles themselves.
It was just strange to step into the new location. Usually, I recognize the students who staff and crew the place, but this year, the security was unknown to me. I wasn’t sure if they were Gutch’s people, or mall-supplied. The fact that the damned thing was across from J.C Penny was surreal in and of itself. But there was Tom, hanging out with his grandson, James, and the Douglas-School’s owner, Kevin Imbruscia, both of whom greeted us warmly and welcomed us to the new space.
But it was amazing to see what Gutch pulled off in a little over a month. The first room used to be one of the last—a walkway through a giant tumbling tube designed to induce sea-sickness, the portal into the horror. From thereon we were greeted by both the familiar—the haunted nursery, the “Exorcist” room complete with bound, screaming teenage girl (knock off the fantasizing, I’m reminiscing here!), the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” kitchen (think about it), the “Psycho” shower (minus, surprisingly, the killer in drag)—and the new: tighter, more claustrophobic corners, and a room completely draped in strips of white gauze (out of which Stacy emerged in a white, blood-spattered wedding dress and hugged me—for which I yelled at her because she broke the rule posted at the door about the monsters not touching the customers… then she did it again, the little witch…or bride… or whatever).
Missing were the moat, which I’d anticipated, and the dot room, which was sad. But again, the “Terrormania” crew had a little over a month to put it all together. And Gutch went above and beyond to pack every corner with details—literally, one room had collapsing slats to imply something crushing the ceiling.
It took about half an hour to make it all the way through, and it was even more surreal to emerge into a dark, closed mall. We were left with other customers and “Terrormania” zombies—it was like being in “Dawn of the Dead” (the good one). Gutch invited us back to his “office”, past the maze and beyond piles of flats and supplies, where he leaned back in his chair, cigarette in hand, looking relaxed but not rested (and then Liz leapt out and sneak-hugged me again!). I congratulated him for pulling it all off.
“It’ll be better next year, man,” he said. “I got a lot of ideas I wanna try out.”
The numbers were disappointing him. He expected better from the mall location. But it’s still a week to Halloween. It’s bound to pick up. He nodded. “Yeah, and we’ll be packed on the night.” The smile never left his face.
Gutch let us out through the back, down the dark employee stairs and into the parking lot. The mall was nearly deserted, save those arriving to go through the maze on their own.
So if you’re in Pittsburgh over the next few days, and you want to have the shit scared out of you, and you don’t want to simply yell racial epithets in the Hill District, check out “Terrormania”—the one built with love of fear.
Mike Watt attempts to explore all the things that make Geek culture great, as well as pointing out all the things that make Geeks genetically superior to all other humans. During the course of this exploration, he may undoubtedly have to reveal horrid truths about Hollywood and Mainstream Cinema, as they compare to the riches of independent filmmaking. Ultimately, he hopes to bring higher awareness of and respect to Geek Culture, as well as secure a hefty book deal and the accolades of his (richer) peers. Feel free to lavish him with affection (or bitch at him) at email@example.com.
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