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Strip District's new Terror Town may have some real ghosts

Jason Cato
| Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011

A new Strip District haunted-house attraction features a cast of cannibals living in their underground world, although the nearly century-old building that houses them comes with a ghostly cast of its own, say paranormal investigators and people who have businesses in the mammoth structure.

"Everybody hears voices. Everybody hears footsteps, and there's no one in the building," says Bernie Firman, who owns Club Zoo in the building on Smallman Street between 16th and 17th streets.

He and his brother, Sam Firman, open Terror Town on Friday after six months of work.

"The truth is, this building is spooky," says Sam Firman, who owns Sammy's Famous Corned Beef, Downtown.

Standard American Cable constructed the industrial building in 1921, and it has more than 186,000 square feet of space across four floors. Each floor, including the basement that houses the haunted attraction, is 30,000 square feet or more.

The building was home to KML Sales, a discount grocer, and the popular nightclubs Rosebud and Metropol.

The Pennsylvania Department of Paranormal Investigations (not a state agency) explored the building in February.

"This building is loaded with entities," says founder Barb King, 52, of the North Side. "This place is charged."

King and three members of her group say they heard footsteps on upper floors, knocks on walls and watched a shadow dart from behind a tall shelf. Something knocked over a rack of poster paper in the front of the building during their investigation, which also video documented an elevator open and close twice without being prompted.

"This whole building is connected paranormally," King says.

The theme of the haunted house is a cannibal world that sank into the earth, inspired by stories of homeless communities in abandoned subway tunnels in New York City, says Michael "MagGot" Schneider, who designed the haunted house and supervises its 40 to 50 paid actors.

"It just oozes creep," says Schneider, 32, a Garfield resident and filmmaker-actor who has worked at haunted houses for a decade, including Gateway Clipper's former U.S.S. Nightmare at Station Square.

The tour through the cannibal world can take about 45 minutes. It starts in a funeral-home chapel and winds through the deranged home of a cannibal family before continuing into Terror Town. Scenes include an insane asylum, strip bar and gore-filled grocery store, among others.

King believes the building's entities have become more active with the activity surrounding the haunted house. She and her group again reported witnessing a number of aberrations last week during a walk-through.

"We could see them peaking around from behind the walls, watching," King says.

The entities include a group of young kids and indigent people and an old man, she says.

Bernie Firman says an employee was alone cleaning Club Zoo on a weekend day. He looked into a mop bucket and saw a young boy's reflection from the balcony above. He looked up and no one was there. As he went upstairs, stacks of plastic cups toppled to the floor behind a bar. The boy could not be found, Firman says.

"That little boy has been spotted in several places in the building," Firman says.

Julian Smith needs no convincing when it comes to the building being haunted.

"There is definitely some paranormal activity there. I'm sure of it," says Smith, 57, of Shaler, who owned a paintball business on the third floor from 1997 to 2002.

Smith and his employees often heard footsteps walking behind them, and sensed that someone was there as they crossed the cavernous playing field alone in the dark, he says. After he installed video cameras with monitors in the staging area, he and others often saw a male figure standing in the middle of the playing field, always in the same spot and always staring into the same lens.

"It was clearly a person," Smith says.

Only it wasn't. No one was there when they went in to look.

Chairs moved at night. Locked doors unlocked. An unplugged speaker mysteriously caught fire in 2001, and neither the fire department nor other experts could explain how it started, Smith says.

A manager once saw a group of people in the observation deck as he exited the dark playing field at closing time. A few seconds later, he discovered the building was empty except for himself. He left and never returned, Smith says.

"I used to have some serious nightmares about being there," Smith says. "I would wake up in cold sweats. So, do I ever really want to go back in that building• No, not really."

Additional Information:

Terror Town

When: 7 p.m.-midnight Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 30; 7 to 10 p.m. Sundays, starting Oct. 9-30 and certain weeknights in October, including special 'black-out' nights Oct. 24-25 in which the set will be completely dark except for flashlights carried by patrons.

Admission: $17; $30 V.I.P. tickets allow patrons to skip the waiting line and received a Terror Town T-shirt. Tickets to the black-out nights are $30.

Where: Entrance is on 17th Street near the corner of Smallman Street in the Strip District.

Details: 412-315-7331 or

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