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ScareHouse haunted house in Etna tests limits on torturing the senses

| Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, 9:30 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Steve LaRussa of Stanton Heights, portrays a zombie in the PIttsburgh Zombies streetscape at Scarehouse in Etna Saturday, September 21, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Bonnie Banner, of Garfield, potrays 'Happy Clown' in The Basement of Scarehouse in Etna Saturday, September 21 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Samantha Gibbs, right, of Zelienople, surprises Heather Wilson of Lawrenceville and Don Deet of Plum at Scarehouse dress rehearsal Saturday, September 21, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Bonnie Banner of Garfield, portrays 'Happy Clown' in The Basement of Scarehouse in Etna Saturday, September 21, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Actor Tori Benacquista of Squirrel Hill portrays Violet, the living doll ,at Scarehouse in Etna Saturday, September 21, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Actors of all sorts, including Chris Bartko, left front, and Christopher Patrick, (stripes), both of Mt. Washington, wait for the start of dress rehearsal for Scarehouse in Etna Saturday, September 21, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Nick Noir of Beechview, a basement dweller at Scarehouse in Etna, waits for the start of dress rehearsal Saturday, September 21, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Bonnie Banner of Garfield portrays 'Happy Clown', one of The Basement characters at Scarehouse in Etna Saturday, September 21, 2013. She was waiting for the start of dress rehearsal.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Darlene Wilson of Lawrenceville, who portrays 'Ma in the Kitchen' at Scarehouse in Etna, checks out her makeup before the start of dress rehearsal Saturday, September 21, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Penny Osborne of Irwin has her make up applied by artist Nicholas Hudson of Wooster, Ohio for the dress rehearsal of Scarehouse in Etna Saturday, September 21, 2013.

The door slams shut. The visitor stands alone in a dark, silent room.

He steps blindly down stairs, trying to control his breathing. His eyes try to adjust to the near pitch black but fail to do so. Then, without warning, the ghoul pounces, grabbing him roughly and placing him in a headlock.

“We're going to have some fun with you,” the creature whispers. “Tell me your worst fear.”

And that's just the start.

Haunted houses are going extreme. At venues nationwide, including ScareHouse in Etna, visitors happily sign waivers acknowledging they will be assaulted and promising not to sue, all for the chance to experience a living nightmare in which zombies lie in wait, adult content is the norm, and ideally, they will be scared out of their minds.

“It's intense and really intrusive,” said Scott Simmons, ScareHouse's creative director. “It's not for everyone.”

Yet demand is rising.

Frightfully so.

“Skeletons and bloody zombies — people have seen that before,” said Pat Konopelski, president of the Haunted Attraction Association.

“Every year you have to raise the bar. It's like drugs, to be honest. Every heroin addict remembers that first high, and they spend their lives chasing it. Once you get it, you want more of it.”

There are more than 2,500 haunted attractions nationwide, and many are going extreme, Konopelski said.

ScareHouse, in its 14th year, still offers the traditional haunted house, with ghosts that startle but do not touch the customers. For some, though, that's not enough.

“Our lives are safe and predictable now,” said Margee Kerr, director of sales at ScareHouse and an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. “We want to spice things up. It's the same with people who jump out of airplanes — they're trying to add a little bit of excitement to their lives.”

Kerr and Simmons experimented last year, pulling willing customers out of line, getting them to sign the waiver, and sending them off through a series of rooms, alone or with one other person, while 60 actors took turns torturing their senses for 30 minutes.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, they said.

“We thought we might as well see how much further we could go,” Kerr said.

So was born the Basement, where visitors crawl through tight passages, submit to handcuffs and are physically and emotionally manhandled.

“How do you feel about needles?” the ghoul whispers to his handcuffed victim while waving a large syringe near his face. “Want to play with this for a while?”

Konopelski, who runs the annual Shocktoberfest haunted attraction on his Berks County farm, sets thrill seekers in reality-based scenarios such as the Prison of the Dead Escape, in which zombies chase participants through a series of creepy encounters.

This year, he's added a more demented attraction: The Naked and Scared Challenge, which requires customers to strip before they enter.

“Humans are most vulnerable unclothed,” Konopelski said. “The more vulnerable you are, the better we can scare you. ... It's going over very well.”

Safety, naturally, is a huge concern for visitors and actors, officials said. Age restrictions are in place, and alcohol is banned. Extreme haunted house operators go through safety seminars, and ScareHouse conducts a personal background check on every employee. And of course, there's the two-page waiver, which asks participants to acknowledge the risks and declare that they are healthy enough to participate.

“Only a handful of people can do this,” Simmons said. “We really get into your head.”

If it gets too intense, Basement visitors can call out a safe word, automatically ending the nightmare.

But for those who make it to the end, a special treat awaits: Happy, a demented prisoner/clown girl waiting to bid them adieu.

“They locked me down here and won't let me out,” Happy whispers, pressing her body against the trembling visitor and staring with her reptilian eyes. “I'm tired of being lonely. Would you like to stay here with me?”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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