Photo courtesy of Haunted Hills Estate Scream Park.

Jackie Loveall knows that truth is stranger than fiction.

The owner of Haunted Hills Estate Scream Park in Uniontown has spent nearly four decades as a registered nurse. The Covid crisis is scarier than anything she could conjure up, so she’s happy to provide a fun and fearsome place where folks can exorcise their demons.

Photo courtesy of Haunted Hills Estate Scream Park.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Loveall partnered with New York-based Shock Theater to offer “Remote,” a virtual horror experience for thrill-seekers ages 18 and older. The 30-day production was conducted via phone calls, text messages, emails and social media.

During the fall, Loveall revamped the popular attraction to meet CDC and state guidelines and host in-person experiences. On March 12-13, Haunted Hills Estate Scream Park will hold a St. Patrick’s Day Massacre, an eerie take on the Irish holiday. With any luck, it’ll be just as popular as the annual Halloween haunts.

Aidan Finnegan, Haunted Hills Estate Scream Park’s director of marketing, likens the demand for horror events and activities during this pandemic to the rise of the classic monster movies in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.

“During times of depression, general unrest and war, fantastical simulated horror entertainment provides a release that’s more appealing to society than that of a rollercoaster,” Finnegan says. “You’re laughing, screaming and jumping at something that can’t actually hurt you. When making it through a horror movie, the viewer is testing their courage to endure such an ordeal, which instills a certain strength that can help them make it through the truly terrifying times in their own lives.”

That explains why haunted houses across the country are operating beyond All Hallow’s Eve.

For Valentine’s Day, ScareHouse, which is located inside The Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills in Tarentum, invited lovebirds to tour its Christmas-themed haunt, which didn’t open in December as scheduled due to a regional spike in Covid cases.

Owner Scott Simmons was proud of the yuletide terrors and wanted to show them off.

“And,” he says, “since everything about the last year has been so weird anyway, I think people understood why we were doing it and loved it.”

Monsters followed strict Covid procedures, as did all ScareHouse staff members. Actors wore facial masks underneath character masks and maintained six feet of social distance behind a clear plastic barrier. Visitors were encouraged to apply “demon repellent” (aka hand sanitizer) before entering and upon exiting.

Since occupancy limits have been reduced and tickets often sold out, many people didn’t get to experience ScareHouse last October. Simmons says he’s planning a Halfway to Halloween event in late-April to give fans another chance.

“I think we’ve delivered some great scares and a thrilling time, but it’s certainly been challenging,” he says. “I’ve never been more proud and inspired by our amazing cast and crew of weirdos.”

March is typically a time when monster fans converge on Crowne Plaza Suites in Bethel Park for the three-day Horror Realm Convention. The event has been postponed until Nov. 19-21.

Instead of leaving zombie lovers in the lurch, convention organizers hosted their annual Horror Fan Craft Fair & Flea Market at Crowne Plaza on March 6, a few months earlier than usual. The event showcased 32 vendors (half its typical size) and spaced them out in three areas of the hotel. All 200 guests had to pre-register for free timed tickets and the day was broken up into five one-hour blocks.

“I don’t think the horrors of Covid have made horror fans not want to watch movies or immerse themselves in the culture,” says Rich Dalzotto, who runs Horror Realm with Michelle Linhart and Sandy Stuhlfire. “We separated our reality from horror a long time ago.”

For horror fanatics who crave a more interactive scare, Ghosts N’at Paranormal Adventures has been operating throughout the pandemic with extra precautions, and experiences have been selling out faster than you can say “boo!”

Photo courtesy of Ghosts N’at Paranormal Adventures.
Photo courtesy of Ghosts N’at Paranormal Adventures.

Co-owners Brett McGinnis and Patty Henderson take people on real paranormal investigations, from Hotel Conneaut to the Carrie Furnace site to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave in Baltimore.

Founded in 2015, the local company was recently featured on the Travel Channel series “Ghost Nation.” In 2010, McGinnis appeared on the Syfy Channel’s “Ghost Hunters Academy” to visit some of the country’s most haunted places. McGinnis says the hunts help preserve historical locations by developing an extra revenue stream for the sites.

Ghosts N’at has reduced the number of attendees at its events. Before each outing, guests must fill out digital waivers instead of paper forms, have their temperature checked, sanitize their hands and mask up.

In addition to creating spine-tingling memories, Ghosts N’at provides an odd sort of comfort and familiarity.

“Many people who come to our events grew up in haunted houses, have had a paranormal encounter of some kind or have always been interested in the creepy side of things,” McGinnis says. “It’s something that they love or are interested in, and even though it’s scary, it’s something that makes them feel good.”

The pandemic has also brought on an increased interest in drive-in movie theaters — a socially distant form of entertainment even before the pandemic. That means diehard horror flick enthusiast George Reis is anticipating a big turnout for his upcoming biannual Drive-In Super Monster-Rama.

Every September and April for more than a decade, the Long Island, N.Y. resident has organized the two-night celebration of vintage horror movies at the Riverside Drive-In Theatre near Vandergrift.

This year during the April Ghoul’s showcase on April 23-24, patrons can enjoy schlocky gems such as “The Slumber Party Massacre,” “Pieces,” “Edge of the Axe” and “Sleepaway Camp” (star Felissa Rose will be on hand to sign autographs) on Friday night. Guests can camp out overnight, then enjoy a complimentary breakfast in the morning and wait until dusk when “An American Werewolf in London” will be followed by “The Howling,” “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” and “Mausoleum.”

Reis says the Monster-Rama event held in September was a huge success in terms of turnout and spectators’ adherence to Covid rules.

“I think we’re filling a convention void,” he says. “And I love that I’m seeing a lot of new faces. The term ‘drive-in’ is back in the vernacular, especially with younger people.”

Adam Lowenstein sees as much educational value in horror movies as entertainment value.

As a film professor at the University of Pittsburgh, director of the school’s Horror Studies Working Group and a board member of the George A. Romero Foundation, he sees higher learning in what many consider to be lowbrow art.

Lowenstein is currently teaching a course on pandemic horror from directors such as David Cronenberg and  Romero, who used Pittsburgh as the backdrop in films including “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Crazies.”

Released in 1973, “The Crazies” is about a small town that accidentally becomes afflicted by a military biological weapon that turns residents into homicidal maniacs. Instead of being spooked by the thriller, Lowenstein’s students relate to it.

“It doesn’t just present the idea of a pandemic, but all of the horrible things that happen when the system is under pressure,” he explains. “It didn’t strike them as outlandish. They felt like it was scary and timely in ways they could appreciate. That’s part of horror’s gift — it makes you feel seen and understood in your darkest moments rather than ignored and marginalized.”

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.