MONONGAHELA – It’s not just those dark, dilapidated houses that creak in the wind that send shivers down the spine.
Take, for instance, the building that once housed the Monongahela Trust Co. on Main Street in downtown Monongahela. In the flappers-and-gin-driven days of the 1920s, the bank was a locus of sturdy thrift and reliable commerce. Then, after the stock market melted down in October 1929, the bank’s fortunes evaporated, as did those of many other financial institutions in the region and around the country. Its proprietor committed suicide by putting his neck through a noose and the space once used to house the bank was repurposed for a number of endeavors in the decades that followed, from a tire store to a dress shop. Since the early 1990s, the building has been empty, a symbol of the city’s gradual ebbing of population.
During this Halloween season, though, new life was injected into the old edifice. On weekends, the three-story structure became the home of “Scaremare,” a haunted attraction that took advantage of the building’s storied past to deliver a healthy quotient of frights and jolts.
“The location tends to provide the storyline,” said Mark Witt, the executive director of Teen Quest, a Christian-oriented camp for teenagers in Somerset County. An old hand at haunted attractions, Witt has previously staged them in South Park, Finleyville and McKeesport, but opted to move it to Monongahela this year after Mark Slagle, a friend and owner of the trust company building, told Witt he could use it gratis in the weeks leading up to Halloween.
The location determined, Witt decided to create a story centered in the Depression’s aftermath, with gangsters, destitution and even a mock execution via an electric chair. Though it was set in the 1930s, it contained its share of modern touches, such as the customary flashing, disorienting strobe lights, a chainsaw-wielding madman, and legions of zombies, screams, death and dismemberment.
Witt himself was a “Scaremare” participant – “I’m the first guy you see” – while the other performers were all plucked from the ranks of volunteers, many of whom had little or no acting experience.
“With my role, fortunately, there was no speaking,” said Tom Anton, the owner of a Jefferson Hills power equipment firm who, appropriately, portrayed the guy with the chainsaw.
Volunteers were also recruited to handle the box office and other chores related to the endeavor. Teen Quest and an assortment of missionary projects are due to be the recipients of the proceeds.
Though, in recent years, some churches have taken to sponsoring so-called “hell houses” in the lead-up to Halloween to offer lessons on the practices they deem sinful, such as homosexuality or abortion, “Scaremare” contained no overt proselytizing of that stripe – visitors were invited to take a pamphlet posing a question about “Eternal Life or Eternal Death” at its conclusion and could listen to a brief talk about life or death if they wanted.
With the curtain on “Scaremare” just closed for this season, the bank will once again be empty and dark. Ben Fisher, the nephew of Slagle and a publicist for “Scaremare,” says there are plans afoot to refurbish it. “The goal is to put some sort of living space on the second floor, and some sort of commercial space on the first floor,” he said.
So, if those plans come to fruition, the terror and musings on death in “Scarmare” could just as well have been a prelude to the bank building’s new life.