ScareHouse, one of Pittsburgh's most famous haunted house attractions, has earned national press, and praise from fantasy-horror director Guillermo del Toro. We talked to a leader at ScareHouse: Design manager Nicole Conniff, who started at the house in 2009 as a makeup artist and actor. She's also a longtime vendor at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival, where she sells her own custom masquerade masks, terrariums and candles. We asked her how she works.
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
Current Gig: Design manager at ScareHouse
One word that best describes how you work: Manic
Current mobile device: iPhone 7
Current computer: MacBook Pro
First of all, tell me a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I studied Special Effects at the Art Institute. Received my bachelor's there in 2008 and started the following year at ScareHouse as a makeup artist/actor during the haunt season. The year after that I was hired as a scenic artist in the 3D attraction, which involved painting for hours with all kinds of weird colours under blacklights for weeks on end. Every year afterwards I was asked to take on more and more scenic or build projects and now here we are!
I wasn't actually a big horror fan when I first started here but I've always loved fantasy worlds and immersive environments, and my job as design manager allows me to create all kinds of new worlds every year.
What apps, software or tools can't you live without?
I use Google Docs for everything. Project plans, scheduling, budget and hours tracking, shopping lists, and so on. It's my lifeline.
I also spend A LOT of time scrolling through apps like Letgo, OfferUp and Facebook Marketplace for those scenic elements and weird prop items you just can't get on Amazon. They have made sourcing SO MUCH EASIER! I used to have to hunt through all the local thrift stores, flea markets and estate sales, which is super fun but time consuming and discouraging if you can't find what you are looking for. UPS probably has no idea how much weird stuff they have delivered to my door.
What's your workspace setup like?
Ever changing. No two days give me the same view. I do have a desk in our "tree house" office which ends up being mostly storage of small set dec pieces, things that need fixed or things I just don't want to lose. I spend a majority of my time on the floor during our build season working on and checking in on the many projects we have going at once, which makes having all of my lists available via mobile extremely important. I also have a home office and workshop space that get much use during our creative phase.
How does your work vary over the course of a year?
People always ask me, "what do you do for the rest of the year?" with no idea of just how much work it takes to create new attractions every year. We completely revise and renovate about 10,000 square feet [929m2] of our attraction every year. October is actually my least busy time of the year because all of the design and build work is finally done. Starting in November our team will start analysing customer feedback and brainstorming new creative ideas, I'll spend the next few months generating budgets and timetables for tearing down the old sets and then building the new stuff, and from then through to September I'm here every day supervising the creation of our new sets and theatrical elements.
What's your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
I know it's antiquated but I'm a total pen and paper kind of girl. I'm all about the Post-Its. I've got so many things going on at a time that if I don't write things down immediately they are gone forever. I can put them exactly where I need to see them, and they come in so many colours!
What's your favourite to-do list manager?
I keep everything Google based. I create a master project workbook for each year in Google Sheets that I update daily, and can share with our management team, and from there transfer our daily to-do lists to a whiteboard in our common area where I can assign tasks, and share the fun of taking that big red marker through each item as we go. Very little is as satisfying to me as crossing off to-do's.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What's your secret?
Screaming! HAHA, you would think that working at a haunted house for the last 10 years would have desensitised me a bit more than it has, but I get a good startle in at least once daily, occasionally resulting in a full-on blood-curdling scream. It's quite amusing for everyone involved.
What do you listen to while you work?
We keep a big Bluetooth speaker in the common area and we take turns choosing the music. As far as radio goes, I'm a classic rock girl, although '90s pop is super fun to work to, too. Our Costume Designer recently got me into true crime podcasts (primarily My Favorite Murder), so that happens too sometimes. Also show tunes! Hamilton, Les Mis, Phantom, In the Heights... The list goes on. But I usually try to save that for when I'm working alone.
It's that special time of year again when everyone is looking for a good scary story. And though podcasts more often conjure up the images of gentle interviews with creative types and soothing NPR voices, more shows are moving into the territory of old-school radio plays, producing unsettling (and addictive) stories from true crime to horror. I hope you brought an extra pair of pants, 'cause these podcasts bring the terror.
What are you currently reading, or what's something you'd recommend?
The Night Circus is a current favourite and was actually a huge influencer for one of our attractions this year. As well as The Devil in the White City. I'm mostly into fantasy or books about monsters. We'll assume the obvious Harry Potter, LOTR, Rice and King. But Phillip Pullman, Tamora Pierce and Laurel K. Hamilton are definitely high on my "would recommend" list.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
Scary movies, obviously! We try to watch a different one nearly every night. I'm actually watching Silence of the Lambs as I write this! We love to travel when we have the time, which is often tricky. My boyfriend is a photographer, so free time, when it lines up, is immediately booked with some sort of adventure. I also have a very needy Jack Russel named Wesley. He knows very many tricks but only does them when HE decides it absolutely necessary. He is also a master of disguise.
What's your favourite side project?
CRAFTS! I love to make things. I'm always working on something, whether it's a handmade gift or an art project. I started selling masquerade masks at the local renaissance festival years ago as a creative outlet while I was finishing school, which has morphed many times, most recently into soy candles and live terrariums this past season.
What's your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early riser?
One hundred per cent owl. I have a real hard time shutting it down at the end of the day. Especially if it has been a very productive day, I'm super amped up and want to finish all the things. And therefore mornings can be pretty rough. I have three wake-up alarms set at five-minute intervals, and another that goes off 10 minutes before I have to leave my house. And a very tolerant boyfriend. Most of my team works the same way. We keep soft start times during build season because of this. And nothing ever happens before coffee.
Fill in the blank: I'd love to see _________ answer these same questions.
[Ghost Hunters investigator] Amy Bruni.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
If the answer is not "Hell Yes" then it has to be "No". Especially when you are as busy as I am, it's OK to be picky about what projects or commitments you take on. You have to be, if you value your sanity.
Is there anything else you'd like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
There are still so many misconceptions about modern haunted attractions like ScareHouse. I think many people think it's just kids in rubber masks hiding behind black plastic. But there's often a tremendous amount of work and creativity on display in your local haunted house. We spend all year creating new sets, characters and effects that are just as impactful as what you might see in a Hollywood movie. These haunts aren't just for kids. They're for anyone who wants a good old-fashioned scare on Halloween!
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.