The Steel City has a legendary history of supernatural activity. Some groups, such as East Hills Paranormal Journey, are brave enough to explore it, while others just opt for the thrill of the unknown.
By Sonu Babu
Photo: ScareHouse, located inside the Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills, is, according to its website: an “annual tradition for fright fans” celebrating “twenty years of fears.” Courtesy of ScareHouse
In the 1860s, a wealthy man named Charles Congelier built his dream mansion in Pittsburgh’s Northside. By the end of the 20th century, the stately home, located at 1129 Ridge Ave.—now a parking lot— was referred to as the “most haunted house in America.”
According to legend, Congelier lived with his wife Lyda and maid Essie. It is said that Lyda murdered the two of them when she saw that they were having an affair.
Historian and Northside Chronicle contributor David Rotenstein tells the story on his blog, History Sidebar. He adds that in 1927, storage tanks at the Equitable Gas Company along the Ohio River exploded and killed close to 30 people, including a woman named Mary Cancelliere, who lived at that same address.
Although the “Congelier House” is no longer standing, many believe the original location of the home to be a hotspot for supernatural activity.
East Hills Paranormal Journey
Pittsburgh has its fair share of haunted places with rich histories such as the Congelier House. There’s Spring Hill Brewing, formerly the Workingmen’s Beneficial Union social hall, for example, which was featured on the Travel Channel’s show Ghost Bait. Photo Antiquities on East Ohio Street, too: The museum includes exhibits of post-mortem photographs, popular around 1840, and “spirit” photos, which The Northside Chronicle reported “require a double-exposure technique which gives the illusion that someone or something in a particular photo is translucent or ghost-like.”
From haunted mansions to horror movies, people enjoy getting scared and learning more about creepy occurrences. While some simply stumble upon unsettling incidents, others, like Josh Shelton from East Hills Paranormal Journey, enjoy seeking them out. The objective of the group is to uncover the truth behind unsolved crimes and history throughout the Northside and surrounding areas. For Josh, who has been ghost hunting for about 13 years, it’s about the excitement of the hunt.
“History these days seems to be covered up and falsified,” said Shelton. “Allegheny County is rich in mystery.”
He became interested in the supernatural by watching ghost hunting TV shows. Once East Hills started to get their name out, a lot of people began to call the group and ask them to do investigations.
According to Shelton, the group uses digital cameras, voice recorders, and radiofrequency devices to look for changes in temperature, or Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), which can serve as answers to questions or an order for the group to leave. East Hills members, Shelton said, usually ask spirits if they can return to the investigation site using radio frequency devices, and try to be respectful to spirits if they hear a negative response.
When the East Hills team, made up of five or six regular members, sets out to investigate Dead Man’s Hollow located in McKeesport, they bring along their gear to try to hear and talk to spirits through it and aim to uncover what really happened in an area with the help of EVP. In 1874, Dead Man’s Hollow, an eight-mile hiking trail, sparked its own mystery. Legend has it that the conservation area got its name after a group of teenagers found a dead body there hanging from a noose. People could not figure out who the victim was and no one was charged for the murder.
East Hills’ most recent investigation took place at the former Union Sewer Pipe Company, also in Dead Man’s Hollow. A fire burned it down, and according to Shelton, people reported being pushed and scratched and hearing voices and footsteps as they walked around in empty areas.
For history buffs or anyone interested in Pittsburgh’s past while wanting a good scare, Haunted Pittsburgh is a popular organization. The team at Haunted Pittsburgh calls themselves “the curators of Pittsburgh’s nightmares, the archivists of its fears, and the trustees of all things that go ‘bump in the night’ in Western Pennsylvania.” It came to life when Michelle Smith discovered Victorian-era accounts of ghost stories in old newspapers.
Haunted Pittsburgh provides downtown tours of haunted places that are mostly from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. The tours incorporate Pittsburgh history; they have taken place in Oakland, Mount Washington, and the Southside. Their guiding stories often come from newspaper accounts of when the incidents first occurred.
“Victorians were heavily into spiritualism,” explained Smith. They even traditionally told ghost stories on Christmas, and old newspapers would often record these stories.”
Smith and her business partner, Tim Murray, were motivated to show people Pittsburgh’s history with an interesting twist, so they researched haunted occurrences and history for two years before launching the tours.
“Pittsburgh is teeming with ghost stories,” said Smith. “We’ve researched our stories pretty carefully. We don’t rely on urban legends and have some type of factual basis for our stories.”
Smith’s favorite tale is the account of Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick’s attempted assassination. Anarchist Alexander Berkman burst into Frick’s office and shot at him three times at point-blank range; two of the bullets hit Frick in his neck. Spectators asked Berkman how he missed, and he claimed that he was blinded by sunlight. This was strange, Smith noted, because apparently there was no sunlight coming through the nearby window.
Frick refused to speak of what he said really happened for decades. Toward the end of his life, he revealed the claim that he saw the celestial glow of his deceased daughter Martha, which may have blinded Berkman and saved Frick’s life.
Haunted Pittsburgh tours attract many people, but their key demographic is made up of seniors and families. Smith also said that they have done private tours for Girl Scouts. According to her, tourists primarily come to learn more about Pittsburgh in the summer, while people who are local book a tour during Halloween. Around 20 people attend each tour.
“I think people like well-crafted stories,” Smith said in regard to why there’s such interest in the tours. Finding truth amidst the tales, she said, is the hardest part of her job. Smith needs to sift through popular urban legends and find the facts. Her organization also has to take location into account to narrow down the stories, since some places are too spread apart to be included in the tours.
When asked why she thinks people enjoy hearing scary stories, Smith said, “I think it’s human nature. I think people like adventure, but in a safe environment.”
The science behind being scared
So why do people enjoy being scared?
Storytelling is one of the oldest ways to incite fear, an emotion that is activated by the brain’s amygdala. Surprisingly, feeling scared can be similar to feeling excitement and happiness. According to a Ted Ed lesson by Dr. Margee Kerr, an author and sociologist who studies fear and the former staff sociologist at Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse, the fight or flight response shuts down unimportant functions of the body, such as pain and critical thought, during a dangerous situation. The lack of both feeling hurt and overthinking can cause a “natural high” or euphoria. When people are riding roller coasters, for example, they may start in an elevated emotional place of fear, but can easily “relabel” their emotion to joy.
Just as Smith said, many people like to seek a thrill in a safe environment. That safe environment makes all the difference between having an enjoyable experience or a terrifying one. The thrill of hearing a scary story, ghost hunting, or watching a horror movie are done in safe or controlled environments, which makes it easier to enjoy them.