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Mountain Home Magazine

Spooky U

Sep 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard

Ah, Pennsylvania—stately, bucolic, industrial. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed there. But don’t be lured into thinking this is its only national legacy. A darker influence runs beneath the surface, possibly churned up by all the coal mining. Outside Philadelphia, Allentown and Downingtown suburbs were terrorized by a blob from outer space in 1958. (At least that’s when the movie came out.) Near Pittsburgh, the 1968 and 1978 zombie hoards have been well documented. In that same area in 1968, identical twin brothers were born who would write their first horror movie script when they were eight years old, a few years before the family moved to Tioga County. Now, one twin remains, and he works in a small office down an unassuming hall of the art building on Commonwealth University’s Mansfield Campus. But on weekends some have seen him hanging out with zombies, ghouls, demons, and killers in the countryside. And this is not the only strange occurrence to go uninvestigated.

Until now.

Sitting behind his desk in Allen Hall, Mark Polonia says he’s glad to live in Tioga County. “It’s a great place to blow up fake heads,” he explains. The few years he worked in Los Angeles weren’t as easy. “You had to get a permit for everything.” By day he’s currently video production specialist in marketing and communications for Mansfield University, but at night he’s filming his ninety-ninth movie, The Stalking. The story takes place on Halloween, when three high school kids who’ve been bullied get revenge at a party using black magic to animate a scarecrow and killer vines. Since 1987, Polonia Bros. Entertainment has made a name for itself producing micro-budget B-horror flicks. The Facebook page has 1.4 thousand followers.

What Lies Beneath the Ordinary

In the beginning, it was Mark and his brother John, born in 1968 in Johnstown, doing everything together. “We weren’t allowed to go to those type of movies back then,” he admits. But at age five, the boys, unbeknownst to their parents, watched Mothra vs. Godzilla on TV, wondering ‘how do they do this?’ Mark says he knew right away what he wanted to do when he grew up. Horror and gore were always on the edges of their otherwise ordinary lives. “At ten, when Dawn of the Dead came out, I remember passing the red barn on the highway.” In 1979, their father, who worked for Acme Markets, was transferred, and they moved from the Pittsburgh suburbs to Wellsboro.

At first it was culture shock. “I’d only seen cows in advertisements,” Mark says, “and the first day we moved here there was a cow in our backyard.” The patio at that house got stained when the eleven-year-old brothers filmed their first movie, a twelve-minute film titled The Killer, and only knew to use paint for blood.

This sounds like a familiar plot—twins who constantly play with fake blood and tell monster stories are not taken seriously by their parents who leave them to roam their small town and amuse themselves. At everyone else’s peril.

The whole town seemed to indulge them. There was even a high school class in supernatural literature, and the teacher let the brothers make a movie instead of writing a report. When they showed it in class, the principal came down to watch. John brought the props. Everyone really liked it, but, Mark says, “It didn’t help us in the dating scene.”

At seventeen they graduated from Wellsboro Area High School and started working on Splatter Farm, which was released on VHS in 1987, starting their career as professional filmmakers. Their 1996 film, Feeders, got picked up by Blockbuster and was their number one indie film rental that year, which “put us on the map,” according to Mark. Years later, he’d meet a man who’d been a bigwig at Blockbuster, who told him, “We got a lot of shit for releasing that, but it made us money.”

Mark had been working in Kingdom Inc.’s movie and video production as a production assistant, then head editor, where he learned a lot right out of high school—“like a college degree.” He was shooting Feeders when he left Kingdom to work at Mansfield University in the AV office. John was working at the same company as their father. Together they made over thirty-five movies before John died unexpectedly of pneumonia in 2008. Mark continued to make movies under the Polonia Bros. name.

In 2015, Mark took a job in Los Angeles at a Hollywood production facility doing show promos, History Channel projects, and dubbing movies. He shot on the beach where the famous Planet of the Apes scene with the Statue of Liberty was filmed. If anyone asked to see his permits, he’d tell them it was a student film. After two years, he returned to Mansfield University, shooting promotional films for them. “It’s a young man’s game out there,” he says, and while he still goes to LA to do editing for Showtime, Full Moon Pictures, and others, he’s happy to be back in Pennsylvania, land of the zombies. When asked if LA really does have more vampires than most places, he says, “Yeah, the wrong kind.”

A State of Terror, a Monster Class

There is something terrifically horrific about Pennsylvania, from Centralia—the ghost town in Columbia County that’s been burning since 1962 and inspired the Silent Hill horror media franchise—to director George Romero’s zombie movies set in the Pittsburgh area. A June 2023 study done by reports that Pennsylvania ranks first in the top ten deadliest states according to their horror movie death tolls. Pennsylvania, with a total of 615 deaths, beat New York by 361, and California by 477, even though those states had more movies counted in the survey. This is mostly thanks to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Land of the Dead (2005).

But there is a little-known Mansfield University connection. In 1966, Ronald Keith Hartman, from Washington, Pennsylvania, graduated with a degree in music from what was then Mansfield State College. Two years later, under the name Keith Wayne, he appeared as Tom in the cult classic and horror phenom Night of the Living Dead, where he helped the main character, Ben, fend off the hoards, then made a break from the fortified farmhouse (have you noticed how often old farmhouses figure into these stories?) to a truck in order to gas it up for their escape. Tom doesn’t make it, and Ronald, aka Keith Wayne, doesn’t appear in any more movies.

All this suggests something unusual going on around Mansfield University, like how Sunnydale High in Buffy the Vampire Slayer sat over the Hellmouth, a portal to the supernatural. There are certainly an abundance of old farmhouses—Mark has used many as film settings. Former Mansfield University English professor and provost, John Ulrich, who has since escaped, er, retired, once taught a very popular class called Monster Lit. “It was developed to be a monster class—meaning large, which for us at MU meant 100 to 120 students,” he explains. Combining his long-standing interest in nineteenth-century British literature, including Dracula and Frankenstein, and the fact that monster literature was already a legit sub-genre, John thought, “here’s a way to introduce analysis and interpretation to students using a subject that is perceived as pop culture.”

John, who has long black hair pulled into a sleek ponytail and wears black almost exclusively, taught it in fall, to coincide with Halloween, and only in the evening, 6:30 to 9 p.m. “The class always drew a core of students who already knew a lot about vampires, zombies, or kaiju—but plenty of other students were drawn in,” he says. And if they thought they’d just be reading comic books, they were quickly corrected. The semester started with the tenth-century classic Beowulf.

“How do you even translate Old English,” John asks, “when the term monster didn’t exist in Anglo-Saxon then?” That word, aglæca, can also be translated as fierce combatant or fierce slayer, and is used to describe Grendel and Grendel’s mother, as well as Beowulf, thereby muddling the distinct categories of monster and hero. It’s an effective way to teach critical thinking, whether you are engaging in lofty ideas or examining Cookie Monster, an insatiable eater (“he’s categorically the same as a zombie,” says John) who nevertheless is not scary. “Asking how we can turn monsters into something benign can be educational,” he claims. Likewise, they examined how people who cross categories can be portrayed as monstrous and de-humanized. Threats don’t have to be physical.

“They can also be a cognitive threat to the way we understand our world,” John says. “Monsters have always stood for the unknown, that’s why they were drawn at the edges of old maps to mark unexplored territory.”

Students studied movies as well as books. They learned when watching the 1932 White Zombie that the original zombies were based on Haitian folklore and depicted people turned into catatonic slaves. It was Romero, with his first zombie film more than thirty years later, who made up the rules that they became flesh-eaters, walked with the classic shuffle, and had to be shot in the head to die.

One of the highlights of John’s professorial career came about because he was presenting a paper on Beowulf at an academic conference that was part of a West Coast comic con. When browsing booths, he turned around to find one of his idols, the author of the bestselling zombie novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006).

“There’s Max Brooks with a stack of books, and I said, ‘I’m teaching your book. How do I get you to Mansfield?’” Max gave John his agent’s number, and in November 2012, Straughn Hall was filled with hundreds of people wanting to hear how to survive a zombie apocalypse.

John taught Monster Lit until 2014 when he transitioned into administration. His professional opinion is that college students today are no more zombified than anyone else, including administrators.

A Dream Brought to Life

On the wall across from Mark’s desk are two black-and-white canvas prints of his grandchildren and a full color print of a creepy scarecrow from one of his movies. “It’s all the same to me,” he laughs.

Mark, who’s been married for thirty years, has two children. Anthony has worked with him on films and now makes his own. He has a gift for special effects, creates some of the props, and does the make-up. Courtney, mother of Mark’s grandkids, works at the university, too. The house they grew up in has been in numerous horror films, but otherwise the family seems like any other. If it’s a full day of filming, Maria, his wife, might make snacks for the actors who are attacking each other in her kitchen—just another day in paradise. “I’m a normal guy,” Mark says, “or at least I’m weird in a good way.”

And he wouldn’t choose to do anything else. “I’ve never lost my fascination and enthusiasm for the process of coming up with an idea, putting it on paper, and then bringing it to life. I’ve been in constant production since 1987.” Having an office in the art building means he’s surrounded by students and faculty whose work feeds his imagination.

His brand is fun, micro-budget party movies, ones you watch with friends to laugh at and scream. You can call his films cheesy; he doesn’t think that’s a bad thing. “Cheesy is a term applied to a film where the concept is bigger than its budget,” he explains. He says the question to ask yourself is: are you being entertained?

There are lots of tropes in horror movies—common elements we associate with them—and Mark has clear opinions on which ones are effective. He doesn’t like the “found footage” approach—as if the video was found on a recording device. “Blair Witch was boring as hell,” he says. One of his favorite tropes is the jump scare, “but they’re hard to set up because the audience expects them.” And what about ‘let’s split up’? “Oh, you got to do that. It’s easier to take out one person at a time, plus it stretches the running time. And we’re more afraid when we’re alone.”

Mark, who is included in the recent documentary Sharksploitation, has made a lot of shark movies, including Cocaine Shark (2023) and Shark Encounters of the Third Kind (2020). Mark and John were seven in 1975 when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws came out, and wanted desperately to see it. But when their older sister came home and told their mom it was about a big shark that eats naked ladies, they weren’t allowed.

Monsters are all fun and imaginary games for Mark. But ask him about ghosts, and he’ll turn serious. When he worked in the AV office and managed Straughn Hall, he’d often go in at night to prepare for the next day’s event. “I was on the stage setting lights. I glanced up at the balcony and saw someone standing there. I said ‘Hi.’ I looked again and realized it was seven feet tall.” He thought it had to be a shadow. Then it glided, and when it passed in front of the lights, it was solid. He didn’t tell anyone but his wife.

A year later he was talking to the custodian and asked him, “Have you seen anything weird there?” He looked back at Mark and said, “Did you?” They exchanged stories, and the custodian had seen the same thing twice. Someone who rented the space saw it once, too. “It didn’t seem to know we were there,” says Mark. “I wouldn’t call it a ghost. Maybe a specter.”

Another time he was with a professor who had equipment to record supernatural phenomena. They went to Steadman auditorium where people had claimed to see Grace Steadman, a beloved music teacher who’d died in 1940, when they were rehearsing—an old lady in a back seat at the top would clap for them. Once the equipment was set up—with the professor on stage and Mark in the middle of the auditorium—they asked if there was anyone there who used to work at the university. A voice said, “Grace.” “We all heard it,” Mark says, and what’s more they recorded it.

“I’m pretty open-minded,” he says, but he’s not interested in proving or disproving anything. “There are things in life that can’t be explained. It happens to credible people and fruitcakes. Credible people have a lot to lose by speaking up.”

Mark also can’t explain why certain movies he makes become popular and others don’t. So he makes what he enjoys. “If someone says to me, ‘I could’ve made this on my grandmother’s iPhone,’ my response is ‘go do it.’ Making movies is a lot of fun but it’s also hard work. Anyone who makes a whole movie deserves congratulations.”

So, it appears that something unusual is going on at Mansfield University, but instead of sitting on a portal to evil it may be sitting on a deep source of creativity that infects the surrounding communities. People you see every day on campus, in nearby towns, might be on your screen that night if you stream a Polonia Bros. movie. But don’t worry, plenty of perfectly nice people enjoy horror as entertainment and escapism. Some even study it.

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