Horror fans may know that the 2006 film Silent Hill was inspired by the real town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. However, Centralia’s true unique history isn’t quite as known.
Recently, I came across a trailer for a documentary titled Centralia: Pennsylvania’s Lost Town. Film director Joseph Sapienza and producer Allyson Kircher are looking to separate fact from urban legend and tell the true story of the town. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with both of them about about the film and ask about their experiences. Their answers might surprise you.
HorrorGeekLife: First of all, let me thank you for taking the time for this interview. To those who aren’t familiar with Centralia, can you give us a brief history on the significance of the town?
Joseph Sapienza & Allyson Kircher: Centralia was a coal mining town and is located in northeastern Pennsylvania in Conyngham Township about two and a half hours north of Philadelphia. In 1866, it was incorporated into a borough and founded by Alexander Rae, who was eventually murdered by the Molly Maguires. Many immigrants from Russia, Poland, Germany and Ireland settled into the town with a population eventually succeeding at 1,500.
HorrorGeekLife: That’s quite a colorful history for such a small town. What made you decide on a documentary on Centralia?
JS & AK: Fifteen years ago, a close friend, who we dedicated the film to, told me about Centralia. I couldn’t grasp the fact that there was a town with an underground mine fire, with vent pipes all around, venting all the steam and smoke, with residents fighting to stay there. So, I did more research and purchased Dave DeKok’s book titled Fire Underground, and it went into detail about the town of Centralia and why the fire was never put out. I was intrigued by the human aspect of the story and the mine fire that I thought it would be a great story to tell through the lens of a camera.
In 2013, my crew and I went out to scout the area of Centralia and there really wasn’t anything left of the town, let alone any remnants of smoke and steam from the fire. There are approximately eight people living there with a mayor and a council. We figured we could talk to the remaining residents and then go backwards with the story of what the town was like in its glory years and what became of the town today. To our dismay, every one of the residents turned us down for the project.
During this time, we heard that two separate producers were making a documentary on Centralia as well. So, I thought to myself, why should I bother to make this film? I was ready to scrap the entire project. But something pushed me to do it and we went ahead and started to interview current and retired mining and state officials who had dealt with Centralia in the past during the decades of the relocation and who were responsible for the eminent domain decision. The film was going to be extremely political and one sided at that time because we had no residents that would talk to us. Three months after we began filming, all that changed.
At first, my assistant producer would call a few people who used to live in Centralia and either they never called back or would say to her, “I lived through it, so why would I want to be part of a documentary?” Some folks just didn’t get what we were trying to do. Eventually we interviewed 14 current and former residents who understood why we wanted to tell the story of Centralia.
We eventually made contact with the Coddington family who not only brought out their entire family to Centralia to talk about what the town was like, but also brought out their neighbors as well. The Coddingtons owned a gas station and were among the first families to be relocated out of Centralia. From that point, we began to meet more people through others. Andy Ostrowski, one of the lawyers who filed a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania for the remaining residents and for whom we interviewed, got in contact with two residents who finally agreed to an interview. We also met former residents though a Centralia clean-up effort that I put together with EPCAMR, a non-profit organization who was also featured in the film.
In November 2016, we held a private screening for the people who were in the documentary and for former residents of Centralia and the village of Byrnesville, another small village that was relocated due to the mine fire, and is also featured in the documentary. They all enjoyed the documentary and told us that it was an accurate and fair story of what happened to the people of the town. They also liked that we debunked an alleged “Centralia curse” that was totally false, and the fact that we didn’t feature Centralia as a total horror Silent Hill freak show, because it’s far from that.
They loved that the documentary was real, down to earth, personal and touching with no bullshit. We were thrilled to hear that and from December 2016 to April 2017, we made some changes and cuts in the edit and went into post production with a release date of May 5, 2017.
HorrorGeekLife: That’s great that you were able to get the residents to become part of the journey. What was it like visiting the area? Was it an eerie experience?
JS & AK: Not at all, it’s nothing like Silent Hill as much as some people would like to believe that. It’s just a huge vacant land with street grids that mother nature is taking over with a few scattered homes and a municipal building. When we were scouting the area in 2013, it was my first time up there and the area had this vibe like you felt something unique used to be here, and that something was unwillingly just torn out of the area. It was very quiet with some motorcycles and four-wheelers in the distance and sometimes we ran into a few people from out of town who were curious tourists.
At that time, we could walk around on the abounded mile stretch of Highway 61, also known as “Graffiti Highway.” At one point during shooting, my crew had driven the equipment van down that road and got stuck on an ice patch. Thankfully a couple local guys who live up that road came down with a pick-up truck and rope and towed us out. Ironically, that same pickup truck is in the background in two of our shots from two different time periods. Almost every time we went back out to Centralia for interviews or b-roll, we ran into those same guys.
HorrorGeekLife: It definitely sounds like the town has a different atmosphere than you’d expect. Centralia: Pennsylvania’s Lost Town has taken your team four years to complete. How has that journey been for you?
JS & AK: It’s been a very long, difficult, and expensive journey, but well worth it. I became obsessed and connected with the story and I wanted this film to be perfect, I wanted people to enjoy it but also take something away from it and evoke an emotion. So, to see all that come together is really a satisfying experience! I freelance for many other production companies, so this film was really completed either on my own time or on my days off. Thankfully I had a terrific crew who were readily available during the days I was available. However, at one point, the project was going to be shelved three times due to some scheduling conflicts and financial issues. But we got through it.
We began shooting in January 2014 and finished October 2016. We traveled up to Centralia many times at different seasons of the year to shoot b-roll, and traveled up there or in that area each time to conduct interviews. We traveled out to Harrisburg many times for interviews as well, so there was a lot of traveling. If two people were available that same day, we shot both interviews that day. We were in Centralia in December of 2015 just after it snowed and it looked beautiful, and the remaining residents had decorated the intersection of the town with a few Christmas decorations and a Christmas tree during the Holiday season. We had filmed this with one of the remaining residents but it was eventually cut out of the film last minute because of a copyright issue with music.
Sometimes we would spend Friday morning to Sunday night in Centralia just shooting and researching either camping or driving up and back. I live in Philadelphia so it’s a two and a half hour ride up and back and that’s where the expenses came in between gear and crew accommodations. I spent many days up in Pottsville pulling newspaper articles for the documentary and reading stories on Centralia so we could piece the entire story line together. We also did shoots with author Dave DeKok and former resident and postmaster Tom Dempsey three days out in Centralia where we walked around and followed them describing what used to be in that specific area. We overshoot everything, including the interviews. There are interviews and back stories that didn’t even make it into the film. There’s a few introduction segments with Dave DeKok where we filmed him with the camera attached to a crane that never made it into the film.
So that’s a few examples, that you shoot and shoot and shoot and plan and plan, but sometimes many things just get cut or not used because of time or it just doesn’t work in the final cut. We started sorting through footage and editing in January 2016 even though we were still shooting, but we were down to a few minor interviews at that point. When my editors laid out the footage, we had a 5-hour documentary with a lot of stories, so from that they cut it down into sections and then into segments to what made it into the film now at 1 hour 28 minutes. So that’s why it took so long to put this story together.
HorrorGeekLife: I’m excited to check it out and see how the story unfolds! To those who are interested in visiting Centralia, are there any tips that you can give them?
JS & AK: Yes, if you want to see some remnants of pockets of steam from what’s left of the mine fire, your best time to go would be between late November to early March when it’s cold or after it snowed. I would stay away or use your best judgment when it comes to the Graffiti Highway/Highway 61. I heard some people were getting tickets for trespassing beginning at $250.00 and followed out of the area by State Police. I also heard that people were walking around on the highway with no issues, so I guess it depends when the state police are patrolling the area.
My advice is to also have respect for the people that live there. There’s no reason to bother them or knock on their doors because one, they won’t answer, and two, they really don’t want to talk about Centralia. Some of them also own a nice collection of firearms and won’t hesitate to use them. We were told that off camera from a few locals, so just be mindful. The church that resides just outside of Centralia, also known as the Silent Hill church is private property. One of the priests told us that people are constantly trespassing and trying to break into the basement of the church looking for “the gates of hell.” Here’s a spoiler alert, in that basement is a sub pump and nothing more. Sorry, there are no gates to hell. You can walk around in Centralia, it’s a nice area, but just be respectful and stay out of the church property and the cemeteries. When we spoke to the residents there, that was their main concerns.
HorrorGeekLife: Excellent tips, I’m sure the residents would appreciate you passing them on. Now that the film has wrapped up, what lies ahead for you?
JS & AK: We’re considering a six-part miniseries of Centralia which would include more back stories, interviews, news footage, and new interviews for people who want to know more about it. The documentary would be dismantled and re-cut to retro fit the series along with the new extended footage for each episode. Each episode would be about 20-30 minutes long depending on the material. We have so much extra footage that there’s enough to accomplish the series, and I would rather do that if we can rather than it never sees the light of day. We’re also working on a new documentary/experimental hip-hop film that we hope to release next year in festivals, and a new sports/reality show that we hope will get picked up by one of the networks.
For more information on the documentary be sure to follow the official Facebook page.