On a recent Friday night, with a light drizzle falling, my friends and I stood in line at the gate of Eastern State Penitentiary to sign waivers proffered by actors in gory makeup. Though it’s standard procedure at the crumbling historic site, it was faintly alarming still. We were there for “Terror Behind the Walls,” the penitentiary’s annual Halloween extravaganza, and as we waited our turn to board an old prison bus we got our first scare of the night—a “prisoner” leaping out of the gloom and drawing a collective scream from everyone in our group.
Even during the day, this gargantuan gothic prison-turned National Historic Landmark is hardly a warm and fuzzy place.
Built in the 1820s with the idea that isolating prisoners would inspire them into rehabilitation, the cellblocks of Eastern State were designed around a central rotunda similar to the spokes of a wheel.
The prison sits on an 11-acre site, behind a massive stone wall in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood. Closed in 1970, today the building is open to the public for tours. Behind the walls, the corridors of the cellblocks are dark and dimly lit and a tour around the small cells reveals paint-peeled walls, broken furniture and a general sense of abandonment. On a bright sunny, day the forbidding structure can send a chill up your spine.
At night, the fear factor escalates, and “Terror Behind the Walls” is definitely not for the feint of heart. Nor is it appropriate for children. But for adults game for a good scare, the sixth best “haunted house” in the country (according to America Online) is well worth a Halloween visit.
On the night we visited, the actors lurking around the grounds seemed to always remain in character. Clad in old prison and guard uniforms, faces disfigured with lifelike open wounds, warts and scars—the effect was pure Halloween gore.
As we walked between the five haunted houses on the site, actors wished us “luck” as we braved the frightening paths ahead.
Indeed, the scares were many. Walking single file through a series of twisting pitch-black rooms, suddenly the space was lit up by a female prisoner in a cage striking sparklers against the bars. The hissing and popping elicited more yelps and cries from our group.
We also came across a room done up like an old prison kitchen with a “chef” who seemed as if he’d like to carve us up for dinner.
To enhance the grisly ambience, each haunted house was littered with fake body parts, giant rubber rats, spiders and cobwebs, and as actors thrust their hands and heads through cut-out openings in the walls, visitors rushed to escape into the next room. One “inmate” quietly followed the last person in our group, who turned around suddenly and squealed in fright on discovering her unwelcome stalker. Another prisoner, almost invisible in black clothes, whispered, “I see you” under his breath, as we walked by.
A standout feature of this Halloween spectacle is “The Experiment.” After you don 3-D glasses, you’ll see paint-splattered walls transformed into a three-dimensional series of day-glo rooms. In one space, black walls are covered with blue, pink and yellow polka dots that seem to be moving closer and closer . . . until you realize that the dots are actually a moving figure wearing an all-black outfit covered with dots that blend into the surroundings.
Disorienting? Yes, but that’s what makes a nighttime trip to the penitentiary an event to remember long after Halloween’s over.
For more information on “Terror Behind the Walls” go to the ESP web site at www.easternstate.org. Tickets range from $20 to $30.
Originally published on October 20, 2005