Move over Rocky steps, it’s the time of the year when Philly’s visitors flock to another Fairmount attraction, Eastern State Penitentiary’s haunted house, Terror Behind the Walls. When it comes to haunted houses, Eastern State Penitentiary knows how to deliver a nightmare. Whether its zombies, clowns, or towering ghouls on stilts that’s your weakness, the 45 minute tour through America’s oldest penitentiary will get your heart racing.
I apprehensively walked through the iron gates of the historically eerie penitentiary and was astounded by the costumed actors who staggered through the crowd of visitors signing waivers to enter. In a group of 10 other thrill seekers, I made my way towards the entrance of the attraction. A handful of visitors chose the option of the more interactive experience, where they could become part of the show by being separated from the group and dragged through secret passageways, by accepting a glow necklace referred to by staff as a “high-tech tracking device.” My group and I laughed nervously as our cheeks were marked in fake blood by a nurse who seemed to have stepped out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. The burley prison warden shouted at each of us as we scramble through the turnstile, “You’re prison property now!” he shouted. The nervous laughter quickly settled.
Each segment of the tour flowed seamlessly, beginning with a long walk past rusted cells where prisoners jumped out swinging axes, chasing visitors who shrieked the loudest. Walking through the hedges of the prison field, my group groaned in unison as we heard the sound of grumbling chainsaws and the smell of gasoline. Irate, chainsaw-wielding prison guards jumped out at us and blocked our path every few steps. After surviving the field we were given “safety goggles” (3D glasses) and stumbled through a 3-D psychedelic circus where, with every turn the walls came alive. After turning in our 3D glasses we navigated through the infirmary where deranged doctors and nurses tortured uncompliant prisoners. The final, and in my opinion, most nerve-wrecking segment was called the “Prison Break”. Intense strobe lights and piercing sirens made our escape more challenging than we expected. The floor was littered with the glowing “tracking devices” of those who clearly had enough of being part of the show. As we stumbled out into the cement yard, the sight of the festive lights of the snack bar was a sight of victory for all.
Terror behind the walls made sure to launch an assault on all senses, through intricate lighting, a 3-D experience through a psychotic clown’s lair, shifting floor tiles, and even unsettling smells of gasoline and fire. The tour was well-organized and did an exceptional job at giving each a visitor an (almost too) realistic experience of being an anguished prisoner.
It really wasn’t until midway through the attraction as we walked through the infirmary that I began to remember the actual history of the penitentiary. Eastern State Penitentiary was the first to enforce solitary confinement and invented the “wagon wheel” layout that correctional facilities still used today, where a guard can view seven cell blocks from one standpoint. The penitentiary was an actual living hell for most who lived within its gothic arches and damp cells. The torture and overcrowding that occurred at Eastern State Penitentiary has been linked to the high levels of paranormal activity that give the penitentiary the title of one of the most haunted places in the country. The combination of intense history and a Hollywood-grade production puts Eastern State Penitentiary’s, Terror Behind the Walls a Halloween attraction that I will be sure to make a yearly tradition.