25 Years of Terror: Eastern State Penitentiary Thriving off Halloween Industry

National historic landmark by day, nationally ranked haunted attraction by night, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary still makes use of its medieval style façade and arrow-slit windows to terrify visitors.

The penitentiary closed in 1970, but today it runs historical tours and is in its 25th year of running Terror Behind the Walls, a Halloween attraction giving horror-lovers the chance to be spooked in one of America’s most famous prisons.

On an event night at the penitentiary, actors in full costume and makeup, dressed as grotesque, zombie-like guards and inmates, prowl up and down the street in front of the building, bringing the show to the streets. Some meander around, frantically mumbling, in tattered prison clothes. Some creep up behind visitors and passers by to spook them. An actor in stilts bends down to eavesdrop on conversations. Visitors are totally immersed in the experience.

Publications like Forbes and Travel Channel have ranked Terror Behind the Walls one of America’s top haunted attractions. Hauntworld, a website and magazine dedicated solely to covering America’s growing horror industry, claims the penitentiary “may be the best location in the United States for a haunted house.”

It very well may be. The building’s design was intended to frighten onlookers even before it became a haunted attraction. In the night of Autumn, it looks like a medieval Transylvanian castle. Spotlights create drastic shadows on the ivy covered stones, and perching gargoyles appear to observe visitors approaching the gate.

The penitentiary opened in 1829 and became famous worldwide for its revolutionary design and the philosophy behind it. The Quaker model pioneered keeping prisoners in separate cells to encourage reflection and reform. Before it closed and became abandoned in 1970, it had housed a number of notorious criminals, like Chicago mobster Al Capone, whose cell was adorned with oriental rugs and a radio, according to Eastern State’s website.

Visitors to the historical site can see Capone’s cellblock, but once Terror Behind the Walls reopens in October, most visitors come for the scares.

Philadelphians, especially, flock to the penitentiary. Josh Woodson, who on Oct. 8 returned to the attraction for the second year in a row, explains, “Living in Philly, it’s something that’s just well known.”

He adds, “It was definitely scarier this year than it was last year.”

To celebrate its 25th year running, Terror Behind the Walls has added two new attractions to the interactive show: Quarantine and Break Out. They add on to lock down, infirmary, detritus, and machine shop to make a total of 6 attractions within the walls.

In Quarantine, visitors are immersed in an infectious outbreak of disease within the walls of the penitentiary. New effects give the feeling of hallucinatory symptoms, and illusions create the sense that walls are moving, the room is spinning, and strange creatures may or may not be present.

Tanner Nassau, who lives in Philadelphia and was attending Terror Behind the Walls for the first time, says Quarantine was the scariest attraction of the night.

“You have on 3D glasses, and you’re running through, and they’re coming out of the walls. You don’t know what’s real and what’s not real. It was pretty scary. I was impressed.”

Woodson also claims Quarantine is the scariest part of the show.

The new and final attraction, Break Out, is a sudden, mass escape attempt by the prisoners, surrounding the visitors in total chaos before they are able to escape the building.

Because of the show’s renown and popularity, tickets often sell out, so ESP’s website encourages visitors to buy them online in advance. Ticket prices range from $13 to $39, depending on the day of the week, and the show runs until Nov. 7.

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