Visitors to Inside the Magic have come to enjoy coverage of themed entertainment topics from Central Florida and California. But these two parts of the United States are not the only areas providing immersive experiences this Halloween season. So today we bring you 1,000 miles north of Orlando to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where one particular haunted attraction thrills guests in a way no other can.
Situated inside the reportedly haunted halls of Eastern State Penitentiary (called the world’s first true “penitentiary”), “Terror Behind the Walls” offers visitors a 5-haunted house, 45-minute experience featuring hundreds of actors and custom-built props, animatronics, sound effects, and lighting.
Here’s a quick video run through a few of the haunted scenes from Terror Behind the Walls:
Now in its 19th year, Terror Behind the Walls first began as a simple, one-night kid-friendly Halloween event. But in 1997 it was transformed by program director Sean Kelley into what has become a world-class haunted attraction. The event’s haunted houses feature a familiarly frightful tone as popular theme park haunts like Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights and Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream. But Terror Behind the Walls’ haunted houses are set apart from these events by existing on their own, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia and enhanced by the surroundings of Eastern State Penitentiary.
The penitentiary was abandoned in the ’70s, left to decay. With peeling paint, cracking concrete, unintentional skylights, and rusty cell doors, Eastern State Penitentiary is an environment that haunted attraction designers dream of – and even try to recreate inside warehouses across the country.
But the current designer behind Terror Behind the Walls utilizes this location to the fullest. While touring through part of the experience, creative director Jason Ohlsen (pictured right) pointed many spots where his creations meet authentic prison elements. A visitor walking a typical corridor in one of the haunted houses might find a cold tile wall on the right, a part of the real prison, with another nearly identical tile wall on the left, carefully recreated by Ohlsen and his team to match the authentic one opposite it. Piles of broken and discarded old furniture and medical supplies from when Eastern State Penitentiary was operational create more eerie ambiance for the haunted attraction.
The five haunted houses are sequential and act somewhat as a single story, taking guests through plenty of sinister scenes. It all begins before guests even step foot into the first haunted house. Entry into Terror Behind the Walls is by timed tickets, allowing a more personal experience throughout the attractions, rather than the “conga lines” that plague the nation’s most popular Halloween theme park events. Ohlsen admitted that while the continuous line strategy would likely result in more tickets sold, the team has decided to keep the experience as it has been since Sean Kelley first introduced the timed ticketing system in 1997.
While guests wait for their timed entry into the attraction, actors terrorize them outside from the moment they line up. During our Terror Behind the Walls tour, Ohlsen was eager to show off to me one of his latest costume creations, the “chain gang.” This gag guarantees to solicit screams as a group of three somber inmate actors appear relatively motionless, chained together at the hip, when suddenly the outermost two pull apart their chains (secretly linked magnetically) and run after unexpecting guests. The result, apparently, is hilarious.
Beyond the queue, Terror Behind the Walls begins with “Intake,” leading visitors past mutated prison guards and into the penitentiary. “Lock Down” places guests into the prison’s Cell Block 12 past deranged inmates, followed by a trip into “Infirmary” for a gruesome look at the prison’s medical care (or lack thereof).
Beyond that lies “The Experiment,” during which guests don 3-D glasses and are surrounded by what amounts to a sensory-overload of color.
Finally, “Night Watch” immerses guests into pitch blackness, guided only by tiny LED flashlights given out to lead the way through the end of the terror.
For those who survive the quintuple-onslaught of back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back mazes, plenty of photo opportunities and merchandising are available to help remember the night. And those who want to venture beyond the fictitiously haunted realm of Terror Behind the Walls and into the potentially haunted walls of Eastern State Penitentiary may want to try the new for 2010 After Dark VIP Tour, which combines the haunted attraction experience with a nighttime flashlight tour of the national landmark, including the underground isolation cells and Death Row.
Back in the “green room,” Ohlsen showed me around the event’s make-up and costuming areas. Despite the appearance of the crumbling walls and ceilings that make up much of Eastern State Penitentiary and give Terror Behind the Walls its unique atmosphere, nothing but a professional work environment lies behind the scenes. A talented team of make-up artists and tailors work relentlessly to ensure each actor is dressed for the part. New this year are custom Terror Behind the Walls patches adorning the jackets of psycho security guards (and for sale in the event’s gift shop).
The backstage walls are lined with cast photos and posters from the previous 19 years of Terror Behind the Walls, reminding everyone involved of how far they’ve come, emerging from a tiny, fundraising Halloween event in 1991 to become one of the United States’ leading haunted attractions today.
Anyone in the Philadelphia area looking for a good scare combined with a dose of United States history need not venture further than Easter State Penitentiary and Terror Behind the Walls. The event began on September 17 and runs on select nights through November 6, 2010, so don your most ghoulish costume (they’re welcome) and prepare for an authentically haunted good time.
Visit EasternState.org to find out more about dates and tickets for both Eastern State Penitentiary and Terror Behind the Walls.
More photos from Terror Behind the Walls and Eastern State Penitentiary: