PHILADELPHIA – The green-faced ghoul raised a hand to stop the conga line of jittery visitorsand raised his voice above a background of howls, screams and gloomy organ music.
“How many in your party?” he asked in a sepulchral tone.
“Eight,” volunteered a woman at the head of the line nervously. The ghoul leaned closer and gave her an eerie smile.
“Not for long,” he said.
Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary is Gothic enough in the daylight, the gloomy battlements and towers of its entrance and the peeling interiors of its solid stone original wings chilling even a sunny afternoon. Opened in 1829, the prison, with its hub-and-spoke design, was the original of hundreds of others around the world, and its philosophy was one of seeing imprisonment as providing an opportunity for monastic, solitary contemplation of wrongs done, putting the penitent in “penitentiary.”
Economics, and the competing idea that prisons were places of punishment rather than reflection, eventually put multiple prisoners in the same cell. The green spaces between spokes were gradually filled with extra wings, turning the original neat design into a messy octopus-like labyrinth before it finally closed in 1971.
Tours along the dilapidated corridors, into cells (one of which held Al Capone) and up along the crumbling catwalks of this now partly restored maze are taken at your own speed, using an audio guide narrated perfectly by Hollywood’s creep-role specialist, Steve Buscemi.
But for 29 nights around Halloween, even Buscemi’s creepiest creations might have second thoughts about venturing into areas as yet unrestored, as some of these are turned into one of America’s largest and most successful haunted houses.
The setting itself is the perfect backdrop for an evening of thrills, which include feeling like a soon-to-be-killed minor character in a low-budget zombie movie, crossed with playing some dungeon-based shoot-’em-up computer game, but for real — and unarmed.
Once inside, the journey seems endless, encountering tableaux such as medical experiments with screaming, half-dead patients. Zombies appear from nowhere, and having frightened you out of your skin, disappear just as quickly.
One section is navigated wearing 3-D glasses that convince you you’re wading through something viscous on which it’s best not to speculate further, another is accomplished timidly, through the pitch dark, with only the tiniest flashlight. There are collapsing walls, sudden blasts of air and an endless — yet endlessly inventive — succession of grisly scenes and sudden shocks.
Even outside the main gate, those lining up for entrance are harassed by ghoulish characters with shredded clothing and slashed faces. Taken entirely by surprise by a lunging hunchback one woman jumps and shrieks, “I’m not ready yet!”
Standing nearby, the show’s director, Jason Ohlsen, chuckles. “I love this job. I get to laugh every day, because believe it or not, scaring people is very fun to do.”
It’s profitable, too. Each year over 100,000 visitors pay to enter the darkened prison, producing about 65 per cent of the penitentiary’s annual fund-raising income, money which goes directly towards restoration of the ancient monument.
The evil ones are undying for a good cause.
For more information on the Eastern State Penitentiary visit its website at www.easternstate.org.
For travel information on Philadelphia visit the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation website at www.gophila.com.