Philadelphia penitentiary scares more than 100,000 visitors a year

Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary is Gothic enough in daylight, but around Halloween, it is one of America’s largest haunted houses.

PHILADELPHIA'S DECAYING EASTERN State Penitentiary is creepy enough in daylight. Imagine walking down this corridor at Halloween

PHILADELPHIA'S DECAYING EASTERN State Penitentiary is creepy enough in daylight. Imagine walking down this corridor at Halloween

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.

Access

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.

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Wind turbines are seen on a dike near Urk, Netherlands, Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. A group of scientists, including five Nobel laureates, called Friday for more action to adapt the world to the effects of climate change, drawing comparisons with the faltering response to the coronavirus crisis, ahead of a major online conference on climate adaptation starting Monday and hosted by the Netherlands. (AP Photo / Peter Dejong)
Comox Valley groups host course on actively implementing solutions to climate change

The Sustainable Action group for the Environment (SAGE) and the Comox Valley… Continue reading

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: Vancouver Island in a January spike while B.C. cases decrease

Island’s top doc Dr. Stanwick breaks down the Island’s rising numbers

Comox town hall. Black Press file photo
Comox set to apply for two infrastructure grants

Sanitary sewer, sidewalk extension in the town’s plans

The number of reported assaults in Courtenay jumped from 302 in 2019 to 364 in 2020. File photo
Assaults up in Courtenay, according to police statistics

The number of assaults increased significantly in Courtenay from 2019 to 2020,… Continue reading

Sawyer, a northern saw-whet owl that became synonymous with Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society, passed away peacefully over the weekend. Sawyer would make numerous public appearances with MARS staff in and around the Comox Valley and Campbell River. Photo supplied.
Popular MARS ambassador owl dies

Submitted MARS Wildlife Rescue has lost one of its mightiest ambassadors. Tiny… Continue reading

Dr. Penny Ballem, a former deputy health minister, discusses her role in leading B.C.’s COVID-19 vaccination program, at the B.C. legislature, Jan. 22, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. holds steady with 407 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday

14 deaths, no new outbreaks in the health care system

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Shown is Quality Foods at 319 Island Highway in Parksville. The Island-based grocery chain announced on Jan. 25 it made a $2-per-hour pay premium, implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, permanent. (Mandy Moraes photo)
COVID-19: Quality Foods makes $2-per-hour employee pay premium permanent

Island-based grocery chain had extended increase twice in 2020

A Cessna 170 airplane similar to the one pictured above is reported to be missing off the waters between Victoria and Washington State. Twitter photo/USCG
Canadian, American rescue crews searching for missing aircraft in waters near Victoria

The search is centered around the waters northeast of Port Angeles

Keygan Power with brother Quintin and mom Allison while camping the weekend before Keygan’s brain hemorrhage on Aug. 2, 2020. (Photo Allison Power)
B.C. teen ‘locked inside,’ battling to regain speech after severe brain bleed

16-year-old suffers traumatic loss of function, still plays a mean game of chess

The North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP have arrested a prolific offender who is now facing more than 40 charges. (Black Press file photo)
‘Priority offender’ arrested in Cowichan Valley faces more than 40 charges

Tyler Elrix, 37, had a history of evading police; was ordered not to be in Vancouver Island

Jonathon Muzychka and Dean Reber are wanted on Canada-wide warrants. (Courtesy of Victoria Police Department)
Convicted killer, robber at large after failing to return to facility: Victoria police

Dean Reber, 60, and Jonathon Muzychka, 43, may be together

B.C. Premier John Horgan listens during a postelection news conference in Vancouver on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
30% of B.C. recovery benefit applications held up in manual review

The province says 150 staff have been reassigned to help with manually reviewing applications

Adam Dergazarian, bottom center, pays his respect for Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, in front of a mural painted by artist Louie Sloe Palsino, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Kobe Bryant’s presence remains strong a year after his death

Tuesday marks the grim anniversary of the crash that took their lives

Most Read