At An Abandoned Philadelphia Prison, All Hell Breaks Loose

Oct 24, 2013
Originally published on June 16, 2014 7:19 am

It was a bright and sunny autumn afternoon in Philadelphia. But a menacing storm was brewing near downtown in the form of a monstrous, Gothic-style fortress with 30-foot stone walls, iron gates and foreboding towers.

Eastern State Penitentiary is not only one of the nation's creepiest historic landmarks, but it is also one of its top haunted attractions.

Opened in 1829, the Quaker-inspired prison was the world's first "penitentiary" — designed to rehabilitate rather than punish. Built to resemble a church, the prison's cells each contained a Bible and a skylight to represent the "eye of God." The prison was also the first to use solitary confinement, as reformists felt that isolation led to reflection and ultimately penitence.

But solitary drove many inmates insane. Tortuous punishments, mostly for communication infractions, were carried out by the prison's staff. And overcrowding set in as the penitentiary, which once held horse thieves and pickpockets, grew into a maximum security prison until its doors shut in 1971.

Walking through the prison's decaying corridors now is like walking through a spine-chilling time machine.

'Terror Behind The Walls'

Every fall, the prison capitalizes on its inherent spookiness with "Terror Behind The Walls," a sinister extravaganza that features six Hollywood-scale sets and 200 ghoulishly garbed actors. The attraction is hidden from the rest of the prison in the daytime. This is no easy task, as Eastern State runs the largest scarefest in America outside of a theme park.

This year's haunt stands apart because visitors can now choose how much terror they can take.

"It could mean a small tap on the shoulder, or it could mean that you could be grabbed and pulled into a secret passageway and potentially separated from your group," says Amy Hollaman, the show's creative director.

People who want to amp up the scares are offered what she calls a "high-tech tracking device." How are they tracked? "Well, this high-tech tracking device is actually what most people refer to as a 'glow necklace,' " she chortles.

The haunt generates most of the money used to maintain the defunct prison and operate day and nighttime tours throughout the year. "Last year, the amount of money we raised covered 63 percent of our operating costs for the entire year. But if there was ever a question of choosing between daytime tours or a No. 1-ranked haunted house, it would always be daytime tours. So the haunt is what I call a 'necessary evil,' " Hollaman says with a rather demonic giggle.

At the same time, Hollaman says, she and her team want to be very careful about how they interpret the building's history. In fact, many people on the haunt staff also work on the daytime historic side — all under the same nonprofit organization.

"There are real people who lived here," she says. "There have been a lot of intense experiences. A lot of hard times. We can never lose sight of that."

That is why the actors never wear uniforms that say "Eastern State Penitentiary." They never act out notorious punishments or portray an actual inmate — even famous ones such as Al Capone or bank robber Willie Sutton. The staff takes the prison's history so seriously that the organization hosts alumni reunions for inmates and guards.

Hyped-Up People And Half-Human Creatures

Hours before this night's haunt, scores of actors wait their turn at one of 14 makeup stations in what was once the prison library. At one, a clown is getting a bulbous nose that looks like raw ground beef. At another, a lunatic dentist gets a line of stitches that resembles a miniature mountain range. Photos of gruesome injuries and half-human creatures are tacked to the walls for inspiration. A dance mix blares as hundreds of hyped-up people pass through makeup and costume in two hours.

"We make everything in house," makeup director Lauren Palmer shouts over the music. "All summer we spend time casting and painting. We use all of the topnotch products that they use in film."

Just after opening, Christina DuPree, her family and her friend Taylor Vankooten nervously fidget with their high-tech tracking devices by the front gate. Coincidentally, both 17-year-old girls work at an amusement park haunt in Allentown, Pa. — Christina as a witch and Taylor as a face-painter. But even this hard-boiled experience has not prepared them for Eastern State.

It isn't long before Christina is having a "bad day."

She's been grabbed around her neck, ears and ankle. The lunatic dentist grabs her father and slams him on an exam table while waving a fake syringe. Meanwhile, her mother has simply disappeared. Her friend Taylor chooses to take a shortcut by crawling through a tube, leaving Christina to fend for herself. Suddenly, her mother comes shrieking out from behind a curtain, her father pops out of nowhere and Taylor bursts out of the tube at the exact time Christina passes it. (The timing of reconnecting groups is an art that the actors took a three-week course to perfect.)

The floors are littered with high-tech tracking devices discarded along the way. Later on, a zombie hands out 3-D glasses. Plants seem to come to life, creatures melt out of walls, axes fly, and people are forced to walk within inches of their tormentors. The set lighting changes from pitch black to pulsating strobes. The freaked-out hauntees are on high alert, but it's simply impossible to brace for every scare.

Time In Solitary

In an open area that looks like it could be the way out, groups of glow-necklaced visitors are suddenly swarmed by members of the Zombie Swat Team. Undaunted, Sue Sawyer of Severna Park, Md., asks the team to pose with her for a photo. Instead, Zombie Swat Team commander Kyle Yackoski blindfolds her.

"MAKE A HOLE! MAKE A HOLE!" Yackoski orders the crowd.

"HELP ME!" Sawyer screams, sounding like she really means it.

Four zombies pull back a gate, push Sawyer into a deserted part of the prison and shut out everyone else — including her family. Screams of "MOOOOOooooom" echo down the corridor. The zombies march her down a long, crumbling passageway and push her through a tiny door into a cell with a single chair.

"DO YOU KNOW WHY YOU ARE HERE?" snarls Yackoski.

"NOOooo!" Sawyer giggle-cries.

"OH, SHE KNOWS!" offers a helpful zombie.

"WELL, MAYBE A LITTLE TIME IN SOLITARY WILL REFRESH YOUR MEMORY!" Yackoski yells, and he and the zombies step outside and slam the door.

About a minute later, the zombies open the door and surround her. She looks a little like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.


They march her back to her family, which is not the infirmary, much to Sawyer's relief. While she tells her story, Yackoski silently sneaks up behind her at least two more times and waits until she turns around and screams.


"WE'RE EVERYWHERE," Yackoski barks like a drill sergeant.

What happened in that cell? If you think the secret will be revealed here, you've lost your mind and could probably use a little time in solitary yourself — with only the Zombie Swat Team to bring you bread and water.

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