Update: due to Covid 2020 Terror Tours have been cancelled. But read on to make a plan to be scared witless in 2021!
If you like to be spooked, you’ll LOVE Halloween in Philadelphia and a visit to the eerie Eastern State Penitentiary “Terror Behind the Walls”, a six week event that raises enough money for the former prison’s upkeep for the next year.
Here’s my story of when I visited. And I’m the girl who couldn’t even watch the first Jurassic Park movie without wanting to slip out of my seat and sit on the cinema floor…
As I sit at the desk in my room at historic Penn’s View Hotel in Philadelphia, I’m quietly pooing my pants.
In two hours I will be lining up at the derelict Eastern State Penitentiary prison (which is now a museum) to go on a Halloween tour. Terror Behind The Walls, they call it. It’s so scary that everyone I have spoken to today has wished me luck.
I shall leave this post here, have a glass of wine and continue once I’m back. If I come back…
3 hours later…
I can’t believe I am still breathing! Here’s how the spookiest night of my life panned out:
The cab dropped us off out the front of a former prison so eerie it doesn’t need Halloween to make it spooky. But tonight’s flood lighting and horrific sounds echoing behind the walls had me nervously laughing.
Built in 1829 as a “penitentiary”, prisoners were meant to be in solitary confinement for their duration. Interestingly the prison had indoor toilets before the White House! Prisoners would be escorted outside for their exercise with a cover over their heads so they would never see another soul. Whether they became penitent I’m not sure, but it was a fully operating prison until the 1970s when it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
The sun was fading over All Hallows Eve as we walked to the ticket box in front of the ominous stone walls with ghouls glaring down from the two-story high gates. We were a little early, so take the advice from the portly security guard fending off wannabe spookees while the spookers inside get into their characters, and head across the road for a beer (to calm my nerves) and a bite at Jacks in the old fire station. (Highly recommend dinner at the bar here!)
Then it’s time.
Of course we are in America, so the first thing we do is have our bags inspected and sign a waiver that we won’t sue the organisers should we quite literally die of fright.
They told me that in the month this event has been running five people have left in ambulances. I force another strained giggle and take an extra copy of the waiver so I can tell you what I just signed.
Then we choose whether we will take the glow stick neck band. My husband encourages me to get it. Light it up and put it around your neck and it means we can be touched, maybe separated from each other, shoved through random doors, hauled onto operating tables with chainsaw sound effects and other props they have hiding in dark corners throughout the horror maze that has been set up in the labyrinth of this dark prison.
I figure I can take it off if I think I’m going to die.
There’s a tap out phrase too: “monster be good” which you can employ at any time. Two girls in front of us hold hands, sans glowing neck band and scream MONSTER BE GOOD constantly.
Zombie police officers silently herd us into the first room.
It’s dark, strobe lights are flashing, pistons hiss, metal gates clang in the distance, dry ice wafts in front of our faces and our eyes adjust as the 120 actors (who all have auditioned for the part, and hopefully also know CPR) jump out of corners, reach down from above to touch heads or grab an ankle as we shuffle past. Some make noises, others just stare.
I hunch my shoulders and clutch my husband’s arm so tightly with one hand that I can almost feel his pulse. The other hand holds the back of his jacket as I crouch low and pass through the darkness of the corridors behind him.
There’s screaming in the distance and yelps of fear from the paying guests shuffling along behind us.
The silent ghouls I can handle. I’m impressed by their makeup and while my head is turned, BOOM! a blood-curdling screamer leaps from the shadows and a noise comes from my throat that I’ve never heard before.
We finish the first of five buildings, breathe deeply as we come outside, and gasp with strained laughter with the rest in our group.
Somehow hubby and I are in the front and that means the monsters take us by surprise. The better position for nervous nellies is to be in second or third place so the folks in front of you have already set off the horror action. But to do that you must keep up. We keep lagging behind hence being in the front of the wave.
We catch up to the next group. A girl in front of me is snatched from the clutches of her partner and shoved through a trap door. She screams and I cower even lower. We don’t see her for some time.
Another man is hauled onto a dentist chair and tools are brought out as he wrestles himself free.
Air puffs into my head in the dark. Hands brush my ankles. Screaming echoes through the halls.
We squeeze between two long inflatable tubes in the near pitch dark, not sure of what awaits us at the end. My hands are so sweaty I can barely keep them attached to his puffer jacket.
Finally it is the end and out we stumble into the night where staff are waiting to sell us photos and ghouls are happy to pose for pics.
We pull ourselves together and head down a corridor of cells to have a look at what this prison museum holds on a normal day and buy cocktails at a bar set up in front of Al Capone’s cell.
The notorious gangster was incarcerated here in 1929 and was allowed to pimp his cell with carpets, a writing desk, lamps and photos on the walls. It’s recreated today just how he had it.
As our heart rates return to normal we chat to the barmen and find out this fright night is 25 years old and raises so much money, the prison can maintain its upkeep for another year.
Terror Behind The Walls is America’s largest haunted house. It’s open to scare the pants off you over Halloween for six weeks from the end of September until early November.
Another weird – and kind of freaky thing to do in Philadelphia is read my post about the time we took a tour through the Mutter Museum filled with medical science stuff on dead people!
For more spooky things to do on holiday, read my post on skulking through the above-ground cemeteries of New Orleans…