Scared Out of Your . . . Town

Things get batty at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Md., over Halloween.
Things get batty at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Md., over Halloween. (Aberdeen Ironbirds)
By Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Suspending reality at Halloween comes easily when you're walking through a decrepit, 177-year-old prison at night and your flashlight suddenly dies. Was it intentional, a planned part of the frightening experience of exploring Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in October? Or just really, really bad timing?

Didn't matter. Walking through the crumbling, dark halls of the prison, tension built inside me as I waited for some humpbacked, deformed creature to stick his bloodied, oozing face in mine and scare whatever bejesus there was left in me.

Sure, the ooze was actually latex and the creatures local university students. But the prison walls and the darkness were all too real -- something hard to forget as you take the "Terror Behind the Walls" haunted house tour at the penitentiary in the city's Fairmount neighborhood.

Visiting haunted houses and frightful forests at Halloween requires some amount of reality-shelving. That's a hefty task when a guy in a Wal-Mart mask jumps out at you in a suburban corn maze. The production values make some shockfests scarier than most; at others, the venue itself is naturally horrifying. Eastern State has both going for it, even without 130 costumed actors, mazes and dummies made to look like corpses.

The Gothic, castlelike prison opened in 1829 as a cutting-edge correctional facility where prisoners were kept in solitary confinement. The theory at the time was that the solitude would make them feel repentant; just as often it drove them mad. The penitentiary closed in 1971. It's a National Historic Landmark.

The Halloween event started 16 years ago and evolves every year. The newest attraction has visitors navigate a dim, mazelike section in small groups, armed only with keychain flashlights. That's one of five different areas to explore after going through an intake process and boarding a prison bus. Other features include a re-created prison kitchen, complete with dead bodies hanging on meat hooks, and a morgue. Fright fans, this one kills.

"Terror Behind the Walls" at Eastern State Penitentiary (22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia) runs through Tuesday. Tickets are $20 to $30, depending on the night. Not recommended for children under 12 (or under 7 on Sunday and Halloween, which are Family Nights). Info: 888-763-6483, .

Looking for other places to freak out before Halloween? Here are some haunted offerings known to be among the scariest in the region. Most say they are not appropriate for children under 12 or 14 years old, and some accept only cash at the door.

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Shocktoberfest, Reading, Pa.

The site of Shocktoberfest also was once a prison, and a psychiatric hospital. It's now an industrial park, boasting a haunted hayride with a biohazard theme.

Details: On Route 422 west of Reading; through Tuesday starting at 7 p.m.; $10 to $30, depending on the attractions visited.

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