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, http://www.easternstate.org/ .
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.
Info: 610-375-7273, http://www.shocktoberfest.com/ .
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Blood Manor, New York City
More than 37 gallons of "blood" flows nightly at this 20-zone haunted house in an appropriately bleak part of Chelsea. What's that horrid smell? Embalming fluid.
Details: 542 W. 27th St.; through Tuesday. 7:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Thursday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday; 7:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday; $23 advance purchase, $25 at the door.
Info: 212-290-2825, http://www.bloodmanor.com/ .
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Scare World, Claymont, Del.
Consistently voted among the top haunted houses in the country, Scare World is actually seven different attractions, requiring about two hours to do them all. There are catacombs and a bloody butcher shop, but no attraction compares to the "Toxic 3D Freakshow" for one reason: scary clowns.
Details: 33 Naamans Rd.; Thursday through Tuesday starting at 7 p.m.; $17.99 to tour one haunted house, $24.99 for five, $29.99 for all seven.
Info: 610-358-0631, http://www.scareworld.com/ .
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GoatMan Hollow, Riverdale, Md.
Did a rogue scientist working for the Agriculture Department really create a goat-human hybrid that has terrorized Prince George's County for decades? Urban legend, perhaps, but the scientist's lab is created with Hollywood-style special effects in this theatrical attraction.
Details: 4705 Queensbury Rd.; Thursday through Tuesday starting at 7 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, $15; Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, $20.
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Markoff's Haunted Forest, Dickerson, Md.
Camp Calleva is used by schools and corporations for team-building activities. On Halloween, it has a haunted forest with a typical set of chainsaw-wielding characters. Scarier, though, are the added attractions; among them is a zip line that soars through the dimly lighted nighttime air at the camp's ropes course.
Details: 19120 Martinsburg Rd.; dusk to 9 p.m. weeknights and until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, through Tuesday; $20; additional charges for other activities.
Info: 301-216-1248, http://www.calleva.org/ .
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Hunt Club Halloween Festival and Haunted Hayride, Virginia Beach
The 17th annual event at a farm on London Bridge Road, 10 minutes from the beach, includes a haunted hayride, a scary cornfield and the Village of the Dead, which has swamps, a graveyard and . . . dentists.
Details: 2388 London Bridge Rd.; through Tuesday, 7 to 11 p.m.; $15 to do all three attractions once, $20 for unlimited tours in a single night.
Info: 757-427-9520, http://www.huntclubfarm.com/ .
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The 13th Inning at Ripken Stadium, Aberdeen, Md.
Strobe lights flash in your face and mirrors send you off in the wrong direction as you make your way through a maze of tall chain-link fences set up at Cal Ripken Jr.'s minor league stadium adjacent to Interstate 95. Nowhere else in Halloweendom will you be chased by a hatefully jealous umpire, angered because he wasn't chosen to work in the majors.
Details: 873 Long Dr.; Thursday through Tuesday, 7 to 11 p.m.; $13.
Info: 410-297-9292, http://www.ripkenstadium.com/ .