Where fear has a lock, day and night

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

There's something about an empty prison that's just downright scary.

When I walked through the iron gates of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia one afternoon last week, I regretted not bringing a friend. With its stone walls and guard towers, this former prison looks like a castle. But inside, it's clearly not fit for royalty. Long hallways are lined with cells, each one with peeling paint, a rusted bed frame and a toilet. The temperature outside was above 70 degrees, but inside it was 10 to 15 degrees cooler. I shivered, and not just from the cold.

I'd come to Philly to see what AOL City Guide last year called the No. 1 haunted house in America. Each year, from mid-September to early November, this historic landmark in the city's Fairmount neighborhood becomes the site of "Terror Behind the Walls," an elaborate nighttime theatrical production involving strobe lights, digital sound effects and 150 actors dressed as prison guards and prisoners.

But I was curious about the prison itself, so I'd added a daytime tour to my itinerary. What I found out? By day, expect to learn something. By night, expect brain candy. "The Halloween event is played entirely for the enjoyment factor," said Sean Kelley, the penitentiary's program director.

It hadn't always been that way. Kelley told me that the original idea of the night tour was to entertain visitors while telling them the story of the prison. But at Halloween, people didn't seem to care about the place's history. They just wanted a good scare.

I wanted more. So I paid my $12 admission fee and got an audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi.

Built in 1829, Eastern State was one of America's first penitentiaries. The goal of the Pennsylvania system was unique: to reform the prisoners and move them toward real penitence, rather than simply punish them. The inmates served their time in solitary confinement, allowed outdoors into a private yard for only 30 minutes each day. Whenever they were outside their cells, they wore hoods to prevent distraction, in the hope that they would reflect on their crimes and repent. After visiting Eastern State, Charles Dickens condemned the solitary confinement as "cruel and wrong."

In 1913, the state abandoned the practice, partly because there wasn't enough space to give each prisoner his or her own cell. Intended for 256 inmates, the prison held 1,700 by the 1920s. Notable residents included Al Capone.

The prison was closed in 1971 and opened for tours in 1994. The city, which owns the property, has stabilized the building but won't do full restorations so as to keep it authentic.

Hence the peeling paint, the leaks and the musty smell. I wondered why tourists would visit a prison in the City of Brotherly Love, even one that Kelley proudly described as "the Alcatraz of the East Coast." When I think of Philadelphia, I think of the Art Museum, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

But apparently people like prisons. Last year, the penitentiary drew 209,380 visitors.

Renee Herb had been in Philly for just over 24 hours, and when I ran into her she was on her second visit to Eastern State. She and her husband, Slade, had gone to "Terror Behind the Walls" the night before and had returned for the daytime tour.

"This was the first on my list, besides eating a cheese steak," Renee said.

I asked the couple, in town from San Antonio for a wedding, what the haunted house was like. Renee advised me not to go alone.

I laughed at that, but as I continued my tour, I started to reconsider, especially when I got to Cellblock 14. "Is Eastern State Penitentiary Haunted?" a sign asked. I stood in the cellblock alone, watching water leak from the ceiling. The audio suddenly stopped. I pressed a button to restart it. No luck. That's when I called my friend Sean, who lives in a nearby suburb and had served with the Marines in Iraq.

"Any interest in going to a haunted prison tonight?" I asked.

"Are you kidding me? I've been wanting to go to that for years," he exclaimed.

We arrived around 7 p.m. An actor dressed as a zombie walked on stilts through the crowd. As we signed our waivers -- yes, you have to sign a waiver to get in -- an actor in camouflage jumped out at us from a bush.

Let me just say that I don't like surprises. Scary movies really scare me. Ever since I watched "The Exorcist" as a child, I have not dealt very well with fear. But there was a silliness to "Terror Behind the Walls" that made the experience bearable. There were lots of adults but many more teenagers looking for fun. There were lots of people in general, which is why we waited nearly 30 minutes to get in.

Once inside, we spent most of our time in the dark. We walked in line through chain-link fences, under guard towers, through the same hallways I had navigated in the daylight. Amid fog and loud bangs, actors with fake blood smeared on their faces popped out at us every few minutes. "Do you want to play a game?" one actor dressed as an inmate asked me.

"No," I replied.

A few actors came up behind me and sniffed me.

"What are we walking into?" Sean asked.

I was wondering the same thing.

After a few minutes, we made it to the infirmary, a new part of the program this year. Actors dressed as doctors performed fake procedures in the empty operating rooms and the morgue.

It was all fun and games, really, until we got to the walk-through sterilization chamber, where the visual effects made it seem as though the room was spinning around us. I got so dizzy that I had to stop. "Just keep moving," Sean advised.

In another room, we donned 3-D glasses, which made skeletons and other ghoulish figures pop out of the walls. Near the end, we entered the "Night Watch" portion of the tour, where we were left to feel our way out of the back hallways of the penitentiary in the dark. The actors handed us small flashlights to make sure we didn't fall and become haunted house roadkill. It was hot and I was sweating. The strobe lights were disorienting me. Then, thankfully, we were out.

"You survived!" an actor shouted at us.

Yes we had, and I was ready for a nice meal and a cocktail -- if my stomach could handle it.

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