Behind the walls of one of the continent’s oldest prisons, terror lurks
- Last Updated: 10:18 PM, October 29, 2012
- Posted: 11:26 AM, October 29, 2012
It was a postcard-perfect fall day in Philadelphia — the trees wore halos of bright yellow and crimson; families strolled along red-brick sidewalks soaking up the crisp, sunny weather; stoops sported cornucopias of pumpkins, gourds and mums. But I hadn’t traveled to Philly to appreciate its autumnal charms — I came to have the s**t scared out of me.
I was touring one of the country’s biggest — and most frightening — Halloween haunted houses, “Terror Behind the Walls,” inside a giant ruin of a prison that itself doesn’t lack for creepiness. In fact, the Eastern State Penitentiary, built in 1829 and abandoned in 1971, even struck fear in the hearts of professional paranormalists like Jason Hawes, of Syfy’s “Ghost Hunters.”
“Eastern is a really weird building,” says Hawes, recalling an episode they filmed there in 2004. “We weren’t there for the Halloween thing, but there’s so much paranormal activity there even in its normal state — shadows, thermal energy, things going in and out of cells. We saw a black mass moving, heads. There’s a very fair chance that something paranormal will happen when you’re there.”
Um, great, so, in addition to the fake ghosts and ghouls that populate the haunted house part of the tour, I’ll also need to contend with the real thing? (Hawes’ advice: “Be prepared. And do not turn and run.”)
Who knew what I would do if I encountered an actual phantom, but I certainly wasn’t going to go it alone. I enlisted two friends — horror fanatics with strong stomachs and a penchant for the gory “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises — to join me for the After Dark VIP Tour. Lasting about 2 hours, it starts with a historic tour of the prison, before moving on to the actual “haunted house” portion of the evening.
Now, if you think “guided historic tour” sounds dull, then you don’t know Eastern State. The prison is immense, covering 11 acres; its exterior resembles a gloomy gothic castle, all dark stone and turrets; and inside, there are 14 long, dark, chilly cellblocks with hundreds of tiny, nearly windowless cells grimly stacked atop each other.
After signing a waiver promising we won’t sue if we trip, fall or die of fright, our small group heads into the first pitch-black cellblock armed only with small flashlights. Our guide regales us with tales of the horrid prisoner conditions — solitary confinement 23 hours a day with just 1 hour of exercise (often in an empty cell next door), little sunlight, insufficient air circulation (causing the spread of diseases like TB), rudimentary plumbing that often overflowed, punishments that included iron gags and water torture.