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Terror Behind the Walls - Eastern State Haunted Penitentiary 

Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the most well known haunts in all of the world. The Penitentiary itself is a National Historical Landmark and is in its own right one of the most visited tourists attractions in all of Philadelphia if not the entire region.  Open as a museum year-round, Eastern State turns into a deluxe haunted attraction during the scary season, and is visited by tens of thousands of people every fall looking for good wholesome (and terrifying) family fun.  But how do you convert such a valuable treasure into a haunted house that is trampled on by visitors who are there for the horror not the antiquities? How is this done without compromising the integrity of these hallowed halls and still make it every bit the event that their competition is every season?

“When I go to haunted house conventions that’s the number one question other haunters always ask me,” chuckles Brett Bertolino, Director of Operations at Eastern State (everyone who works for the museum also works for the haunted house). “It’s actually not nearly as difficult as some people might think,” he goes on “As employees of the museum, and people who respect the building and believe in the mission, we are more strict on ourselves than the city of Philadelphia”.  And that’s who they need to get permission from if they want to change or modify anything – the landmarks division of the city itself. But he also adds, “they usually say ‘yes’ to every one of our requests.  Not because they don’t care about the building, but because we do.  Our requests are very minor, and don’t harm the building.  Our internal policy is ‘don’t attach anything to anything’. We use the prison.” And with the kind of production value already present, the kind of sets that people would pay millions to create in a fake way, they just have to figure out how to use the space logistically.

Eastern State was a maximum-security prison when it was still functioning, so it is not conducive to long paths for walking and easy access from one space to another.  It was designed for isolation and small confined spaces.  There wasn’t any sense of openness. This kind of layout doesn’t always work for flow and put-through on a night where 7500 haunt enthusiasts are trying to get through.  “We don’t attach anything to the structure, but we will build plenty of sets that we can attach to.  Our team believes in seamless integration. 95% of the people who walk through would not be able to tell you where the prison structure ends and our set pieces begin.”  The printing shop is the most wide-open space they can play with.  This is where they can actually “build a haunted house”.  Audiences will see very little of the actual landmark, but they don’t realize it. It is a replica of the actual infirmary that no one sees when he or she goes on tours through the museum. Here they can build with aplomb, while also doing something unique when it comes to the museum – showing us the infirmary without it being the actual infirmary.

Eastern State has always been known as a family haunt, scary, but okay for the whole family.  But as Brett tells me, “We have always been high-startle, low gore.  But this is changing.  With the rise in violent video games, and what you can see on television now, not to mention movies, everyone now wants a more intense experience.”  He goes on to tell me that “the barrier between the patrons and actor is being broken. We are going to give the audience a more theatrical experience, make the environments more immersive.  They are not changing it from a family experience, but bringing it up to speed as to what families really want. “Last year we did what we called a ‘remix’ on the last night.  We promoted that we were going to do things we hadn’t done all season.  A darker, bloodier terror like you hadn’t felt.  This was to attract repeat customers, and maybe to foster a new one.  It was an overwhelming success.  So this year, it is going to be the remix the entire time.”  This remix included touching and isolating audience members. This is on par with a few other haunts around the country. Like a few others as well, they are giving the audience a choice as to whether they want to be touched our chosen for things outside the normal tour.  The actors will know this because the people who do want this experience will wear glow bracelets.  If you don’t have one, you’re safe.  But, “it won’t be touching, isolating and bloody all the time.  We will pick and choose our spots.  Don’t want it to grow old.  If you want this kind of experience, you can have it, if you don’t, then you can experience it like you always have,” stresses Brett.  Everyone wins.  And they don’t have to attach something to the walls to do so.