Eastern State Penitentiary debuts ‘eerie’ night tours in lieu of Terror Behind the Walls

“Night Tours” at Eastern State Penitentiary

“Night Tours” will run through mid-November at Eastern State Penitentiary. (Bob Watts/Eastern State Penitentiary)

Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary is set to kick off another frightening, if unconventional, Halloween season.

The historic site is debuting “Night Tours” — a self-guided experience fit for pandemic times.

The penitentiary reopened in mid-August following a five-month closure spurred by the COVID-19 outbreak. The tours will act as a replacement for the site’s annual haunted attraction fundraiser, Terror Behind the Walls, for 2020.

The popular Halloween tradition — once deemed America’s No. 1 haunted house — was suspended due to pandemic-related social distancing requirements. This year would have marked the penitentiary’s 30th season of the fundraiser.

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Eastern State officials said that, while it was difficult to cancel, the organization is excited to showcase the building in a new light.

“At night, the cellblocks fall into darkness and the penitentiary takes on a different energy,” Sean Kelley, senior vice president of ESP, said in a press release. “Listening to the real voices of men and women who lived and worked here, watching silent movies from the prison projected onto the massive walls of the prison yard, is an eerie and evocative experience.”

Night tours will run select evenings from Friday, Sept. 18, through Sunday, Nov. 15.

While visitors explore the penitentiary complex on a self-guided audio tour — surrounded by gothic architecture bathed in dramatic light — searchlights will sweep from the central guard tower over the abandoned cellblocks and yards.

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Inside the penitentiary, two large-scale video projections will feature a silent film shot at the historic site in 1929 and a series of short films created by incarcerated artists for the 2019 project Hidden Lives Illuminated.

COVID-19 safety measures remain in effect at the penitentiary. Staff and visitors ages 2 and up must wear face masks, and visitors must stay 6 feet apart at all times.

Those interested in visiting the penitentiary must purchase timed tickets online in advance.

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