Eastern State to turn Terror Behind the Walls into a kinder Halloween festival

A fortune teller in The Speakeasy at Al Capone’s cell at Eastern State Penitentiary for its upcoming Halloween Nights festival. (Courtesy of ESP)

A fortune teller in The Speakeasy at Al Capone’s cell at Eastern State Penitentiary for its upcoming Halloween Nights festival. (Courtesy of ESP)

The Eastern State Penitentiary spent its pandemic shutdown re-thinking how it scares the bejesus out of you.

For 30 years, the prison museum in Philadelphia has used Halloween for its major annual fundraising event, which has taken many forms. Since 1997 that event has mainly been “Terror Behind the Walls,” with highly theatrical scenes of horror that have made the haunted attraction recognized as one of the best in the country.

Terror did not happen last year due to the pandemic. This year, it will become part of a new festival within the prison walls, Halloween Nights, running September 24 – November 13.

“Eastern State and other companies and organizations have taken this time to take a step back and to think about what you do, what you can do better, and think about different ideas,” said director of operations Brett Bertolino. “Some of that thinking encouraged us to look at the building in a different way.”

Halloween Nights will use all of ESP’s 10 acres, both inside and outside the historic stone cell blocks, to present 15 different experiences, including zombie dance performances, ghoulish lounges, beer gardens, light projections, and immersive environments, which, however creepy, are not designed to scare anybody.

A ghoulish bartender at Eastern State Penitentiary for its upcoming Halloween Nights festival. (ESP)

Terror will not go away: Instead of six distinct walk-through horror environments, there will be just two, plus a new third concept to frighten — a bar called the Bloodline Lounge. Visitors can choose whether or not to experience them.

Most of the elements of the new Halloween Nights festival had been introduced before as ancillary to Terror: the choreographed zombie dance performance, for example, has been a favorite but visitors had to first move through the prison’s long, linear cell blocks filled with killer clowns and sinister doctors. It was only possible to experience the other attractions after enduring the fright fest.

The new layout of Halloween Nights allows visitors to bypass the scares entirely by simply walking in a different direction.

“Of course, some people like to get scared and that will be an element of this event,” said Bertolino. “But not as many people want to be scared as you think, all the time. They want to really have more fun with their friends, see their friends get scared, and do these cool experiences.”

Terror Behind the Walls has been Eastern State’s meal ticket for more than two decades, generating a bulk of the museum’s annual operating budget. It was a blow to the institution when it could not frighten people last year, due to the pandemic.

In lieu of the haunted attraction, last year the prison began offering smaller-scale night tours of the property, which proved popular but nowhere near the scale of Terror. During the pandemic ESP leveraged one of its greatest assets – space – to offer socially-distanced attractions like a beer garden and artist’s installations.

Bertolini said Halloween Nights is a compendium of their best ideas, rolled into one festival.

Eastern State Penitentiary at night. (ESP)

“We did not want to walk away from all these really great ideas we had over the past year. It just didn’t make sense to us and say, ‘We’ve done all this work, we’ve done all this thinking, we’re so excited and energized, so let’s go back and do the exact same thing we did two years ago,’” said Bertolino. “It just didn’t make sense.”

For 30 years, ESP has been hosting Halloween fundraisers to support efforts to stabilize the crumbling, 192-year-old prison, then slowly opening news spaces as they become safe for visitors. The Halloween Nights festival will open up parts of the prison grounds that had never before been available to the public, like the prison basketball court, between cell blocks five and six, which will be temporarily transformed into Gargoyle Gardens.

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