From Terror Behind the Walls to Halloween Nights: ESP reimagines annual event

Gargoyle Gardens at Eastern State Penitentiary

Gargoyle Gardens is part of Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary. This year’s event features all ten acres of the historic prison and fifteen attractions and opens on September 24, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

After a pandemic pause last year, Eastern State Penitentiary is bringing back its haunted attraction for Halloween. Instead of the aggressively frightening Terror Behind the Walls, which after more than two decades has proven to be a popular hit, the festive seasonal event has been transformed into Halloween Nights, a hybrid of scares and more relaxed experiences.

Halloween Nights, starting Friday, will feature 15 different experiences, ranging from the freaky “gotcha” horror thrills fans have come to expect from ESP, as well as beer gardens, historic tours, performance art, and immersive walk-through environments that are more creepy than scary. It opens Friday, Sept. 24, and runs until Nov. 13.

Unlike Terror Behind the Walls, which immediately thrust all visitors into disturbing theatrical environments inside the historic stone prison, Halloween Nights gives visitors the option to choose what to experience.

“We’ve created a 10-acre immersive Halloween festival,” said Brett Bertolino, ESP’s Vice President and Director of Operations. “We really want to take you from the outside world and transport you into our Halloween world.”

Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Even if visitors choose the kinder and gentler experiences set up throughout the entire prison grounds, Halloween Nights does not skimp on the creepy. All visitors enter the prison through a nighttime swamp: with creative use of laser light, fog machines, and sound, the room creates a remarkably effective sensation of wading chest-deep through still water.

Visitors emerge into a black-light, dayglo funhouse, with a twisting path encountering oversized spiders, severed clown heads, and a wobbly floor. That experience leads directly into Take Thirteen, a series of rooms that appear to be a century-old Hollywood studio trapped in time.

Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary features fifteen attractions, including Delirium, a funhouse in a parallel neon universe. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It’s a walk through a 1920s film set where you will see characters still going through the motions, filming all these commercials and TV shows,” said Bertolino “You’ll ultimately realize that all those characters that you’re seeing are ghosts.”

After those experiences, visitors emerge into one of ESP’s cell blocks, set up as a bar. Visitors have the option to go into whatever direction they wish: one hallway leads to scary experiences, another to more immersive environments, another leads outside to wander the prison grounds and discover more attractions around nearly every corner, including an area for roasting s’mores while listening to ghost stories.

For many years, Terror Behind the Walls has been Eastern State Penitentiary’s meal ticket. Revenue from the haunted attraction paid for a majority of its year-round operating budget. Re-imaging it as an autumnal festival rather than a scare-fest was not easy, said senior vice president Sean Kelley, and it took a pandemic shutdown to give the staff time to figure out how to pull it off.

Sean Kelley, Director of Public Programming and the Senior Vice President at Eastern State Penitentiary, announces the new Halloween Nights festival, which will have many more historic and fun attractions than Terror Behind the Walls. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We had such a large audience, and it’s a much more regional audience that comes for Terror Behind the Walls,” he said. “We’ve been toying with the idea for a long time: how do we bring some of the mission-related content to that audience?”

When it’s not Halloween season, Eastern State Penitentiary is a prison museum telling the story of the groundbreaking role ESP played in the history of American incarceration. In recent years, it has shifted its mission toward advocacy related to criminal justice reform, and the problems with the prison industrial complex.

Every year in September and October, that mission was put on pause to make way for those critical haunted house ticket sales. For this Halloween reboot, Kelley imagined a spooky-scary attraction that could also be part of the museum’s mission.

He was buoyed by the fact that Terror audiences wished they could see more of Eastern State Penitentiary.

“We heard it all the time. It was probably the number one comment from visitors,” said Kelley. “’That was awesome. I wish I could have seen more of the building. I wish there was a history tour that you could take.’ The way that Terror Behind the Walls, as a traditional haunted house, was structured, it just didn’t work. It took rethinking the entire business model.”

Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary features fifteen attractions, including “The Voices of Eastern State”, an historic audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As Halloween Nights, visitors can wander the prison’s corridors, or take a guided tour. ESP is launching a newly updated audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi (who narrated the original audio tour 20 years ago) that includes more recent information about criminal justice reform and the impact of ESP’s architecture on other prisons around the world.

Some of the food and beverage vendors in the festival reflect the values of ESP: the Fair Chance beer garden will be run by partner companies committed to hiring previously incarcerated people.

Regulars to Terror Behind the Walls will still get what they came for. The gory Machine Shop will be back, and one of the lounges, The Bloodline (for an additional $15 over ticket price) comes forewarned as a vampire-filled cocktail bar designed to scare you — not just creep you out, but legitimately frighten you.

Take 13, an interactive walkthrough experience with an endless loop of haunted filming. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

There will be some familiar faces. Two gigantic gargoyles that are normally perched at the entrance to Terror Behind the Walls, Frank and Carson, will appear inside the prison at the entrance to Gargoyle Garden, a previously inaccessible area of ESP that used to be the prison basketball court.

The custom-fabricated gargoyles have been there for 16 years. They were delivered in 2005 to ESP by truck, by two guys named Frank and Carson. The names stuck.

“The fun thing about running a Halloween festival is you never know what’s going to resonate with visitors,” said Bertolino. “Sometimes you can hit the nail on the head, and sometimes it surprises you. But those gargoyles, we’ve gotten our money’s worth. Visitors love Frank and Carson.”

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