Questions of ethics haunt Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary will host a discussion about the ethics of operating the historic prison in Philadelphia. By far the most popular event at the penitentiary is its annual Halloween haunt, “Terror Behind The Walls.” But there are some concerns about using historic sites as scary sites.

The penitentiary isn’t the only place that exploits its past to make a few bucks. Last year a controversy erupted over the use of the old Pennhurst mental asylum as a place haunted by ghouls in straitjackets.

But Eastern State Penitentiary is a nonprofit prison museum; as such, it’s ethically bound to protect the site’s legacy. The prison survived the recent recession in large part because the Halloween event’s ticket sales generate most of its annual operating budget. On the other hand, every October, it presents a warped view of itself.

“There’s a big difference to me between a haunted mill or a haunted cemetery, and a haunted state hospital or prison, because state hospitals and prisons were government run,” said Ann Parsons, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois who is studying the history of involuntary confinement. “In a democracy, we are tied to those histories. How has our state government created these places standing empty that are some of the most frightening places in America?”

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Parsons says Eastern State Penitentiary is the perfect place to talk about this because the prison stages one of the most popular haunted attractions in America—a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.



Have you, or has someone you know, ever attended the Eastern State Penitentiary’s annual “Terror Behind the Walls”? Is the former prison a suitably scary site, or is it in poor taste? Tell is in the comments below.

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