Sunday, October 31, 2010

Terror Behind the Walls at the Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary boasts one of the creepiest haunted attractions in all of America.

One of my favorite holidays is Halloween.

Just like my love of the Renaissance Faire is rooted in its subversive elements (booze, boobs and historical revisionism) I love Halloween because it's a celebration of the antithesis of good, Christian American values (booze, boobs and horror.) And, for one night a year, the entire nation revels in it.

An element of Halloween that never gets old is the all-American 'haunted house.' These range from spooky corn mazes to people's homes that get dolled up for All Hallow's Eve. The greatest haunted house in all of America, however, isn't even a house at all - it's a haunted prison located right in the heart of Philadelphia.

The Eastern State Penitentiary - closed in 1971, but still one of the city's most dramatic landmarks - opens its gates every October for a horrific grand guignol known as Terror Behind the Walls.

Last night, the Militant Ginger crew saddled up and headed to the former capital to experience the "Best Haunted Attraction" in America.

Back in 1827, when the massive prison was built, it was in the remote hills of Philadelphia's suburbs. Today it's in a hip and bustling portion of the city, just blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The first challenge is to find parking - which they provide two miles away at Philadelphia, and provide 'Ghost Buses' with tour guides to shuttle you to the prison gates.

Then, you join a line that would rival those of Disneyland. You have to buy tickets in advance for certain showings (we picked the 9pm) but don't foolishly imagine that that's the time you'll actually get through the doorway!

Once you've stepped through the gates of the hulking stone building, however, you'll realize the ticket fee was worth it. Even crowded alongside hundreds of other Halloween enthusiasts, it's impossible not to admit that the towering walls, looming guard towers and narrow windows convey a creepiness you don't often find in increasingly-identical strip-mall America.

While Terror Behind the Walls is described as the "Best Professional Haunted House" by, it actually comprises five individual semi-permanent 'haunted houses' within the prison's walls.

The first, Intake, is based on the experience of being processed as a new inmate at the prison. Sweeping spotlights, barking dogs and brutal guards recreate the dehumanizing experience - with one of the highlights being a 'delousing' with a surprise blast from an air hose.

Lock Down recreates a prisoner breakout, leading through Cellblock 12 while escaped prisoners run amok around you. They're the least of your worries, though - the true terror comes from the brutal guards, desperately trying to restore order to the madhouse.

The Infirmary is the third section, and relies on more traditional horror staples for its chills. Taken on a tour of the prison infirmary, you'll discover some grisly medical horrors along the way.

Undoubtedly the boldest attraction was The Experiment. This is Terror Behind the Walls' signature vignette and once America's first 3D haunted house. You don a pair of 3D glasses and journey through a truly trippy maze of floating horrors and challenging perspectives. It really is breathtaking - one of the highlights of the event.

Finally, you make your way to the exit through Night Watch, which adds an interactive element by requiring your 'team leader' to light the way with a tiny LED torch.

Taking about 45 minutes from door to door, Terror Behind the Walls is fun, fast-paced and beautifully thought out. There are a lot of surprises along the way - mostly supplied by the enthusiastic costumed cast members - and a genuinely creepy vibe.

The downside is that the attraction is packed and it's difficult to truly revel in the ghoulish atmosphere when you're bustling shoulder-to-shoulder through the cell blocks.

No doubt they'll be running Terror Behind the Walls again next year. My recommendation? Go to one of the earlier weekend showings (Mummy Militant and crew tried the weekend before, but didn't know you had to buy tickets in advance.) Halloween Night is guaranteed to be packed.

Secondly, don't do what we did - and try to get clever about the parking. Parking at Philadelphia Zoo and a ride on the Ghost Bus costs $15. We tried to cheap out and get a parking spot near the Eastern State Penitentiary itself. This resulted in us trawling through the sidestreets off Girard Avenue for 45 minutes and being late for our allotted tour time.

To rub salt in our wounds, after all that time looking for parking, we ended up in the Philadelphia Zoo parking lot anyway!

Forewarned and forearmed, you're in for a ghoulish treat at Terror Behind the Walls. If you have an opportunity to go - don't miss out!

The Militant Ginger crew tackled Terror Behind the Walls in style!

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