If you’re among those who love horror and terror-induced thrills, Halloween ranks high among the most anticipated times of the year. As the holiday draws near, it’s time to put those nerves to the test.
Fortunately, Philly is home to the historic Eastern State Penitentiary, where Terror Behind the Walls — one of the nation’s largest and top-ranked haunted attractions — is held each year.
The 11-acre defunct prison transforms into a massive scream house, divided by six attractions: the Lock Down, the Machine Shop, the Infirmary, the Quarantine 4D, the Break Out! and, new this year, the Blood Yard. Each attraction holds signature twists and turns, and all contain a mob of fearsome, costumed characters whose sole job is to torment you. Altogether, more than 200 performers set out to leave you with the adrenaline rush delight of a good scare.
Before you go, we’ve highlighted several tips on how to get the most out of the experience, and a few features that should get you excited to scream.
- Show up early. Unless you upgrade your ticket to one of the pricier VIP options, you’re likely to find yourself waiting in a somewhat frighteningly long entrance line. However, don’t let this dampen your spirits. The startling fun begins far before you enter the penitentiary. Numerous costumed characters wander the sidewalks, ready to pounce from behind when you’re least expecting it.
- Choose to wear a glow-stick necklace. At the start of the experience, you’ll be given two options: glow stick or no glow stick. Choosing the first signals that you’re ready for as much fright as you can get and allows the actors to touch you throughout the experience. At this point, you’ll also decide whether you want a dab of “blood” smeared across your face. Go headfirst into the experience and wear the blood with pride.
- Don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re at a rave. The glow stick hanging around your neck, the rapidly flashing strobe lights, incredibly loud music, and squads of giggling twentysomethings all create an experience akin to a late-night outing at the club. The special effects are destined to make you dizzy, which is all part of the high-startle fun.
- You will be touched — a lot — and clowns might (gently) pull your hair. If you’re wearing a glow stick, the monsters make it their mission to grab you at every chance they get. Whether it’s a zombie gripping your ankle from behind a curtain as you walk by, a bloody butcher trying to escort you to his lair, or a clown laughing at your face as he rubs your head or tugs on your hair, jolt-inducing hand contact is encouraged here. But don’t worry, the characters aren’t out to hurt you — they just want to see you practice your high jump.
- Brace yourself for weapons flying at your face and chain saws brushing against your legs. Around seemingly every turn inside the prison, a creep caked in face paint is waiting with an ax. Or a knife. Or a sword. Or some sort of threatening stick, most of which are fortunately encased with soft materials (castable flex foams or carve-able mini cell foams). While you’re not bound to get smacked in the face with one of these weapons, you are mandated to sign a waiver before entering Terror Behind the Walls. It reads, “I voluntarily assume all risk of loss, damage, or injury (including death) that may result from (A) the Property and related personal property; and (B) my attendance and participation in the Event …” Scared yet?
- Leave the sensitive side of yourself at home and get ready to be teased. The characters at Terror Behind the Walls love to engage in a bit of jested taunting, whether that means mocking your high-pitched shriek or making jabs at your purportedly bed-bug-infested beard. Feel free to dish it back, as they seem to enjoy a good conversation and are always more than ready with a quick-witted comeback.
- Be prepared to get separated from your group and face the Terror Behind the Walls monsters alone. At different points throughout the experience (especially if your face reads fright), the characters will pull you into side-rooms and tunnel areas that propel you to split off from your friends. You’ll then be forced to wander around and face your fears alone. (Note: At the end of each attraction, there’s a waiting area where you’ll be able to reconvene with your group before heading into the next fright zone.)
- Dress comfortably and wear sneakers. Even if you don’t end up full-out running from fear, you’re likely to be doing a lot of scare-induced jumping throughout the 45-minute experience. Plus, some sections incorporate obstacles that you’ll be tasked to dodge. An outdoor waiting area separates each of the six attractions from one another, so bundle up if the night calls for cold temps.
- Claustrophobic? Beyond clowns and zombies and infected mutants, this is another one of those phobia categories you’ll have to face. Picture trudging your way through a path that sandwiches you between two head-to-toe structures that resemble inflatable bounce houses. A mass of white plastic material attempts to engross your entire body from both sides and eliminates your line of vision. If tight spaces make you anxious, take a deep breath and be thankful that the claustrophobia path isn’t much more than a five second walk from start to finish.
- To calm your nerves after the whole escapade is complete, alcoholic beverages await at The Speakeasy at Al Capone’s cell. Just outside the infamous inmate’s prison chamber, a bar serves up drinks to adult thrill-seekers looking to shake off any remaining jitters. A $10 ticket is required to access The Speakeasy and gets you a complimentary cocktail or beer from Yards Brewing Co. Several of the penitentiary’s historic cells, including Capone’s, are open for you to explore and also host activities like tarot card reading and blackjack.
Does your child have the ultimate Halloween costume this year? We want to see it! We’re looking to collect photos of the spookiest and cutest costumes from the community that we’ll share in a photo gallery on Philly.com. To contribute a photo, just email it to us at email@example.com and tell us where you’re from and what neighborhood you went trick or treating in this year. Happy Halloween.
Terror Behind the Walls
Eastern State Penitentiary
2027 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia
Select dates through Nov. 11; General admission ranges from $25-45.