Expect to experience
- A high-level production
- Hundreds of actors
- Highly-historic surroundings
- People screaming in your face
- Actors grabbing/pushing you (optional)
- Authentic pee (if you are faint of heart)
Some 10 years ago, a receptionist in my dentist’s office swore that Terror Behind the Walls at the Eastern State Penitentiary was the scariest Halloween event she ever experienced. With eyes as big as the moon, she begged me not to put myself through the same trauma as she did, one fateful October night. In fact, she was so overwhelmed by fear at the Penn, she conceded that she literally peed her pants in the first couple of minutes and had to forego the rest of the tour. She added that her accompanying friends refused to end their tour early and help their poor, wet-pantsed partner find an early exit. Instead they signaled one of the “Terror” workers to do the job of escorting her out. Things went from bad to worse as she had to wait alone outside the prison walls, with a sideshow of bloody, costumed lunatics also prowling the exterior. Why do I mention all this? TBTW has a BIG reputation for scaring the crap out of people and that girl’s story is more or less a microcosm of its legendary frightfulness.
Fast forward to 2010…..my first Eastern State experience. The night was already off to a horrifying start…..the hellish parking situation in that area is a nightmare scenario in its own right. After much navigation of narrow, one-way streets, I found parking about 5 blocks away. In the crisp, autumn evening we made our way up Fairmount Street towards the large hulking wall surrounding vast acres of land, deep within Philly. It made me wonder what this area looked like at the time of the prison’s construction. 2 blocks away…..something interesting happened. As you would expect, several people were gathered on the sidewalk near the entrance. What I did not expect was to see blood-soaked TBTW employees roaming around the outer walls in full costume, scaring anyone who crossed their path. Even random neighborhood people walking down the sidewalk got free scares! To me, giving people a show before they even pay is a great concept….I had never seen this before. I grinned as I imagined what the other side of the wall had in the way of scares or at least attempted scares. Anticipating what the actual event will be like is half the fun. The line at the entrance was pretty lengthy, and as I waited and watched busloads of people being dumped off from who knows where…..that’s when the experience became a little less fun for me. How can you expect to be scared by anything when you have a giant mob of people around you?
To this day, after two times through, I still cant make up my mind about this place. The problem is that I don’t leave here feeling like I experienced anything scary. TBTW is basically an endurance test of how much screaming, yelling, flashing lights and 100 decibel noise you can handle. If you are in the mood for a little psycho groping…..they will give you a colored bracelet (or some kind of accessory) which gives the go ahead for the actors to grab you or shove you! Thing is though, at no point is there ever any build up to create any genuine scares. You would at least expect some kind of an underlying creepiness considering the building’s history and the creeps that were chained up within. I really find that it just has the feel of an obnoxious (albeit expensive) country fair/carnival type of experience crammed inside a few chained-off corridors of an empty prison. With that said, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from going. I will give it this……it probably tries harder and invests more than most other area exhibits to over-stimulate the crap out of you. Its on the pricey side, but for the amount of props and employees they have running the show, you do get a lot for your money. Just to get inside this Fairmount-area monstrosity is worth a few bucks. There are people who genuinely fear this place and really get freaked out by the end of the tour. I would go back again myself for a refresher, but after seeing it twice already, it would have to be with a free ticket.