On a cold, windy and rainy night this past weekend, Mike and I ventured to the home of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the oldest maximum security prison in the Country.
Called home for periods of time to both Al Capone and famous bank robber, Willie Sutton, Eastern State closed its doors in the early 1980's after its cells began overflowing with over 200% more criminals than it was built to house and when the prison walls began deteriorating with age.
Built in the 1800's, Eastern State Penitentiary was the leading model in prison reform. The minds behind this 'new' prison believed that the only way for these prisoners to achieve rehabilitation was to spend as much time as possible alone in solitude reflecting on their transgressions and thinking about spiritual growth. When the warden himself used an outhouse, every prisoner had running water and a flushing toilet within their cell. Between cell walls was 18" of solid rock. No one was given a reason to leave their cells. Each cell was even equipped with all the tools to learn and practice a specific trade. Let out for one half hour in the morning and evening, the prisoners were fitted with a muzzle type mask so that they could not speak to other inmates.
The prison is now a museum. All proceeds go to repairing the areas of the prison that are not permanently closed. Areas that have been permanently closed have the highest spiritual energy and where the most sightings have occurred. A friend to shows such as GhostStories, and Fear, amongst other specials, it is very easy to see why.
So for the month of October, the prison opens its doors for select nights for its largest annual fundraiser, Terror Behind the Walls. Rated sixth in the country for best Haunted Houses, I just had to check it out and Mike just had to keep me safe.
It was cold, wet, rainy, muddy and awesome and petrifying. Not meant for children, this massive group of well organized, frightening, freaky, dying to make you scream 18-25 year olds had it together.
Mike and I passed through the original prison gates into a spot lit muddy excercise yard. The massive stone around us was imprisoning to say the least. The 'spooks' comprised of inmates and guards. The guards yelled at you and shined blinding spotlights in your eyes and banged billy clubs. A particulary scary guard lined Mike and I up along a wall with one other couple and flicked a very loud switch and a spotlight shone down on us. He yelled the rules at us and then told us to, Go Serve Your Time.
Mike and I emerged 45 minutes later. My back was splitting as every scream came from my back and I remembered just how vivid my imagination is. I tried to keep telling myself they are all just actors but even when I was a small child, masks and makeup were what did me in. My Brother Joey had some sort of mask, Michael Myers or Jason or something. When he put that on, I would run for my life all the while screaming, crying, and ready to fight with all my strength. The reasoning behind this intense fear has remained the same. I can't see their faces so how do I know they didn't snap under there. Friday night I watched behind me and all sides of me and my eyes crossed so much I had a migraine and poor Mike was either pushed, pulled, grabbed, squeezed or told to , "Hurry up, something's behind me!" In fact, I actually pushed him into some bad people a few times. They took it out on me of course.
I was also singled out. Very badly singled out and Mike found that amusing. Near tears at one point I'm sure all those people were having a blast. Cornered at one point by a guard, I put my hands over my face and just kept repeating, "You can't touch me. You can't touch me." He backed off of me and pulled himelf around the next corner and yelled really loud in a menacing growl, "Hey Guuuuys, I got a screamer!"
We kept on a long trail that weaved inside and out of the prison. Every new section was themed and every so often we were round up and made to wait while a particulary scary actor told us a true story of things that went on right where we stood. The guards were really great. The psychiatric prisoners were out of their minds crawling through tunnels, hanging from rafters and lights. In one room, a sickly looking young woman shook and banged on her 'cage' bars and kept screaming for us to give her the keys. She finally cackled to Mike and shifted her voice to sound like that of a demented witch, "Give me the keys and I'll let you take me home" as she reached for Mike through the bars.
Overall, it was extremely well done. The timing was perfect since there are hundreds of people all over the place but how you're alone almost throughout the whole thing. You don't see anyone get scared and scream in front of you so there's no way to prepare for what's ahead.
I'm really happy we went. Mike and I looked through some windows and doors we weren't supposed to and just seeing the skeletons of cell blocks that once were was scarier than any actor. Looking through one window, we saw clear down to the end of a cell block and although we were in color, it looked as if someone put the image before us in gray scale or that it came out of the 1800's and was just swarming with tortured souls. We were drawn to it. It was an amazing sight.
We had a great time.