It's taken a while to find time to blog coherently about the Terror Behind the Walls (henceforth referred to as TBtW) Halloween event at Eastern State Penitentiary. October into November is always such a busy time, so hopefully I can conjure up enough memory of that night to give a clear impression of it...
The crowd is so huge that it's best to park at the satellite lot and take the Ghost Bus. It's a short trip, during which one of the event ghouls lays out the ground rules (#1- The ghouls are not allowed to touch you, and you are not allowed to touch them!) and, if time permits, tells one of the many spooky tales about the Pen. Leo and I bought tickets for one of the earlier entries, around 8:00-8:30pm, and got there just in time to hand over our waivers and stroll in.
Click on any photo to see the entire series...
The first step inside those massive walls can give you shivers. The place has a palpable presence merely from the combination of the architecture and its state of decay. Knowing little of its history detracts nothing from the atmosphere, but does make you want to learn more of its secrets. Add to that the spookiness of Halloween and the uncertainty of what to expect from TBtW, and you've got yourself one nifty little case of excited jitters. My buddy Leo was certain that she'd be totally freaked over the whole thing. Partially because of that, and partially because I was just so fascinated by the place, I was determined to not be spooked by the actors, oops, I mean ghouls. From the moment we entered Intake, my attention was split between trying to see as much as I could of the prison itself through the dark and the fog machines, and whipping out snappy comebacks to the threats of the ghouls who repeatedly got in our faces. Leo and I ended up at the tail-end of our group, behind a girl who screamed at everything. The ghouls had a ball with her and mostly left us alone as a result. I still felt, though, that it was happening too quickly, that I wasn't able to see or, more importantly, feel enough of the building. It's a very disorienting experience, but that's really part of the fun.
My interior photos unfortunately don't capture any of the freaky chaos of the actual TBtW event. Those same elements that contributed to the atmosphere were too much for a little point'n'shoot camera, so I snapped a few shots of the prison museum and some closed-off cell blocks that we passed. The shots do give some impression of the creepiness of the place, but nowhere near as much as standing in the dark in front of a 5' tall metal door, peering through into a shadowy pile of fallen plaster and upended, broken furniture, wondering what you might see and hoping that you'll see nothing.
Beyond the fun and the admittedly morbid fascination, the most overriding feeling I came away with was an intense desire to go back for one of the daytime tours, in particular the audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi. The small, three room museum that we passed through on our way out hinted at an absolutely fascinating history.
Eastern State was the first prison in the world to house inmates in solitary confinement. No communal dining area or recreation area, just each to his own little white-washed cell with its tiny metal door, and each with a King James Bible. The Pen was a place of silence, intending to inspire the criminals it housed to a state of penitence, hence the term "penitentiary". Visiting in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville proclaimed, "Can there be a combination more powerful than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude... through religion to hope?". A mere ten years later, Charles Dickens expressed a very different view: "I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers." It's the conflict between those opposing opinions that creates the poignancy that emanates from those decrepit walls.