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Featured Haunted House: Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary

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Photo Courtesy of Eastern State PenitentiaryThere aren’t too many better backdrops for a haunted house than a former prison. And that may be what makes Terror Behind the Walls so thrilling. For the past few weeks Eastern State Penitentiary, which used to house such criminals as Al Capone, has been transformed into a spooky and starling setting. Set within the 30 foot concrete walls of the 11-acre former prison, Terror Behind the Walls opens up its gates at night to let visitors in for a tour of the haunted exhibit.

Approaching the main gate, deranged prison guards stroll through the street with the look of death in their eyes and bloody scars on their faces. They usher hesitant participants through the entrance. But there’s no proceeding without first signing a waiver. It’s required by the city because the penitentiary is a National Historic Landmark and is considered a ruin. The tour is broken down into five separate areas: Intake, Lock Down, Infirmary (a new exhibit for this year), the Experiment, and Night Watch.

Walking carefully through the winding lines in the recreation yard, actors dressed as raging prisoners wander in and out, jumping up behind people as they wait anxiously to get inside. Intake sets the scene of what’s to come with an up-close warning from the guards to watch your step, to not touch the prisoners and to not take any “souvenirs” of the aging prison with you. Oh, and no cursing because little kids do come through too, so try limit your started outbursts screams only.

The lines wind past chain link fences with eerie music playing in the background and TV screens set up to show some of the former haunts of the prison. Pretty much around every corner, open gate or abandoned hallway, expect someone to pop out and startle you. Once in the LockDown area, the tour takes you through CellBlock 12 — a three-story wing built in the early 1900s. Prisoners in their striped jumpsuits are locked behind bars -- (well not all of them, some are on the loose) -- and they rattle the cages, and whisper spooky words as you walk past them.

The scene is filled with fog and strobe lights, making it hard to see who may jump out next as you walk up the stairs to the second floor to a long hallway with zombie-like prisoners standing eerily still. Then it’s on to the Infirmary. It’s not a hospital you’re going to want to be treated in. Crazed-looking nurses, doctors and coroners try to take on new patients, as they operate on other ones that already appear dead. If walking through the trippy, light-spinning tunnel isn’t enough of a head rush, the next exhibit takes you through “The Experiment.” 3-D glasses are required. The maze of narrow hallways is aglow with neon paint on skeletons and other creepy figures that seem to move away from the background. Watch out -- not all of it is an illusion.

Photo Courtesy of Eastern State PenitentiarySoon, it’s time to turn in the glasses and pick up a mini-flashlight to navigate your way out of the prison. If it seems like someone’s breathing down your neck in the dark, it could just be a fan or a gust of air - or it could be exactly what you think it is. The tour itself can take about 45 minutes to get through, depending on the lines and how fast you zip through it once inside. Be prepared for the night. Dress warm or bring rain gear if the weather calls for a wet night. Parts of the tour are outside and the show goes on regardless. Besides, a little rain to smear the Hollywood-style make up or create puddles throughout the prison just adds to the drama.

If you really want to be scared, it may be best to go in smaller groups, or maybe just a partner who doesn’t mind you squeezing his arm. If you go with a larger group, you may want to spread out during the tour. With no one in front or behind you, you’re more likely to be frightened by the people who jump out. With the larger groups, a little bit of the fun is taken out of it by seeing the people in front of you get startled or hearing those behind you scream.

If you really want to make a night of it, get there early. The first session starts at 7 p.m. and more visitors are let in every half hour. There are plenty of restaurants to check out in the Art Museum area before you go inside. The price of entering Terror Behind the Walls may seem a little steep compared to other Halloween haunts (its between $20 and $30 depending on when you go). But there’s a lot of effort put into it by the cast of 150 actors who do their best to be believable.

And it’s for a good cause. The revenue made from Terror Behind the Walls goes to prison’s preservation. The event runs now until Nov. 7 and will be open Tuesday through Sunday next week, and Tuesday through Friday the week right before Halloween. Ticket prices range from $20 on weeknights, $25 on Fridays and Sundays and $30 on Saturday.

The site is located at 22 Street and Fairmount. For more information call (888) 763-NITE, or visit the Web site at www.easternstate.org.