For 27 years around Halloween, Eastern State Penitentiary has brewed up one of the most horrifying immersion experiences in the country. Though classified as a haunted house, the label is almost a disservice to the elaborate nature of this one-acre attraction that’s more interactive theater than your typical spooks-filled farmhouse.
Terror Behind the Walls, the name of the prison museum’s seasonal haunted operation, involves six segments that add up to about an hour’s worth of character interaction, bone-chilling scares, prison exploration and elaborate costuming and makeup. Visitors can opt to wear a glow necklace as they wander through the facility’s dark confines, signifying that actors are welcome to speak with or touch them. From there, episodes follow a loose script, always driven by storylines with actors encouraged to indulge in improv and audience interplay.
“What we started doing a few years ago is changing the vernacular of how we see fear,” says Amy Hollaman, creative director for Terror Behind the Walls. “We used to say, ‘What can we do to the visitor? What can we do to make them jump?’… Now we say, ‘What can the visitor do?’”
Taking that concept to heart, this year’s brand-new attraction, “Blood Yard,” posits what it might be like to prepare human flesh for the tasting. Guests walk through a prison yard into a lair where a butcher and an empress await, flanked by a horde of cannibals wearing muzzles. Those who choose to interact could be asked to salt and prepare prosthetic limbs alongside the impatient flesh-hungry characters.
“Zombie TV shows are awesome and very popular, but people are getting more familiar with zombies and they’re not necessarily as scary as 5 or 10 years ago,” Hollaman says. “These aren’t zombies, they’re cannibals—real people coming to eat real people.”
The other five attractions have been tweaked, too, and the Escape-the-Room–inspired minipuzzles introduced last year, part of the “Hex Challenge” package, are being redesigned to include a room that’s never been accessible before—during regular prison tours or as part of the haunted attraction.
With 300 staff members and more than 100 actors, Terror Behind the Walls thrives as a world-class haunted destination—visited by 125,000 people from more than 40 countries last year. All of this helps maintain the museum year-round: Ticket sales go toward upkeep and new exhibits.
“I like to say we’re a haunted house with heart,” says Hollaman.
Terror Behind the Walls 2017 takes place September 22 to November 11. Tickets range from $19–$89. For more information, go here.