It's that time of year again, when the disgusting, frightening and plain old spooky demons of the night come out of the woodwork to scare the bejesus out of us normal, well-adjusted citizens. Unfortunately for the typical over-inflated teenage machismo, most people shrink at the mere thought of ghosts, witches and other paranormal activity. Fortunately for the Eastern State Penitentiary, most Halloween enthusiasts are unrepentant masochists with a flair for the outrageous. More specifically, the annual haunt-fest "Terror Behind the Walls" is back with vengeance.
The success of "Terror Behind the Walls" lies in its ability to combine the most potent, visceral human fears into one immersive experience. Eastern State Penitentiary itself sits like a crumbling gothic castle, and the 30-foot sheer rock walls dominate every other structure around it. If that weren't scary enough, a bevy of female sentries in knee-high fishnets, bullwhips and metal rivets piercing their faces guard the entrance. After signing a waiver and trying to ignore the emergency medical personnel, visitors enter Intake, the first of five different haunted houses. While the entrance to the prison was pretty damn frightening, Intake is really where Eastern State rears its ugly head. Guards with mock shotguns line up the new victims and shout them into the blackness of the prison, Shawshank Redemption-style.
From the very first moment, the halls of the jail are pitch-black and claustrophobic, and the winding pathways skirt the jail cells of shrieking inmates. At times, the haunted house is subtle, with a noise in the darkness, a suspicious prison cell, or a movement out of the corner of your eye. The inevitable paranoia turns into a crescendo of fear that culminates in some twisted abomination coming after you. Every nook and cranny holds the potential for a heart attack, and the inmates do a good job of keeping you permanently on edge and scared witless.
On a side note, Terror Behind the Walls touts itself as "high startle, low gore," so ESP does absolutely everything to make sure you're screaming like an eight year old, but isn't gut-wrenchingly gross. Behind the make-up and the screams, the actors are almost always hiding a smirk of sadistic glee after you violate the "no profanity" rule while screaming for your life. It's all in good fun, even though you feel like crying and curling into a ball at the time.
Despite the inevitable paranoia for the week to come, Terror Behind the Walls is worth the trip and the price. Admission covers all five of the different haunted houses at the ESP, and you can flash your Penn ID for an extra $5 off on certain nights. And don't forget the fried oreos at the end, because after making it through all five sections of "Terror Behind the Walls," you're going to need some high- calorie loving.