I pulled my sweater tight around my body, shaking from a breeze equal parts cold and invigorating. Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” blasted through the speakers as clusters of middle school boys laughed with measured amounts of glee, daring each other to walk through the hallowed halls of Philadelphia’s most famous prison without so much as a gasp.
For a famously terrifying haunted house, local institution Terror Behind the Walls is anything but scary — behind the scenes, it's imbued with camaraderie and passion.
Set in the Eastern State Penitentiary, a 200–year–old prison with a history steeped in malpractice, Terror Behind the Walls uses this atmosphere to craft a narrative filled with gore, fantasy, and a heavy dose of zombies. The haunted house doesn’t “address Eastern State’s history at all,” and hasn’t for nearly a decade, swapping prison scenes for a plot reminiscent of World War Z. In the 2019 iteration, the storyline has changed.
“We wanted to start the story sooner,” says Peter Corbett, the theatrical manager at Terror Behind the Walls. “So what we focused on with our dialogue, our characters, and our scripting was, ‘Where are we? How did this all start?’”
Visitors walk through six attractions, battling against an infection that has decimated society and turning neighbors and lovers into flesh–hungry victims rife with boils, pus, and oozing organs. Positioning the prison as a safe haven for treatment that’s gone haywire, Terror Behind Walls transforms the hour–long haunted house into an interactive struggle for escape, offering customers the ability to “opt in” and mingle with the actors.
This October, I took part in the dystopian fantasy, playing an Infirmary Nurse with a penchant for stealing teeth, and what I found surprised me. Beneath the horror at Terror Behind the Walls is an ecosystem pulsating with passion, efficiency and—dare I say it—love.
The first thing I learned is that 300 actors participate in the show every night, supported by a hair and make–up team that have turned the art of horror into a science. Planning begins in March, when higher–ups determine the design for the year, adding actors and attractions while paring down fluff. Morgan McCoy, the costume and props manager at Terror Behind the Walls, settles on the costumes sometime in late spring, and then it’s a mad dash to hire actors that fit the vision. Here, the plot steers the ship, placing every actor into a specific role.
While Terror Behind the Walls makes its money off packaged chaos, the internal structure looks more bureaucratic. Each team—makeup, costuming and props, and acting—has a manager, and underneath them lives a dizzying array of attraction supervisors and assistant supervisors and substitutes and Titans, or actors who are able to “swing any role in the show.”
In comparison, I felt like a glitch in the simulation, ruining their well–timed rhythm with my clumsy feet and anything–but–scary demeanor. But when Morgan handed me an antiquated nurse’s costume splattered with blood and a utility belt filled with vials of mysterious brown liquid, something changed.
I felt confident and assured, like my life’s purpose was to scare until I couldn’t anymore. Maybe it was the old adage, “clothes make the man,” working its power, but something tells me my newfound confidence had less to do with the outfit and more to do with the scene unfolding around me.
Morgan herself doesn't seem designed for horror. Her lips are a bright red and she speaks with the fervor of a high school theater kid, all bright eyes and enthusiastic hand gestures. A legal administrative assistant during the off–season, Morgan uses Terror Behind the Walls to nurture her creative spirit in a world typically filled with suits and office desks. She’s like a spark plug, and as one of the first staffers that actors encounter each day, her bright energy powers the show.
“I feel like I need to create to be my best self,” she says as she swaps my belt for a tighter one, fidgeting with my waist like a seamstress. “When I’m here I feel good about myself, and I feel proud of everything I see my actors doing because I honestly care about every actor here.”
That camaraderie coats every inch of Terror Behind The Walls. Actors exchange smiles behind painted, gnarled smirks, grooving to a playlist that oscillates between indie rock and disco hits between shows. Everyone says “Hi” and “Good job!” to each other. It’s moments like these—the ones lurking beneath the scares—that make Terror Behind the Walls special.
"They call me the Mother of Monsters," says Director of Costumes and Special Effects Lauren Palmer. “I pretty much make all the monsters that you see.”
Neat, uniform rows of special effects makeup line the mirror in front of us. There’s a gradient of dark reds for blood, a smattering of grays and browns for scars, and a collection of adhesives. As she lays the first piece of latex on my right cheek—the base for a collection of ghastly boils set above my lip—I slip into a second skin.
Over the next half hour, I unlearn how to be pretty, setting my face in unsettling smiles and calculated smirks, mesmerized by how I look. The whole process is liberating, and for the first time my shoulders relax into a slouch.
Lauren has worked on the haunted house for 13 seasons. “When I started, we were doing makeup in the cell blocks with very little light and only a couple of premium products,” she says, setting my edges with rubbing alcohol. Now, the backstage area looks like a movie set, full of director’s chairs and wide mirrors. A mural bearing the haunted house’s name lines the back wall. I realize that Terror Behind the Walls is more than an attraction for middle schoolers and couples trying to spice up date night. It’s the pride of the city, a vestige of brotherly love.
And yet, existing in this world creates a give–and–take, especially for the make–up department. Lauren works 12 to 18 hour shifts as soon as the season changes, coordinating everything from scheduling to clean up. She puts approximately 200 actors in makeup over a span of three hours each night, but her day begins long before that.
Each morning, she molds every prosthetic used in the show—from the boils on my face to the detached arm weaponized by Surgeon Zero. The goal isn’t to achieve perfection, but rather to elicit a feeling, a fleeting moment of heightened adrenaline.
“It’s a haunted house, so we ride with the flaws and we problem–solve through them,” Lauren says. At this point, my eyes are pink–eye red, coated in no less than three shades of thick eye shadow. I shudder. “But even then, I embrace all the challenges as problem–solving and not so much challenges. I am constantly learning from the person next to me, and everyone always has something new to bring.”
“Designing for the show is so amazing, but it’s also time–consuming. From August to October, I’m kind of absent in my personal life for two months, completely immersed here,” Lauren admits as she tints my lips maroon.
Despite the weight of that statement, her face still lights up. “But the camaraderie here—it’s something you can’t find in other jobs. Everyone comes to this job with a passion, just wanting to be here, and I don’t think you find that in a lot of other places.”
Maybe the key to immersing yourself in terror is finding people who make you not want to leave.
“It all starts with your character. You need to come up with the embodiment of what you want to convey,” says Peter. We’re tucked down in an alley, lit only by moonlight, with characters perfecting their roles squeezing past us.
Peter has taken on the persona of a modern–day Doctor Frankenstein, punctuating each line in his scare lesson with a demonic laugh and a wave to all the monsters he manages. I just nod and try to keep up.
Frightening people, contrary to popular belief, involves more than just a well–timed jump scare. It’s a three–step process, beginning with a mentality adjustment.
“It’s all about the way you hold your body. You need a powerful stance that will make it known that you’re built to terrorize. You gotta convey that this is my play [people] are coming into,” Peter says, adopting a creep that’s slow and deliberate. Despite my best efforts, I can’t move like that without laughing, and end up doing some weird reaching with my hands. Peter nods with encouragement. Scaring takes mental fortitude and focus. I'm not sure if I'm cut out for it.
The second step takes eye contact. Scaring can be slow, punctuated with intense glares. It adds to the world–building, I’m told, and while I want to chuckle at the absurdity of piercing through strangers’ souls, it makes sense. The most unsettling moments in life are the ones that cause discomfort.
“You need to have a backstory and a reason for doing what you’re doing and you convey all of that when you come up with it through your eyes,” Peter says, without breaking eye–contact.
Then comes the scare. The goal, Peter emphasizes, is the “scare and reset.” He struts down the alley with shocking silence, only to lunge out with a scream that, while most certainly rehearsed, has the spontaneity of fireworks. “You gotta hit them with something powerful and then back off because you want them to feel like everything is fine. But it’s not fine, and it’s just not going to be.”
Now it’s my turn. I channel every horror movie I’ve internalized, mimicking the intense realism of The Strangers and the fanciful torture of the first two Saw movies. After a slow eight seconds, I scare and reset with militant precision and Peter beams. Pride bubbles within me and I fidget on the balls of feet. I’ve spent most of my life trying to be the least intimidating or scary, canceling out every instance of RBF with a megawatt smile. For the first time, I could lean into the parts of my personality that are primal and powerful, and it was addictive.
Still, what gets Peter to set every morning isn’t subversive power dynamics. It’s the ability to create a spectrum of emotions.
“My favorite thing is when people scream because they’re scared and then they laugh because they’ve realized how much fun it is to be that scared,” he says as we walk down hidden paths to get to the infirmary, anticipation building with each breeze. “I want that to be the thing that sticks—the good memories and the good screams that made them chuckle and fall to the floor.”
This is the last thing I remember before I’m plunged into the show, starting in the middle.
I'm standing next to an ancient dentist's chair, eyes darting back and forth between the nurse I’m working with and the steady line of patrons oscillating between fear and big–bellied laughter. It’s hard to keep track of who to target—do I aim for the 6’4” man in the sweater vest, unfazed as he clutches his wife’s hand, or the teenage girl, screaming at the mere sight of me?
Easy screams are the most fun, but the harder ones are more gratifying, and the choice between them paralyzes me. I mostly stand there, ad–libbing some creepy dialogue about pulling teeth while my colleague makes the hard decisions.
Still, the moments when I get it right—when I scare and reset in quickening intervals and the scream descends into giggles—invigorate me, and I can suddenly see why everyone returns year after year. It’s fun playing someone’s nightmare, especially once they realize it’s nothing to be afraid of.
Once I find my rhythm, positioning myself near the turn of a corner for an unexpected, if easy, scream, slipping into character feels like second nature. Soon it becomes routine and I relax, switching up my technique. Sometimes, it’s a quick jump scare. Other times, it’s a slow smile, revealing my teeth, dyed red to mimic bleeding gums.
Ultimately, Terror Behind the Walls is a haunted house. But it’s also much more than that—it's a community for creative souls, the lifeblood of its prison host, someone’s 9–to–5, and the product of intricate planning.
What we, the passersby, see reflects little of the ecosystem that exists behind the scenes. Beneath every zombie is a production manager and a make–up artist and a clean–up crew, working to deliver you a moment of terrifying spontaneity. Nothing is unrehearsed—and that's what keeps people coming back.