Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind The Walls is a beloved crowd—pleaser and Philadelphia classic. However, with Eastern State's introduction of Halloween Nights, a festival—like event with 15 attractions, America’s most renowned haunted house is rebranding.
Much to public dismay, Halloween Nights, geared towards a broader audience, has far fewer haunted elements than Terror Behind The Walls. However, that isn’t to say that the festival doesn’t work to engross you in its Halloween attractions; it just does so in a far kinder way than the former—perhaps to its detriment.
When I visited the event last Friday, clever projection mapping first lured me into Delirium, a psychedelic funhouse. With the flamboyant clown–like costumes, it may not have been the notoriously aggressive haunt that Terror Behind The Walls left in its wake, but its neon, three–dimensional ambiance was transformative.
Despite the current health guidelines, Delirium managed to immerse me into a vibrant yet creepy display of mind–boggling effects with colorful creatures. Marketed as a 3D haunted house, it’s more spellbinding than truly scary, but it’s just the beginning of what Eastern State claims to have up its sleeve.
“We're looking at Halloween Nights as more of a choose–your–own–adventure style experience, as it's kind of the next evolution of our Halloween fundraiser. Meaning that over the last three years, we've made lots of changes. It wasn't always Terror Behind The Walls. It wasn't always haunted houses,” says Brett Bertolino, Eastern State Penitentiary Vice President and Director of Operations. “And we kind of feel like we wanted to shake things up, grow the event, and make it appeal to a larger audience as opposed to just people that wanted to get scared.”
Halloween Nights embraces the elective experience that Bertolino describes with its expansive 15 attractions in comparison to Terror Behind The Walls’s six, which didn’t allow you to surpass the manufactured gore and horror. Halloween Nights, unlike its counterpart, is an event that capitalizes off of space, utilizing the entirety of the ten acre property.
I don't like being scared. It would be dishonest to claim that I didn’t enjoy kicking back with my friends and watching a live dance performance by the Skeleton Crew in Gargoyle Gardens, or stopping by S’mores and Lore to roast s’mores and share ghost stories. I loved walking through the enchanting Kaleidoscope Hall, a gorgeous, picturesque light show in one of the prison’s many cell blocks thanks to some incredible projections, and if I was of age, the allure of a delectable candy–themed cocktail and treat at Tricks and Treats would have been impossible to resist. However, the event was far from the haunt that it’s highly publicized to be: Kaleidoscope Hall in particular was stunning rather than spooky.
Still, for guests that want the more traditional Terror Behind The Walls experience, Eastern State didn’t cut back on the scary with The Machine Shop and The Crypt, which felt like relics of Terror Behind the Walls. Both attractions immersed me into a gory, creepy walkthrough with petrifying characters and the traditional jump scares, complemented by special effects such as strobe lights and fog machines.
For a more unique experience, Bloodline Lounge (which requires a VIP ticket) serves blood—themed treats and cocktails and also serves to frighten guests, according to Bertolino. “It's kind of a dark space, it's spooky, it's lit all in red lighting,” Bertolino says. “When you go into Bloodline, you know, and … after you get your treat, you can hang out in that space and get photos of vampires, etc. It's designed to be a fun, spooky environment.” In fact, excluding the VIP Bloodline Lounge, the events’ only detriment is that they’re painstakingly short; they last about ten minutes each, a disappointing figure given Eastern State’s notoriety for horror.
However, altering the event has allowed Eastern State to make one glaringly positive change. The lounges, specifically Fair Chance Beer Garden, expose their audience to criminal justice reform with mission–based programming that was notably lacking in previous years due to the nature of Terror Behind The Walls. This new layout allowed me to partake in the “The Voices of Eastern State” Audio Tour and The Big Graph & Prisons Today, which are educational museum exhibits that allow you to explore modern criminal justice issues. The Fair Chance Beer Garden’s activity hub sheds light on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform.
Additionally, for its festival, Eastern State employs vendors such as Triple Bottom Brewing, a fair chance brewery, and The Monkey and the Elephant, the only nonprofit bakery employing former foster youth in Philadelphia, highlighting a mission regarding criminal justice reform that has often been masked by the eeriness and notoriety of its original fundraiser.
Yet, this isn’t to say that Halloween Nights, which prides itself on being family–friendly, won’t underwhelm die–hard Terror Behind The Walls fans. This is not the highly publicized haunted house known to trigger blood–curdling screams from the masses with its hypnotic, gaudy light shows (no matter how impressive they may be); however, its evolutionary spirit is worthy of admiration.
“Our team is always ambitious. Our team is always on the cutting edge … We've always tried to push the envelope, we've always tried to do new things. We've always changed the show,” says Bertolino. It’s also worth noting that Eastern State Penitentiary's annual Halloween celebration has undergone countless changes within the past thirty years. Halloween Nights, though imperfect, hold elements that carry boundless potential, and we shouldn’t let ourselves be blinded by nostalgia.
“We don't look at these changes as a step back. We look at this change as a step forward and setting us up for growth and success for the next 30 years,” Bertolino says, and it’s hard to argue that he’s wrong.
An “evolution of Terror Behind The Walls” is an accurate descriptor. Halloween Nights isn’t Terror Behind The Walls, and it isn’t half as scary—but it’s impossible to deny that it’s an event built on a solid foundation, even if it falters in its design. An all—inclusive event is great, but more haunted elements need to be implemented for the visitors who do want to be scared.
Nonetheless, the festival–like experience and mission–based programming, which serves to illuminate the fundraiser's cause, is a step in the right direction. Modifications are always necessary, but it’s important that we look beyond the past to see the future.
It may not be the #1 Haunted House in America anymore, but maybe it doesn’t have to be.