If you like to be spooked, you’ll LOVE Halloween in Philadelphia and a visit to the eerie Eastern State Penitentiary.
Here’s my story of what to expect from when I visited a few years ago. And I’m the girl who couldn’t even watch the first Jurassic Park movie without wanting to slip out of my seat and sit on the cinema floor…
But this is the biggest annual fundraiser the former prison hosts, so you gotta go!
The cab dropped us off out the front of this former prison, so eerie it doesn’t need Halloween to make it spooky. But tonight’s flood lighting and horrific sounds echoing from behind the walls had me nervously laughing.
Built in 1829 as a “penitentiary”, prisoners were meant to be in solitary confinement for their duration. Interestingly the prison had indoor toilets before the White House!
Prisoners would be escorted outside for their exercise with a cover over their heads so they would never see another soul. Whether they became penitent I’m not sure, but it was a fully operating prison until the 1970s when it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
The sun was fading over All Hallows Eve as we walked to the ticket box in front of the ominous stone walls with ghouls glaring down from the two-story high gates.
We were a little early, so took the advice from the portly security guard fending off wannabe spookees while the spookers inside got into their characters, and headed across the road for a beer (to calm my nerves) and a bite at Jacks in the old fire station. (Highly recommend dinner at the bar here!)
Then it’s time.
The first thing we did was have our bags inspected and sign a waiver that we won’t sue the organisers should we quite literally die of fright.
They told me that in the month this event has been running five people have left in ambulances. I forced another strained giggle and took an extra copy of the waiver so I can tell you what I just signed.
Then we chose whether to take the glow stick neck band. My husband encouraged me to get it. Light it up and put it around your neck and it means we can be touched, maybe separated from each other, shoved through random doors, hauled onto operating tables with chainsaw or dental drill sound effects and other props they have hiding in dark corners, throughout the horror maze set up in the labyrinth of this dark prison.
I figured I could take it off if I think I’m going to die.
There’s a tap out phrase too: “monster be good” which you can employ at any time. Two girls in front of us held hands, sans glowing neck band and screamed MONSTER BE GOOD constantly.
Zombie police officers silently herded us into the first room without a word.
It was dark, strobe lights flashing, pistons hissing, metal gates clanging in the distance. Dry ice wafted in front of our faces as our eyes adjusted. 120 actors, who all have auditioned for the part, and hopefully also know CPR, jump out of corners or wander past with crazy eyes.
They reached down from above to our touch heads or grab an ankle as we shuffled past. Some make noises, others just stare. If you’re wearing the glowing neck band you can be abducted any moment.
I hunched my shoulders and clutched my husband’s arm so tightly with one hand that I could almost feel his pulse. The other hand held the back of his jacket as I crouched low and we passed through the darkness of the corridors.
There’s screaming in the distance and yelps of fear from the paying guests shuffling along behind us.
The silent ghouls I could handle. I was impressed by their makeup but while my head was turned, BOOM! a blood-curdling screamer leaped from the shadows and a noise came from my throat that I’ve never heard before.
We finished the first of the five buildings, breathed deeply as we came outside, and gasped with strained laughter with the rest in our group.
Somehow hubby and I were in the front and that meant the monsters took us by surprise. I realise now it’s because we’re going too slowly and not keeping up with the group.
The better position for nervous nellies is to be in second or third place so the folks in front of you have already set off the horror action. But to do that you must keep up. We kept lagging behind hence being in the front of the wave.
We caught up to the next group. A girl in front of me was snatched from the clutches of her partner and shoved through a trap door. She screamed and I cowered even lower. We didn’t see her for some time.
Another man was hauled onto a dentist chair and tools were brought out as he wrestled himself free.
Air puffed into my head in the dark. Hands brushed my ankles. Screaming echoed through the halls.
We squeezed between two long inflatable tubes in the near pitch dark, not sure of what awaited us at the end. My hands were so sweaty I could barely keep them attached to his puffer jacket.
Finally it ended and out we stumbled into the night where staff were waiting to sell us photos and ghouls were happy to pose for pics.
After we’d pull ourselves together, we headed down a corridor of cells to have a look at what this prison museum holds on a normal day – and buy cocktails at a bar set up in front of Al Capone’s cell.
The notorious gangster was incarcerated here in 1929 and was allowed to pimp his cell with carpets, a writing desk, lamps and photos on the walls. It’s recreated today just how he had it.
As our heart rates returned to normal we chatted to the barmen and find out this fright night is nearly 30 years old and raises so much money, the prison can maintain its upkeep for another year.
Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary
Since 2021 they have a brand-new immersive experience which transforms a ten-acre web of winding hallways and courtyards into a sprawling festival with five scary themed sections that range from intensely scary and eerie to playful and even educational.
But the good news is, you can come with a group and scaredy-cats can avoid the scary attractions marked with a red X and enjoy the bars instead.
It’s still one of the major fundraisers for the year with all proceeds supporting preservation and operation of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.
After it’s over, chat with intriguing characters over a cocktail. Soak in the eerie atmosphere. Let the spirit move you as you choose your own adventure. Learn more at www.HalloweenNights.org.
This year it runs from September 22 to November 11, 2023.
Because one post is never enough
Another weird – and kind of freaky thing to do in Philadelphia is visit the Mutter Museum. Read my post about the time we took a tour through the Mutter Museum filled with medical science and stuff on dead people!
If you have just one day in Philadelphia, this is how I reckon you should spend it. Hint: it involves a deep dive into history with a European twist, some great food and something for culture vultures.
And this post covers my picks for 6 things to do in Philadelphia, which includes where to get the best Philly cheesesteaks and the really cool mural arts tour.
If you’re in LA, you can watch a movie in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. We went for Grease (with our picnic amongst the gravestones) but they also show horror movies!
And if you truly want to be genuinely freaked out, visit the Death Museum in LA. I knew I shouldn’t have gone in the minute we entered.
But I do love wandering through cemeteries. Read my post on skulking through the above-ground cemeteries of New Orleans…