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How to get spooked! Halloween Nights at Eastern State Pen, Philadelphia

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 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!

*This event is now known as Halloween Nights, read more about that at the end of this post.

The run down halls of Eastern State Penitentiary
The run down halls and cell blocks of Eastern State Penitentiary – which is a fascinating tour any day. Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

The cab dropped us off out the front of a former prison so eerie it doesn’t need Halloween to make it spooky. But tonight’s flood lighting and horrific sounds echoing 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!

Eastern State Penitentiary
Arriving on sunset for the Terror to begin

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 take the advice from the portly security guard fending off wannabe spookees while the spookers inside get into their characters, and head 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!)

Eastern State Penitentiary
Light filters through a cell window

Then it’s time.

The first thing we do is 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 force another strained giggle and take an extra copy of the waiver so I can tell you what I just signed.

Eastern State Penitentiary
You’ve been warned…

Then we choose whether we will take the glow stick neck band. My husband encourages 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 sound effects and other props they have hiding in dark corners throughout the horror maze that has been set up in the labyrinth of this dark prison.

Note: due to health restrictions this is not an option this year to be touched (or dragged away).

I figure I can 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 hold hands, sans glowing neck band and scream MONSTER BE GOOD constantly.

zombie Eastern State Penitentiary
Her makeup is cool, you gotta admit!

Zombie police officers silently herd us into the first room without a word.

It’s dark, strobe lights are flashing, pistons hiss, metal gates clang in the distance, dry ice wafts in front of our faces and our eyes adjust as the 120 actors (who all have auditioned for the part, and hopefully also know CPR) jump out of corners.

They reach down from above to touch heads or grab an ankle as we shuffle past. Some make noises, others just stare. If you’re wearing the glowing neck band you can be abducted any moment.

Eastern State Pen Halloween nights couple in dark
We were as brave as this couple!

I hunch my shoulders and clutch my husband’s arm so tightly with one hand that I can almost feel his pulse. The other hand holds the back of his jacket as I crouch low and pass through the darkness of the corridors behind him.

There’s screaming in the distance and yelps of fear from the paying guests shuffling along behind us.

The silent ghouls I can handle. I’m impressed by their makeup but while my head is turned, BOOM! a blood-curdling screamer leaps from the shadows and a noise comes from my throat that I’ve never heard before.

Terror Behind the Walls
Just another “friend”

We finish the first of five buildings, breathe deeply as we come outside, and gasp with strained laughter with the rest in our group.

Somehow hubby and I are in the front and that means the monsters take 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 keep lagging behind hence being in the front of the wave.

Spooked at Eastern State Penitentiary
Image supplied: Eastern State Penitentiary

We catch up to the next group. A girl in front of me is snatched from the clutches of her partner and shoved through a trap door. She screams and I cower even lower. We don’t see her for some time.

Another man is hauled onto a dentist chair and tools are brought out as he wrestles himself free.

Air puffs into my head in the dark. Hands brush my ankles. Screaming echoes through the halls.

We squeeze between two long inflatable tubes in the near pitch dark, not sure of what awaits us at the end. My hands are so sweaty I can barely keep them attached to his puffer jacket.

Finally it is the end and out we stumble into the night where staff are waiting to sell us photos and ghouls are happy to pose for pics.

Megan with ghouls at Eastern State Penitentiary
I made it! Wearing my glowing neck band the whole way round.

We pull ourselves together and head 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 return to normal we chat to the barmen and find out this fright night is 25 years old and raises so much money, the prison can maintain its upkeep for another year.

Al Capone's cell at Eastern State Pen
Al Capone’s pimped out cell

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 5 scary themed sections that range from intensely scary and eerie to playful and even educational.

Image supplied: Eastern State Penitentiary

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

This year it runs from September 23 to November 12, 2022.

Have a spooky cocktail. Image supplied: Eastern State Penitentiary

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…

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!