Terror Behind the Walls, hallmark of the Halloween season



Cassie McHugh

With Fall in full swing, it’s time to start thinking about what spooky experience to add to your October calendar.  

Lucky for us, one of the country’s premier Halloween attractions is just a train ride away.

Eastern State Penitentiary first opened its doors nearly 200 years ago in 1829, not to visitors, but to the world’s most feared criminals. 

It quickly became one of the world’s most famous prisons, and inspired countries around the globe to design similar jails.

Now its doors are open to you.

Each fall, the 11-acre abandoned prison is taken over by Terror Behind the Walls, a series of six haunted attractions designed to make you scream. It has been recognized as one of the best haunted attractions in the U.S. by publications including MTV’s FEAR, the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Fox Television’s World’s Scariest Places. 

The Penitentiary’s scare factor comes from a variety of aspects. Professional actors and world-class special effects create a spooky atmosphere, but what’s really eerie about the attraction is its natural history. Many believe the Penitentiary is haunted, and nearly 60 paranormal investigational teams visit the site each year. 

Visitors are invited to wind their way through six cell blocks within the courtyard of the Penitentiary. Each has a different theme and story, but the visitors’ mission—make it through alive—remains the same.  

Guests can opt in for an even scarier experience if they dare: wearing a glow-in-the-dark necklace symbolizes that you are ready and willing to be touched, grabbed and even separated from your group and led into secret passage ways by the actors. 

“I just think it’s a really fun way to step up the normal haunt experience,” Attraction Manager Kenny Wittwer said. “It makes everything even more kinds of crazy and unpredictable.”

This year, the Penitentiary is introducing a new attraction, Lock Down: The Uprising, a reinvention of its most popular attraction, Lock Down. 

“The story behind Lock Down: The Uprising is that all the old inmates, the old guards who used to populate that cell block have all been wiped out by some kind of mysterious force,” Wittwer said. “There’s some kind of creatures brewing underneath the grounds of the prison and they’re rising up and starting to take over.”   

For the first time this year, the most daring visitors also have the opportunity to step up the fright factor in their night with the new Hex Challenge. 

For a small upgrade fee, guests are granted access to six secret rooms at the start of each attraction. 

There, they step further into the story behind each attraction and must solve a challenge before returning to the main visitors’ path. 

In addition to Terror Behind the Walls, there are several other ways to explore the Penitentiary. 

Immediately after exiting the attraction, visitors have the opportunity to enter Cellblock 1, where a special exhibit and staff members can help you learn more about the history of Eastern State. All visitors can receive $5 off admission to one of the Penitentiary’s daytime prison tours by presenting their Terror ticket stub.    

Wittwer said the mission behind Terror Behind the Walls is what helps it stand out from other haunted attractions. 

“I think for most haunted houses, they’re just there to support the haunt industry and raise money for themselves, but Terror Behind the Walls is a major fundraiser for Eastern State Penitentiary,” Wittwer said. “It first started off [as] just one night in 1991 with a couple actors telling ghost stories and now it’s the huge haunted house all to raise money to restore the Eastern State Penitentiary historic site.” 

Tickets can be purchased either online or at the door. However, guests are encouraged to go the online route—it’s the only way to guarantee entrance, as the attraction can and will sell out on its most popular nights. 

Ticket prices vary by night based on peak time and popularity. Looking to save? Eastern State offers half-priced tickets to student every Sunday after 7:30 p.m. Tickets must be purchased online, and students must present their college ID upon arrival.

For more information and to get your tickets, visit easternstate.org/Halloween.