We are plugging along, ready to bring you a month of Satanic cinema this October - in fact our list will be posted later this week, for those of you who play along at home - and we are working on our feature stories on our region's annual haunted attractions.
Delays and changes in scheduling have plagued us at every turn with this project - it isn't easy getting some of these folks on the line this time of year, frankly. But I am bound and determined to make this work, and all my efforts are focused on making it happen!
That said, let us talk about one spooky-ass place.
Eastern State Penitentiary, located in beautiful Northeast Philadelphia, is a looming and imposing site. It literally pops up in the middle of the Fairmount neighborhood, looking egregiously out of place among the upscale shops and restaurants surrounding its impenetrable stone walls and brutal, gothic parapets. It looks like a place you toss someone in an effort to forget all about them - and that's exactly what it is. Or was, anyway.
When it opened its doors in 1829, Eastern State was considered the first true penitentiary in the nation. The idea of the penitentiary was - duh - "penitence," where the time alone was to be spent in quiet reflection and communion with god. Criminals were isolated for the majority of their time at Eastern State, alone in their stone walled cells with just a slit of a window (the "eye of god") to allow in some sunlight and a few meager possessions. And by "possessions," we mean pretty much toiletries and a bible.
Eastern State's method soon came to be known as the "Philadelphia" or "Separate System," whereby isolation was considered the pathway to redemption. Prisoners were not permitted to socialize with one another - even recreation time was staggered so no two adjoining prisoners were out in their tiny recreation spaces at the same time. The small doors forced prisoners to "bow" to enter or exit their cells - another part of the religious atmosphere that surrounded the penitentiary. Prisoners were even hooded when they exited their cells so they wouldn't be recognized by their fellow inmates.
Most of the day was spent completely alone, although the warden was required to visit each prisoner once per day and the overseers at least three times a day. This method is the polar opposite of the "Auburn System," where prisoners were required to work together in silence and violators were subject to corporal punishment in the form of beatings. Punishment was not absent from Eastern State, however, as the guards often imposed their own cruel torture tactics. People were strapped to chairs for days on end, doused with water and left outside their cells, denied food and water and basic human needs - the worst perpetrators were dumped into a literal pit called "The Hole," which was located under cellblock 14, and left without sun or nourishment for up to two weeks at a time.
Over the years, Eastern State was home to several notable characters, perhaps most infamously Al Capone, who lived a life of luxury compared to his fellow inmates. Bank robber Willie Sutton was also housed there and even made a famous attempted escape from Eastern State in 1945.
Overcrowding and the obvious psychological effects of isolation eventually lead to the downfall of solitary confinement as the preferred method of correction, and Eastern State closed its doors to prisoners altogether in 1971. The massive facility lay dormant for nearly two decades, allowing Mother Nature to take back as much of the interior as she could, while an army of stray cats made the prison their home. It has since been the focus of a slow restoration process that has seen some of the building's facilities almost
The first Halloween-themed event was held in 1991, a combination of theatrical performances and true stories of the prisoners once held there. A few years later the event came to be known as "Terror Behind the Walls," and it quickly became one of the region's largest and most popular haunted attractions.
Billed as "high startle/low gore," the TBTW experience is one of immersion. As soon as you walk in the front doors, a prison riot is fully underway. Panicked guards shout in your face about getting out and needing help, while spotlights glare and klaxons sound, making the moment one you wouldn't want to face on strong psychedelics. Most of the rest of the tour takes you through some of the facility's main attractions, bolstered by disturbing sights and intriguing characters.
This year's event claims to be "darker" and "bloodier" than previous years, so this excites us at UMM beyond belief. This year's event is separated into six different attractions: The Gauntlet, Lock-Down, Detritus, Infirmary, The Experiment and Nightwatch. I got shivers just typing that sentence. It also sounds like visitors are given more chances to be a part of the festivities themselves, by choosing either to spectate the goings-on or to be an actual participant and possibly be part of the show.
We don't want to give away too much here - we've only been once ourselves and we have been told that some of the scenes change from year to year, so who knows what to expect in 2013? Other than a rollicking good time, that is - TBTW is tremendous fun, especially if you're surrounded with people who are as into the experience as you are. The over 250 actors hired each season are also top-notch, eager to scare the crap out of you, and the props and settings never appear cheap of thrown together. The key here is finesse and atmosphere, and one look at the photos tells you that they absolutely do not scrimp on effects.
We here at UMM can tell you that, even for the experienced haunted attraction enthusiast, this event kicks things up "a whole other level," as our bestest friend and loyal staff member Shannon pointed out. It is a very "in-your-face" experience, and - like we said - it's total immersion. You will feel like you are a part of the prison because, frankly, you ARE a part of it for the duration of your visit. So wear comfy shoes and make sure you bring your Depends, because your bladder may damn well fail.
Eastern State is open year-round as a museum for self-guided tours, with Steve "Mr. Pink" Buscemi as your audio tour guide. There is much to learn and enjoy with a visit to this fascinating piece of American history and is well worth it at any time of year.
Oh and by the way - the joint is rife with spirits. Seriously. If you're a "sensitive," you may find yourself deeply disturbed during your visit. To truly experience the presences that inhabit its walls, go in the off-season. And take a Valium before you go. I am not kidding in the slightest.
To learn more or for tickets and tour times, visit www.easternstate.org. Scroll down for a preview video!