As most Hidden City readers know, Eastern State Penitentiary was a prison from 1829 to 1971, known for its innovative design, reliance on solitary confinement, and notorious inmates including Al Capone and Willie Sutton. The prison was abandoned from its closing until the late 1980s when Mayor Wilson Goode put a halt to plans to demolish the prison and redevelop the site. For the next two decades the structures within the 11-acre site were abandoned and exposed to the elements. Stray cats ran freely, and trees grew in the old cell blocks and open areas. In 1994, the prison was reopened as a historic site and museum.
In December 2008, I spent two bitterly cold days participating in a creative workshop at Eastern State. I was a social studies teacher at the time and had been invited to represent the K-12 educator’s perspective. The purpose of the workshop was to envision the future of the site. Topics of discussion included strategies to increase the number of visitors, approaches to determining the appropriate balance between restoration and continued deterioration of the site, and deciding to what degree Eastern State should become engaged in current questions of criminal justice and incarceration. After I thawed out from two days in the unheated prison, I have followed the remarkable growth and progress of Eastern State ever since.
When I attended the creative workshop, Eastern State welcomed about 100,000 visitors a year. Most were white and well-educated and few came for repeat visits. Before the pandemic, the museum had more than tripled that number of visitors and is now one of the city’s top tourist attractions. Eastern State remains a “stabilized ruin,” meaning that much of the site continues to deteriorate, but that certain rooms and areas have been either restored or protected from further decay.
Most significantly, Eastern State has recently become deeply committed to exploring the American systems of criminal justice and mass incarceration. The award-winning Prisons Today exhibit engages visitors in confronting and refining their own beliefs, and The Big Graph represents the disproportionate number of prisoners in the United States in an unforgettable manner. Eastern State hosts a monthly “Searchlight Series” of conversations about criminal justice issues and, in 2019, projected films made by inmates on the prison walls. The museum has also enacted a policy of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals and working with vendors that do so as well.
The museum’s new fall fundraiser, Halloween Nights, billed as “A Halloween Festival of Epic Proportions,” is a reflection of the maturation of Eastern State’s mission and a diversification of its target audience. Terror Behind the Walls, a super scary haunted house, was launched in 1997 and canceled due to the pandemic in 2020. The event brought in the lion’s share of the historic site’s annual revenue and introduced the penitentiary to scores of visitors throughout the region. After a year on pause, 2021 sees the debut of Halloween Nights, an indescribable assortment of attractions, performances, and unexpected delights which my husband and I had the privilege of attending last Friday on opening night.
As a person who walked out within the first ten minutes of Jaws in 1975 and has avoided paying to be scared ever since, Terror Behind the Walls never interested me. Halloween Nights, on the other hand, has something for everyone. I don’t want to give away too much, and I suggest avoiding reviews that describe what awaits you. The fun of Halloween Nights is the surprising mix of humor, creativity, special effects, and opportunities to dine and imbibe. And, yes, there are some scary parts, but they are marked with a big, red “X” for the true cowards. For the sake of writing this article, I did check out the two haunted houses and, well, I lived to tell about it. My husband thinks his hand that I squeezed throughout our time in the red “X” zones will recover soon.
I was most struck by the way Halloween Nights is the experience that you want it to be. My understanding is that visitors to Terror Behind the Walls followed a set path. Halloween Nights gives you choices about where to go, when to go there, and how much time to spend. Additionally, Eastern State’s greater mission is much more present at Halloween Nights, at least if one chooses to look for it. Prisons Today is open and The Big Graph is hard to miss. Some cell blocks are open for touring and there is a new, revised audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi, a longtime friend of the museum.
My husband and I had delicious slices made by Down North Pizza, a company that employs returning citizens to reduce recidivism by offering a pathway to culinary careers. Similar vendors will rotate through the prison’s Fair Chance Beer Garden, operated by Triple Bottom Brewing, a company committed to hiring the formerly incarcerated.
Whether you are a fan of haunted houses or a scaredy cat like me, you will find something to enjoy this fall at Eastern State Penitentiary. More than that, I’d rather not tell you.
Happy Halloween, Philadelphia.