Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA
Tapping Into The Haunter Spirit
Terror Behind the Walls, one of America’s largest haunted houses, is located inside the massive, castle-like walls of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA. This extraordinary theatrical production, consistently ranked among the top haunted attractions in the nation, runs select evenings from September 18 through November 7, 2015. Tickets range from $13-$39. Creative director Amy Hollaman joined Haunting The Globe to discuss the event.
You can listen to the full interview here.
The names Terror Behind The Walls and Eastern State Penitentiary carry weight in the haunt industry for many reasons, from the attraction’s size and actor base to their innovation and historical preservation cause. “Terror Behind the Walls is a massive haunted prison that has been taken over by all kinds of zombies, villains, evil denizens, monsters, creatures, and humans that have very evil intentions,” Creative Director Amy Hollaman explains, “and you and your group of friends just happen to be walking through that space.” The hour-long, linear haunt is staggering, boasting two hundred performers a night and six unique attractions, each with a different story that all tie together.
The Old Opt-In Trick
The concept of opting in has been around for a while, but Terror Behind The Walls offers a few terrifying twists with their opt in process. The concept is simple in that “visitors get to make a choice; If they want to opt into the more intense experience they will be given a tracking device and marked with a bloody X on their cheek [which] allows the villains inside to track you […] It means you could be touched, it means you could be grabbed, it means you could be taken away in a dark corridor and separated from your friends […] If you are too scared at any point in time or don’t want to be separated from your friends, you can pull of your glow necklace and drop it on the ground.” Simple to explain: glowing = targeted; not glowing = not targeted. Yet not so simple to execute as actors have to be trained how to incorporate these select thrill seekers into the action and groups can be separated for quite some time.
To enhance this immersive experience, two brand-new attractions have been designed around the interactive opt-in: Quarantine in 4-D and Break Out. Following the Infirmary attraction, Quarantine in 4-D places visitors in a black light-centered quarantine that recreates the effects of infection, including hallucinations. Break Out is the final attraction of the show, allowing visitors to break their way out of the prison through crumbling cell blocks.
The Era of Engagement
Amy sees this move towards individualized, interactive haunt experiences as indicative of the times:
“It’s the age of engagement. People want to be in it, you know? That’s really exciting for us, we feel like there are all these trends out there of engaging with social media, and this is the way we do it where you can step into the show and have that full on engagement.”
To the haunter mind, or even the casual guest, this begs the question: How do you engage in a world where guests expect not to be engaged? It isn’t easy. One of the biggest challenges Amy has faced has been getting the actors used to touching the visitors after years of being told it was completely off limits. They began this new opt-in system in 2013 and struggled at first to make the actors comfortable with the new format. “We do about three weeks of training before we open the show with the staff, and our first priority is always safety,” she explains. “It’s taken time to perfect. I really feel like, at this point, we have it down to a science, and while it was challenging, it’s been worth the reward.”
Preserving The Past
There wouldn’t be any Terror if there weren’t some good old walls to hide behind, and the attraction ensures those walls won’t be coming down so easily. Terror Behind the Walls raises money for the Eastern State Penitentiary Museum so people can come throughout the year to learn more about the building and its history. The money is used to make sure the building is safe for visitors and to fund arts and culture projects. This fund-raising function of the haunt makes it “the girl scout cookies of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site,” Amy aptly stated.
Leaning on History
Not all the ghouls lurking inside are purely fictional. The penitentiary originally opened in 1829 as a real prison that housed infamous criminals like Al Capone and Slick Willy Sutton. “It was already designed to be intimidating before we even put our haunted house inside,” Amy points out. Terror Behind the Walls aims to align its acting, costumes, make-up, and props to match up with the authenticity of the historic building. At the same time, however, they are very careful not to “trample on the history” of Eastern State Penitentiary. Amy explains, “While we’re trying to create scary content, the easiest thing for us is to tap into that true history, but we can’t.” Maintaining the integrity of the museum’s heritage has been another obstacle the creative team has come across.
After the prison closed in 1971, the building sat abandoned and decaying for years; it just wasn’t feasible to have guests walking around inside. In 1991 a movement began to reopen the building, beginning with the fundraising event that would eventually spawn a legend: a Halloween costume party. After that year, they began offering lantern-guided tours and theatrical vignettes as well. It wasn’t until 1998 that Terror Behind the Walls was branded as such and built specifically as a haunted attraction. What started as a simple costume party is now considered one of the best and largest haunted attractions in the country!
Amy became Creative Director for Terror Behind the Walls after rising from her own humble beginnings in the haunt industry. When Amy was younger, she used to set up haunted houses with her brother and friends in her basement; even then she was a huge fan of scary movies and visiting the attraction. In 2005, while working for Americorp during the day and not making much money, she was looking for a night job and decided to audition as an actor for Terror Behind the Walls. She still remembers wearing a black tank top with eyeliner and trying to look scary in the mirror as practice for the audition. Since then, she’s worked her way up to “the Creative Director Mastermind” that she is today.
Amy recalls once delivering a rousing speech to inspire her actors to be more intense and to use the emotions and passion that bring people together in the haunt industry:
“Here I am giving a speech almost as a character while I’m still wearing a suit and tie, but I’m holding a sledgehammer, and I modeled for them what I wanted them to be. That feeling of rage and anger is not acceptable for me at all to display in this normal world, it’s not. It would scare most people, it might make some people call the police, or someone might hear me outside this trailer right now and be worried. But they saw that, and when I went back through the show that night, they took it into their souls and they were murderous. It was awesome!”
“What motivates me,” Amy continues, “is allowing myself to touch those emotions, those feelings, that aren’t OK for us to tap into every day. We can do that as haunters […] I’m here today at a film studio, and they’re making movies that people can watch and that’s awesome, but I’m making a movie you can step into and there’s nothing like it.”