Prepare for the scare


Sean Duffy

A projection of the new title on the rugged perimeter wall of Eastern State Penitentiary.

There is a chill in the air again and that means it’s fright season for “Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary” in Fairmount, Philadelphia. I got a chance to visit the popular Philly attraction as a VIP and see just what it’s all about, but first here’s some information about the event.

Eastern State Penitentiary was built in 1829 in a controversial effort to “change the behavior of inmates through ‘confinement in solitude with labor,’” according to ESP. It was built to, very harshly, hold some of the nation’s worst criminals such as the likes of “Scarface” Al Capone. You might know the name better as “Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary” as this was the former title, as of 2 years ago. However, they changed the name to be more inclusive to all of the various attractions. This includes the lantern-lit guided tours of the hospital ward throughout the night and the museum exhibits kept open after the museum closes such as “Prisons Today,” and the audio tour of the central rotunda. The Halloween event has always been the highest-earning fundraiser for the historic site, and now more than ever, the mission of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Inc. is used to fuel the festival. Almost every vendor on-site is a small, local business with fair-chance hiring standards. So, when you buy a ticket or a treat, you can do so knowing it is all for a good cause!

These actors go by the stage names of “Stitches” and “Rosie Thorne” and can be found roaming the halls of The Speakeasy at Al Capone’s Cell. (Sean Duffy)

This was my first time visiting since the name change, and I found it to be an extremely fun time, even as someone who’s not crazy about being scared or visiting haunted houses. There are five different haunted houses including “Delirium”, a 3D haunted experience, “Machine Shop”, with a daunting machinery theme, “The Crypt”, a vampire-Esque haunting, “Big Top Terror”, featuring clowns and circus fights galore, and finally “Nightmares”, showcasing a very dark and foreboding environment. My personal favorite had to be Big Top Terror, as I found the clown actors’ makeup to be very impressive and the pop-out scares as startling as could be. If you want, you can actually put on a glow band necklace that lets the demons, monsters, and ghouls alike not only touch you but even “abduct” you and temporarily separate you from your group. This is optional, but I would highly recommend it as it really cements you into the atmosphere and you can change your mind by taking the necklace off at any point.

In addition to the countless scares, there are less-scary activities and multiple food options all around the four heralding walls of the historic former prison. This includes, but is not limited to, bacon and french toast on a stick, inside-out s’mores (and campfires to roast them,) Down-North Pizza, and classic carnival foods such as french fries and hotdogs.

If you are willing to drop some extra cash, there is also “The Speakeasy at Al Capone’s Cell,” though if you ask any of the ghastly cast members who roam this area, they will tell you it is “simply a flower shop.” This, and the vampire-themed Bloodline Lounge, feature live singing, dancing, and acting performances. Visitors over 21 (with ID) can buy alcoholic beverages in these lounges, but if you are not drinking alcohol, there are mocktail and soda options. You can also find talented cast members roaming the entire site, especially around “Big Top Terror” and “The Bizarre Bar.”

I was given a chance to interview Brett Bertolino, ESP’s Vice President of Operations.

What goes into preparing for this event every night? How long does it take and what sort of things happen to turn the site from a museum into a Halloween Festival?

“Eastern State Penitentiary operates every day as a museum from 10 AM to 5 PM, so once the last visitor leaves, that’s when our team emerges and transforms the historic 10 acres into Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary. In about an hour and a half, our team strategically ensures that our lights, music, props, safety barricades, signs, and so much more are set up in their proper places and inspected every night before guests arrive….There are about 200+ actors and staff that go through the makeup & costuming departments to scare, entertain, and educate all our guests.”

What is your favorite part about working at this event?

“I’d have to say that my favorite part about working this event is watching guests have a great time – with or without being scared. The choice to choose your own experience at Halloween Nights is what I love to see our guests enjoy. It’s so great when I see a family member waiting for their loved one at the end of a haunted house and then they go together to enjoy a snack or drink in the Gargoyle Gardens. There’s something for everyone to enjoy here at Halloween Nights and I love to see guests making the choices that influence their experience.”

What Insider-tips do you have for people before they visit?

  • When you’re in Kaleidoscope Hall, be sure to go up on the bridge to get a spectacular view of the show and a unique view of exterior projections on the arched window.
  • When you’re in The Speakeasy, be sure to give Esther’s flower shop a call for a special message from the spirits of the speakeasy.
  • It’s a festival! Look for shorter lines!
  • Arrive early! Check out the opening ceremony, lines are shortest, and you’ll have the most time to enjoy the festival.

When it comes to tickets, pricing, and the best time to go, weeknight prices range from $34 to $44 online. Prices are more expensive if you buy them in person, so be sure to plan ahead. Purchasing online in advance saves time and money and is the only way to guarantee entry to the event. General Admission tickets include entry to the event and all attractions and areas except for The Speakeasy at Al Capone’s Cell (VIP Ticket Holders Only) and the After Dark cell block three tour ($12 at the door, subject to availability).

Overall, this was such a fun event that definitely made my weekend. I would 100% recommend this lively attraction for everyone looking for something to do this Halloween season. So for anyone looking for time to kill, this festival will surely be a thrill!