Saturday night, my husband and I wound up in prison, or rather the penitentiary – Eastern State, to be exact.
We didn’t set out to land behind bars, but on our way to one of our favorite pubs in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, we saw lines snaking around this neighborhood’s historic penitentiary for the annual Terror Behind the Walls. “Ooooh! Let’s go,” I said, clapping my hands. I didn’t really want to enter, but I was willing to partake for the sake of my blog.
My spirits ebbed, however, as we circled the area for 23 minutes trying to find on-street parking, swung into the public lot only to see it was charging $20, and then drove around for another 11 minutes before we finally nabbed a spot. By the time we sat down to pints and Cajun-spiced tilapia, I’d given up on visiting the cell blocks where Al Capone did time.
Then our kindly hostess kneeled down beside our table and made us an offer we couldn't refuse.
“Any chance you two would like to go to Eastern State tonight?” she asked.
“Yes!” I squealed.
I felt slightly guilty that we were taking tickets off of a New Jersey couple who’d been unable to make the tour, detained by storm damage. But after downing our beers and tossing the waiter a hefty tip, I made peace with the arrangement. We zipped up our puffy jackets and headed toward the fortress.
Although I’ve been meaning to tour Eastern State Penitentiary for years, I never intended to do so at night. Open from 1830 to 1970, the place was the “world’s first true penitentiary, a prison designed to inspire…regret in the hearts of criminals,” according to a brochure. “Slick Willie” Sutton and “Scarface” Al Capone were notorious inmates. Prisoners remained in solitary confinement much of the time in order to contemplate their sins.
“Where do we go with these?” I asked, showing our tickets to a benign-looking fellow in an event staff jacket.
“See the zombie up there,” he said.
“Can we get a picture?” my husband asked and shoved me at a ghoul on stilts.
“Hurry up! I gotta job to do,” he growled as I cowered below.
Another incubus handed us consent forms that read: “This building is a ruin. It was abandoned in 1971. While historic ruins and haunted attractions are fun, they can pose dangers to visitors. The City of Philadelphia therefore requires every visitor to this property (including staff and volunteers) to sign this release.” I had to forfeit my right to hold Eastern State responsible for “all risk of bodily harm…or injury, including death.” I found this discouraging, almost as discouraging as hearing a guy in front of us – who rode the Ghost Bus and had therefore garnered little-known facts – explain that if you said, “bad monster,” the actors would dial it up a notch.
I doubted this would be necessary as I stood in the frigid line, now within the prison walls, listening to sounds of braying dogs, bawling souls and jangling chains, accompanied by a parade of walking dead, shuffling to and fro, keening and muttering. My husband was so nervous that he had to use the porta-potties both entering and leaving the haunted house. I was sweating through the fleece under my parka and dropped our tickets in a puddle when we reached the exhibit entrance.
Inside, we could barely see until a light flashed up on a gurney, a crazed prison dentist pointing a drill in our faces. Pulsing strobes lit up the crumbling walls, moldy urinals and rusted metal beds left in the cells for more than 40 years. Inmates roamed around us like mad rodents caught in a maze, their hair stringy and faces mangled. Some of them uttered dolphin-like cries. Others banged on cages. Most of them enjoyed sneaking up behind me and howling, at which point I howled, too.
The hefty dude in front of us did his best to raise the din to a crescendo by repetitively grabbing his wife's shoulders and making her scream. I tripped as fast as I could behind my husband through the labyrinth, hiding my face in his puffy jacket. And I don’t think that another Ghost Bus tip that our partner shared with us – the fact that the monsters weren’t supposed to touch visitors – was accurate. I definitely felt violated by the end.
“That was a really enjoyable evening,” my husband said, recovering his wits, on the chilly walk back to the car. I looked at him askance.
Then, on the drive home, we caught WXPN's Saturday night blues show and Mighty Sam McClain singing, “Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey).”
He'd better watch out, I thought. He might end up in a cell block like the one I'd just escaped – one designed to inspire true regret.