When actors are trained to transform into zombies and ghouls for Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls haunted house, they’re given specific instructions:
Stay in character — unless guests tell you they’re too scared and ask to leave, or if there’s an emergency.
Only touch guests who’ve signed up for the more immersive experience.
And never refer to your surroundings as the real prison, Eastern State Penitentiary, said Sean Kelley, the penitentiary’s senior vice president and director of interpretation.
“Terror Behind the Walls doesn’t address Eastern State’s history at all,” Kelley said. “After 6:30 or 7 p.m. on those nights in September and October, this is not Eastern State. This is Terror Behind the Walls.”
Yes, Kelley said, he knows it’s impossible to totally separate the prison from the frightening attraction that takes over its grounds each year in the weeks before Halloween — and makes more money for the nonprofit than all of its other tours and events combined. (“It’s literally paying the electric bill,” he said.)
But Kelley and his colleagues feel they have a responsibility to be thoughtful, and sometimes self-critical, he said, when it comes to mixing haunts with history.
Halloween has become increasingly commercialized, with people in the United States spending about $9 billion on the holiday each year, according to the National Retail Federation. Massive Halloween costume stores pop up every fall. Restaurants are cashing in — four new Halloween-themed bars opened in Philadelphia this month — and haunted houses have grown in popularity and scale. Many now offer not only walk-through attractions and hayrides but also escape rooms, laser-tag arenas, and overnight experiences.
In the city and suburbs, several frightening destinations have received national recognition from the Travel Channel, CNN, and The Haunted Attraction Association, which bills itself as the official organization of the haunted-house industry.
Aside from Terror Behind the Walls, the six-part scare-fest at 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue, there’s Fright Factory, in the basement of an old warehouse in South Philadelphia; the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride at Arasapha Farm in Glen Mills, Delaware County; Night of Terror at Creamy Acres Farm in Mullica Hill, N.J.; and Pennhurst Asylum, a haunted house inside the former institution for people with mental and physical disabilities in Spring City, Chester County.
There’s fun to be had, and money to be made, every October. But for some, the holiday has become an “unintentional anniversary," a time to talk about how certain Halloween imagery perpetuates stereotypes and to assess how well some haunted attractions convey history, said Kelly George, an assistant professor of media and communication at Immaculata University.
“Disability is frequently used in the visual language of horror films to scare us, and that’s going to trickle into haunted attractions," said George, who teaches a class on disability rights at the Frazer university and has researched the ethical reuse of historical asylums such as Pennhurst.
At former institutions, it’s especially important guests be aware of these places’ histories — first of suffering and later of civil-rights triumph, George said.
In recent years, Pennhurst Asylum has been trying to better communicate its past, said operations manager Jim Werner. It has expanded its museum, which all visitors walk through before leaving the property, he said, and added daytime history tours that incorporate the perspectives of those who once lived and worked there.
“We wanted to put a big stop to anyone confusing the seasonal attraction with the history of the site,” Werner said.
Pennhurst was originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic. Inside, people with mental and physical disabilities were abused and neglected for nearly 80 years, the Supreme Court ruled in 1984.
The abuse was uncovered in a five-part documentary, Suffer the Little Children, by NBC10 journalist Bill Baldini. The documentary shed light on the deplorable conditions of overcrowded, underfunded state facilities across the country. The Pottstown Mercury later called Pennhurst “The Shame of Pennsylvania" in a front-page headline. Historians consider these investigative reports, and the federal case that followed, monumental in the modern disability rights movement.
Pennhurst State School and Hospital closed in 1987, and sat abandoned until 2008, when Richard Chakejian purchased the 110 acres for $2 million. Two years later, he opened Pennhurst Asylum, despite protests and a lawsuit attempting to stop it.
New owners took over in 2016, Werner said, and pushed to expand the site’s historical offerings while more clearly severing them from the scary attraction. The Pennhurst crew grew its relationship with the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance, an organization that works to keep the property’s history alive and had opposed the haunted-house opening, he said.
Still, some critics say these efforts aren’t enough, arguing that the attraction — which advertises as “home to some of the world’s most dangerous criminally insane” — mocks people who endured inhumane conditions inside its walls.
Bucks County human service professionals Rachael Miroddi and Allison Beck wrote in an Inquirer op-ed last week: “It’s sickening that [Pennhurst] should be able to make a profit off the past sufferings of people with disabilities. It should be shut down, or, at the very least, people should be shamed out of visiting."
Werner said he’s open to talking with people who disagree with what they do at Pennhurst, but he also knows they’ll never please everyone.
To Werner and his colleagues, the Halloween performances are fictional, “fantastical," he said, and don’t mock anyone. In fact, Werner, who has two young daughters with special needs, said he loves working at Pennhurst because it allows him to tell the story of how far society has come in its acceptance of people with disabilities.
“The site wouldn’t exist anymore if we didn’t have a revenue generator that’s the scale of the haunted attraction,” Werner said. “I feel like what we’re doing is preserving history.”
Villanova University graduate student Katie Andersen, who has been researching Pennhurst as part of her master of arts program, went on a September daytime history tour and said she was impressed by how the guides seemed to care about Pennhurst’s past, although she wished they went into more detail on certain topics.
George said she wants to take her Immaculata students on a tour, too. She isn’t out to ruin anyone’s Halloween, she added.
“People will say: ‘This is just family fun. Why are we politicizing it?' " George said. But “it requires a leap of empathy to think about what it might feel like if you or your loved one lived at Pennhurst."
People don’t have to boycott attractions, she said, to be thoughtful about the ethics behind them.
Whitney Martinko, an associate professor of history at Villanova, agreed, noting the societal fascination with being inside these places isn’t new. Hospitals, institutions, and even prisons were tourist attractions in the 19th century, she said. Yet not all former institutions have become haunted houses, she said, pointing to University City’s Kirkbride Center, which is now a behavioral-health facility.
“I guess my thing is if people are going to go [to a Halloween attraction], I’d also say pick up a book about the history of that place,” Martinko said. “Being able to enjoy being scared doesn’t preclude being aware of the place’s history.”
At Eastern State, which closed in 1971, Kelley said he and his colleagues work hard to keep its past alive.
In some ways, Terror Behind the Walls has helped Eastern State spread awareness about the painful parts of the American prison system, he said. The attraction funded the 16-foot “Big Graph” that sits in the prison yard and illustrates the nation’s incarceration rate since 1900, as well as the racial breakdown of people who have been incarcerated.
Still, they’re constantly scrutinizing their horror performances, he said.
Each year, Eastern State executives invite historians, people who’ve been incarcerated, and other advisers to go through Terror Behind the Walls. Then the panel sits down to dinner, Kelley said, and criticizes the show. Some take issue with the entire thing, while others suggest small changes.
Ten years ago, Terror Behind the Walls was full of prison scenes. As of this year, he said, guests will find no costumed prisoners, a change borne from conversations at one of those yearly dinners. At first, some staff members worried that visitors would complain or be less scared, Kelley said, but it turned out no one even noticed the disappearance of striped inmate costumes.
Now, however, there are twice as many guards, which the crew might have to reassess in coming years, he said.
“We’re trying to be as conscientious as we can to not play on stereotypes of people who go to prison,” Kelley said. “We are not about spreading the message that people in prison are monsters."