Walk into the green room of Eastern State Penitentiary's Terror Behind the Walls and it appears as if you've just entered the backstage of a fashion show.
Hairspray and airbrush makeup shoot off in every direction. Nearly 20 barbershop chairs sit occupied, as a growing line of actors all waiting to get dolled up spill out into the hallway.
Over the course of three hours, a crew of 18 professional makeup artists work to get more than 200 actors ready for action. Each performer leaves their turn in the chair dressed to impress — whether sporting an open-wound prosthetic on their cheek, a pus-filled patch of abscesses across their chin, a bloody lip and gashed eyebrow, or one of the many other eye-catching looks. Caked in makeup, no one walks away looking pretty, but that's certainly not the intention.
The organized chaos inside the green room showcases just how massive of a production Terror Behind the Walls has become, full of moving parts that come together for 32 nights of nationally rated scares. It all takes place inside the walls of a massive, castle-like former prison in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia. So what's it like to be a part of it?
"It's hours on hours, on top of sleepless nights, of giving 100 percent to ensure people make memories here," says actor Elena Karmazin, speaking in what she calls her raspy "Lindsay Lohan" voice, an unavoidable condition when you're tasked with screaming for five hours a night.
Karmazin juggles two other daytime jobs along with Terror Behind the Walls. "I scare one person, and then I have to do it 1000 more times, until midnight, sometimes 1 a.m., each night. The endurance is a lot to keep up, and many of us have full-time jobs outside of this, but I think I'm not alone in saying I'd do it for free. When you're scaring someone and you see that they're truly enjoying themselves, it's one of the biggest natural highs."
Behind the scenes, Terror Behind the Walls is much more of a gigglefest than a horrorfest. Songs like Ariana Grande's "No Tears Left to Cry" and Haddaway's "What is Love" blare from the speakers inside the green room, creating a party-like atmosphere where at any given time, someone might burst out with a shrieked, "You know it only takes five pounds of pressure to bite off a finger. It's all it takes."
"It's intense and it's crazy — once you get in there, you can't break character, and the hysteria is all around you, and it just doesn't stop," says Peter Corbett, an actor and attraction manager of the Infirmary, one of six themed attraction areas. "But it's one of the most fun experiences I've ever participated in. To be able to come in here and embody another persona is really freeing, almost cathartic. I can take any stress from earlier in the day and channel it into this Terror Behind the Walls universe."
For Corbett, who can be found constantly high-fiving and hugging his coworkers in the hours leading up to showtime, his favorite part of the pre-show prep is the makeup.
After receiving a highly contoured look with sullen, deep red eyes, bulging black veins, and gaunt purple cheeks, Corbett's final touch is a layer of black European Body Art tooth stain. Britt Gentsch uses a Q-tip to spread the stain between every crevice of his mouth, and then sends him on his way.
As a manager of 19 other actors, Corbett has no time to waste post-makeup. He takes a sip of iced coffee from a straw between his rotten teeth, and then hastily scurries to the entrance of the deranged-hospital-themed section where his team awaits.
"Stretch time," Corbett yells out, kicking off a series of ritualistic pre-show drills.
The actors start moving into forward folds, lunges, standing quad stretches, and other poses that give insight into how physical the night is destined to be. Towering behind them, two sculptural zombie props stand with their arms reaching forward into the horizon, making them appear as if they, too, are joining in the preparation for all of the crouching, crawling, grabbing, and shaking that lay ahead.
The stretch session transitions into a "scare circle," in which the actors huddle together like a football team. Corbett kicks off a round of shrieking and shouting that moves counterclockwise as each actor takes his or her turn warming up their vocals. A wave of dialogue follows.
"We have to leech the eyeballs before we rip them out." "Which of these two hands are you least attached to? We'll take the right one."
The actors start spitting out their best macabre one-liners in feverish and frenzied voices, before further tightening the huddle and breaking into a wild chant. Fists raised to the sky, the energy builds as everyone starts shaking and howling like a maniac.
Eventually, Corbett breaks in to lead the final warm-up ritual, a call-and-repeat cheer that begins with him shouting, "Boils, bruises, gangrene rot."
His team responds back, "Deadly infections are what we've got."
"These people are my family at this point. We always joke that once Terror season ends, we're just counting down until it begins again," says Karmazin, wearing all-white contacts.
For most of the seasoned actors, it's the friendships that keep them coming back year after year to perform.
"There's a huge diversity of people who work here but we all love Halloween, and costumes, and the sinister, which create these immediate bonds between us all," says Marty Ciaudelli, who works as an oral surgical nurse by day. "I couldn't do this without them. You're obviously not happy and up every single day, so you need your brothers and sisters to help you out. I can be having a bad day, and I walk in here and I instantly gain the energy to run around all night."
At 65, Ciaudelli is the oldest person currently performing. Acting in the haunted house was a longtime item on his bucket list, one he decided to pursue after being diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer two years ago.
"With cancer, you're constantly thinking, 'Oh god, it's going to come back,' but this makes me feel good and takes away those thoughts as I become someone else for the night," says Ciaudelli.
While the side job often prevents him from returning home until 2:30 in the morning, he thrives on the energy that his fellow — and often much younger — coworkers bring, and also the bizarre experiences that inevitably unfold each season.
"Some of the things that people say to you when they walk through are just really strange, which makes it really hard not to break character," says Ciaudelli. "I've had people curse at me, people tell me I'm doomed … one lady tried to kiss me on the lips."
As much as 60 percent of the historic Eastern State Penitentiary's yearly operating budget comes from Terror Behind the Walls. The attraction draws more than 100,000 people each year, which inevitably creates all sorts of unthinkable scenarios. Corbett says the most rewarding is when what they call the "body drop" occurs, a situation where someone gets so startled that their knees give out and they momentarily drop to the floor.
"There was one time when I was brushing people's ankles from a dark corner, and a dad, mom, and their two daughters walked by," says Corbett. "I gave the dad's ankles a little brush, and when the family noticed that their pillar of safety literally fell to the floor, all of the girls started running and screaming their heads off. It's little moments like those where it's hard not to laugh."