Hair-raising experience: ‘Don’t drop the soap’ at Eastern State Penitentiary

By Patricia J. Sheehan
October 13, 2006

Shane Evans

One cannot ignore the eerie feeling that takes over as they approach the massive stone walls of the Eastern State Penitentiary located in the Fairmont section of Philadelphia. Anxious spectators gather at the entrance and nervously chat about what lies ahead in the Terror Behind the Walls.

Terror Behind the Walls is a haunted house that runs for 24 nights out of the year. It is hosted by Eastern State and raises money solely to restore the historic landmark.

This haunted house employs over 130 actors dressed as escaped inmates, crazed guards and nutty doctors. It is ranked the fifth best haunted house in the nation, by a survey hosted by AOL City Guide in 2005. It also helps that it is held in a haunted prison, or so they say.

“It got started as a fundraiser. We’re a non-profit organization. All of the money we raise from Halloween, we put back into restoring the building. We’re a historic site that has a haunted house. It’s very important that we’re a historic site first,” Jason Ohlsen, technical director of exhibits, said.

Eastern State was built from 1822-1829 and was officially closed in 1971. The prison hosted notorious criminals such as Al Capone and Leo Callahan. Eastern State was an architectural gem and known for being one of the harshest prisons of all time.

Ohlsen is in charge of the haunted house design and development. After his graduation from Philadelphia University with an industrial design degree, Ohlsen worked a desk job but found that he needed more hands-on experience.

“My life was like ‘Office Space,’ so I quit and this came up. It’s been awesome and I’ve been doing it for three years now,” he said.

The actors’ makeup is a finely tuned processed which is kept up by the creative mind of Kristin Phillips, costume and makeup designer. All of the actors are required to show up two hours ahead of show-time so that each character’s makeup and costuming is perfect. Some of the masks worn by actors are made with latex, Styrofoam and even Corn Flakes which add to a burned or beaten appearance.

About 50 percent of the actors return each year but are required to re-audition for every season. Auditions are also held throughout the month to replace actors that may drop out. Some actors have been a part of the show for five years, including a woman in her 40s who loves the job so much that she suffers through traffic from Delaware everyday.

“We like to think that our actors are the most important part, the scariest part,” Ohlsen said.

As you go through the areas, be on the look out for the creepy chemists’ lab, the 3-D room and the inmates who can climb through their prison bars.

Sounds of shrieking followed by laughter fill the air as you exit the archway of Eastern State Penitentiary. One can only wonder, is it just the actors that fill the night with those bone-chilling screams?

Terror Behind the Walls runs through Oct. 31. Ticket sale information can be found at Campus activities and programming board is hosting a trip on Oct. 20 for $5 per student.

“I think it’s worth taking a trip there and I think it’s better than other haunted houses,” Marlana Moore, educational studies major, said.

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Patricia J. Sheehan

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