Terror Behind the Walls offers uniquely-authentic haunted attraction inside Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary

in Entertainment, Events

Visitors to Inside the Magic have come to enjoy coverage of themed entertainment topics from Central Florida and California. But these two parts of the United States are not the only areas providing immersive experiences this Halloween season. So today we bring you 1,000 miles north of Orlando to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where one particular haunted attraction thrills guests in a way no other can.

Situated inside the reportedly haunted halls of Eastern State Penitentiary (called the world’s first true “penitentiary”), “Terror Behind the Walls” offers visitors a 5-haunted house, 45-minute experience featuring hundreds of actors and custom-built props, animatronics, sound effects, and lighting.

Here’s a quick video run through a few of the haunted scenes from Terror Behind the Walls:

Now in its 19th year, Terror Behind the Walls first began as a simple, one-night kid-friendly Halloween event. But in 1997 it was transformed by program director Sean Kelley into what has become a world-class haunted attraction. The event’s haunted houses feature a familiarly frightful tone as popular theme park haunts like Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights and Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream. But Terror Behind the Walls’ haunted houses are set apart from these events by existing on their own, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia and enhanced by the surroundings of Eastern State Penitentiary.

Eastern State Penitentiary cells

The penitentiary was abandoned in the ’70s, left to decay. With peeling paint, cracking concrete, unintentional skylights, and rusty cell doors, Eastern State Penitentiary is an environment that haunted attraction designers dream of – and even try to recreate inside warehouses across the country.

Terror Behind the Walls creative director Jason Ohlsen But the current designer behind Terror Behind the Walls utilizes this location to the fullest. While touring through part of the experience, creative director Jason Ohlsen (pictured right) pointed many spots where his creations meet authentic prison elements. A visitor walking a typical corridor in one of the haunted houses might find a cold tile wall on the right, a part of the real prison, with another nearly identical tile wall on the left, carefully recreated by Ohlsen and his team to match the authentic one opposite it. Piles of broken and discarded old furniture and medical supplies from when Eastern State Penitentiary was operational create more eerie ambiance for the haunted attraction.

The five haunted houses are sequential and act somewhat as a single story, taking guests through plenty of sinister scenes. It all begins before guests even step foot into the first haunted house. Entry into Terror Behind the Walls is by timed tickets, allowing a more personal experience throughout the attractions, rather than the “conga lines” that plague the nation’s most popular Halloween theme park events. Ohlsen admitted that while the continuous line strategy would likely result in more tickets sold, the team has decided to keep the experience as it has been since Sean Kelley first introduced the timed ticketing system in 1997.

While guests wait for their timed entry into the attraction, actors terrorize them outside from the moment they line up. During our Terror Behind the Walls tour, Ohlsen was eager to show off to me one of his latest costume creations, the “chain gang.” This gag guarantees to solicit screams as a group of three somber inmate actors appear relatively motionless, chained together at the hip, when suddenly the outermost two pull apart their chains (secretly linked magnetically) and run after unexpecting guests. The result, apparently, is hilarious.

Beyond the queue, Terror Behind the Walls begins with “Intake,” leading visitors past mutated prison guards and into the penitentiary. “Lock Down” places guests into the prison’s Cell Block 12 past deranged inmates, followed by a trip into “Infirmary” for a gruesome look at the prison’s medical care (or lack thereof).

Terror Behind the Walls - Infirmary

Terror Behind the Walls - Infirmary

Terror Behind the Walls - Infirmary

Beyond that lies “The Experiment,” during which guests don 3-D glasses and are surrounded by what amounts to a sensory-overload of color.

Terror Behind the Walls - The Experiment

Terror Behind the Walls - promo shot - The Experiment

Finally, “Night Watch” immerses guests into pitch blackness, guided only by tiny LED flashlights given out to lead the way through the end of the terror.

For those who survive the quintuple-onslaught of back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back mazes, plenty of photo opportunities and merchandising are available to help remember the night. And those who want to venture beyond the fictitiously haunted realm of Terror Behind the Walls and into the potentially haunted walls of Eastern State Penitentiary may want to try the new for 2010 After Dark VIP Tour, which combines the haunted attraction experience with a nighttime flashlight tour of the national landmark, including the underground isolation cells and Death Row.

Back in the “green room,” Ohlsen showed me around the event’s make-up and costuming areas. Despite the appearance of the crumbling walls and ceilings that make up much of Eastern State Penitentiary and give Terror Behind the Walls its unique atmosphere, nothing but a professional work environment lies behind the scenes. A talented team of make-up artists and tailors work relentlessly to ensure each actor is dressed for the part. New this year are custom Terror Behind the Walls patches adorning the jackets of psycho security guards (and for sale in the event’s gift shop).

Terror Behind the Walls costumes

The backstage walls are lined with cast photos and posters from the previous 19 years of Terror Behind the Walls, reminding everyone involved of how far they’ve come, emerging from a tiny, fundraising Halloween event in 1991 to become one of the United States’ leading haunted attractions today.

Anyone in the Philadelphia area looking for a good scare combined with a dose of United States history need not venture further than Easter State Penitentiary and Terror Behind the Walls. The event began on September 17 and runs on select nights through November 6, 2010, so don your most ghoulish costume (they’re welcome) and prepare for an authentically haunted good time.

Visit EasternState.org to find out more about dates and tickets for both Eastern State Penitentiary and Terror Behind the Walls.

More photos from Terror Behind the Walls and Eastern State Penitentiary:


  1. I have a few friends who are staffed at E. State Penn for the holiday season. We got in the night before it opened and I must say, this is the craziest it’s EVER been. Glad I only live a few miles from this place because it’s definitely a great haunt!

    1. Captian_Nemo

      I live a few miles away too! best Halloween event I have seen so far. It’s great all year round doing the audio tours also

  2. Frank Dlugiom

    It’s been a few years since my last visit to a haunted house. I have been to a few though, some good, some bad, and one that was amazing.  And I do love a good scary movie. Terror Behind The Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary was a disappointment.

    The costumes and makeup were well done. Some actors and actresses roam around while you wait in line to get into the main event, sneaking up behind people and scaring them.  It makes the wait easier because you are constantly anticipating being startled or watching it happen to others.  But the actual event was a let-down.  

    Before going into detail I must first tell of an insightful observation that my girlfriend made.  There was one actor going through the crowd messing with people as they arrived.  He was particularly good at his character (definitely one of the best there)  He came up to us several times while online and said in his creepy voice “you wanna be first?(snickering) you’ll figure it out”.  A cliched line that I  thought he was posing as a question.    But it was indeed an ominous warning of things to come.  As my girlfriend astutely noted at the end of our experience, that zombie prison guard was actually making a statement, not asking a question.  It was advice from a friend that we dismissed as a haunted-house banter from a guy in character. In reality he was giving us instructions. “you wanna be first” or else it completely sucks. And he was right, we did “figure it out.”

    So, back to my review.
    Overall, It just wasn’t frightening.

    The key to a good scare is not knowing it’s going to happen. But they have so many people to get in there that it is a bit rushed.  They let you in with at least 10 or 12 other people in a single-file line.  9 out of 10 times you know something is coming a few seconds before it happens to you because you hear and/or see it happen to the guy a few paces ahead. And that’s the best case scenario-that’s if you get lucky enough for it to happen to you!

    Half of the tour is done through a maze of make-shift plywood partitions in the courtyard, which disappointed me because I imagined the creators would have used the amazing setting of the interior of the prison much more than they did. There was nothing frightening in this part at all.

    After you get through the courtyard and into part of the prison there are only a small handful of rooms designed well for scaring (almost all of those however are spoiled though if you yourself, are not the very first person in your line) other rooms are just like stations that you walk by where you very briefly watch an actor perform some kind of action like pretending to operate on a body or they repeat some one-liner.  There was an overall lack of blood and guts but this ingredient was especially lacking in the infirmary portion.

    I live about an hour from the place so it wasn’t a terrible
    distance to travel.  But it just wasn’t worth it. To put it in perspective I wouldn’t go back if it were right down the road from me and only $5-$10 for admission.

    1. Frank Dlugiom

      By the way, the terror behind the walls trip did leave us wanting
      To tour prison during the daytime even more than before. You don’t really see too much at night
      for the Halloween event

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