Terror Brings Joy: Why Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls Matters

Through the annals of history, particularly in Philadelphia's history, there are moments of great achievement in the development of a new nation. Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence, and the celebration of those achievements on July 4th all come to mind.

Our regional history also includes a different kind of democractic institution: the Eastern State Penitentiary. Opened in 1829 as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through "confinement in solitude with labor," Eastern State Penitentiary quickly became one of the most expensive and most copied buildings in the young United States.

The Eastern State Penitentiary remained a functioning prison until its closing in 1971. Left primarily unused for 20 years and threatening to be demolished in the 80s, funding was received from The Pew Charitable Trusts in the early 90s and stabilization and preservation efforts begin.

In order to raise money to create a daytime tour program, a fundraiser was held on Halloween in 1991 and attended by a few hundred people. Since then, a Halloween fundraiser has been held at the Penitentiary each fall and attendance increased each subsequent year. Now known as "Terror Behind the Walls," this annual fundraiser has become one of the largest and most successful haunted attractions in the county.

Fundraising proceeds continue to go to the preservation of the prison, which in turn also allows for tours of the prison for people of all ages to learn about the history of prisons, scholarships to support school trips to the prison, group discussions about current prison reform, and a chance to see the infamous Al Capone’s cell.

The prison is not only famous for its Halloween attraction, but it has also been the location for shooting popular films such as Twelve Monkeys, Transformers, and Return to Paradise. The prison was also a featured in an episode of the Syfy channel’s Ghost Hunters, where the investigating team spent a night at the prison to detect paranormal activity within the prison.

Click on the links below for more information about Eastern State Penitentiary and its famous attractions:

Interested in learning about another historical prison in Philadelphia? Holmesburg Prison was built in 1896 and quickly earned a reputation for violence. The prison closed in 1995, when the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (named after two murdered wardens) opened.

The Philadelphia Prison System recently allowed a group of photographers to document the decaying structures at Holmesburg Prison. Click here to see a sampling of the photographs: https://hiddencityphila.org/2014/10/haunting-holmesburg-prison/


This article was written by Kyle Purchase on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association.

Photo credit: Chris Staley