Arep goes to jail
Despite what many of you may guess, it wasn’t indecent exposure that brought me to prison. I was invited by some of my friends to visit Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia for their yearly Terror Behind the Walls haunted house. ESP is the world’s first true penitentiary and it is also supposedly haunted. The fact that it is a crumbling ruin only adds to that claim. I’ve always maintained a healthy open-minded skepticism about the afterlife so I was excited to see if I could experience….something.
We left from Baltimore Saturday morning so we could spend the day walking around Philadelphia before heading over to the penitentiary for our 10:30pm ticket time. We had lunch in a place called the Devil’s Alley which was once an actual alley that they had enclosed with a building. You could still see the outside walls of the buildings on either side. It was even more obvious when you went downstairs to use the bathroom. It smelled and felt just like an actual alley…take that as you will. The food was really good though and we were all starving by the time we walked there.
The one thing I noticed about the city of Philadelphia was that everyone had these little dogs. They might as well have been hamsters. You couldn’t go a block without running into someone with one or more of these little rats on a leash. Once in a while we some someone with a “real” dog though so I can only imagine that they must sell them by the pound up there.
After a break to see if our rooms were ready (they weren’t) we wandered back out to go sightseeing. After only a couple of blocks, some of the group wandered into a store called the Philadelphia Home Art Gallery, or PHAG. Of course, I didn’t make the connection at the time but I certainly figured out by the time I was in the back of the shop that I was in an…alternate lifestyle store. It looked like a typical furniture/home décor store in the front but towards the back there were more and more Wizard of Oz memorabilia. I think the real clue was either the string of penis-shaped party lights or the framed picture of Batman and Robin making out. The place soon achieved “best store ever” status when I went upstairs and found St. Anthony, Patron Saint of Bacon. They had other things such as a Bobbie doll (Barbie’s lesbian friend) rubber duckies dressed like religious figures.
After we left PHAG we made our way to see the Liberty Bell and then took a walk to the waterfront. We went back to the hotel for a final rest before heading out to the prison. We got on the special tour bus and listened to the tour guide give us a comical backstory to the haunted house portion of the penitentiary. As we pulled up to the prison a guy dressed as a prisoner/zombie came running up to the bus on stilts to try and creep us out. That set the tone for the rest of the evening.
As we waited in line with a few thousand of our closest friends some of the actors were working the line trying to freak people out. You could usually tell they were coming by listening to the screams getting louder and louder. Sometimes your clue would be when all of the people around you went silent and stared at you in anticipation.
Eventually, we filled our way into the penitentiary proper and got ready to enter Terror Behind the Walls. First, we had to put our strategy in place. (Yes, there is a strategy) See, the key is to make sure there is a screamer in your group. The screamer then becomes the target for all of the ghouls and monsters waiting to jump out and scare you. I’ve come to think of this as the Scooby-Doo strategy. You need a Daphne in the front of the group and, preferably, a Shaggy/Scooby in the back as well. I got the four of us in line behind a teenage girl and her boyfriend. Our “Daphne” did her job perfectly, warning us whenever danger was lurking around the corner. My friend’s girlfriend became our “Scooby” when she let out a yelp after being startled…they picked on her from then on.
The whole thing was great. There was a section where you wore 3D glasses and went through a maze of things pushing out of the walls at you. At the end you wind up at a couple of booths where you can buy food and souvenirs. While we were looking around we watched one of the actors chasing this poor woman out of the haunted house, screaming her head off. Ah…yet another Daphne doing her job well.
The next day we returned to the prison to tour it without all of the phony zombies. This is the bit I was really looking forward to. I wanted to see for myself if I felt anything strange. You see, the word ‘penitentiary’ comes from the principle on which the punishment is based. When the place opened in the 19th century the prisoners were kept in complete isolation. The walls were so thick that you couldn’t hear your neighbor. You were let outside twice a day through a tiny door in the back of your cell that led to an enclosed “kennel.” Whenever a guard had to enter the cell they placed a bag over the prisoner’s head so that they were denied even that basic human contact. As a prisoner you had to sit there, penitent, thinking about your crime and reading your Bible. Paraphrasing the words of actor/director Steve Buscemi (the narrator for the audio tour) if any place could be haunted it would be this one.
Well, I won’t waste your time…I didn’t really experience anything. I had a weird moment when my audio tour device locked up as I went through one of the cell blocks. One of my friends had her camera battery drain completely as she entered a cell. That’s about it. I experienced a few cold drafts but it’s a crumbling stone building with lots of holes in the walls on an October day. The place was really creepy but I don’t think I would have much of a problem staying there alone.
Once you stop looking for ghosts the architecture of the place was really cool. The original layout had a central area where the guards sat with each cell block radiating out from it like spokes in a wheel. The guards had a completely unobstructed view of the entire prison from that room. The place is an actual ruin so we couldn’t go everywhere. There was a bit where they showed you what movies/music videos had been shot there including 12 Monkeys, a Sting’s “All This Time” album cover, and Tina Turner’s music video for “We Don’t Need Another Hero”.
All in all it was a great weekend and I highly recommend both the Terror Behind the Walls event and the tour of the prison if you find yourself near Philadelphia. So, now you see the kind of rambling you get when I don’t talk about games…
“Is it safe?”