There is something kind of exhilarating about having the daylights scared out of you, especially when you have a date’s hand to cling to in the dark. In October, through Halloween, haunted houses pop up all over Philly and the surrounding area. These spook shows are fun, for sure – but they’re not cheap. Tickets to Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary during off-peak hours are $20, and go up from there. But, as I discovered on a recent date, this dilapidated prison fortress in Fairmount is pretty darn creepy all by itself, even in daylight hours. Get your imagination going by trading ghost stories over a cup of coffee at Mugshots across the street, then go walk the long, ghostly halls of Eastern State, which many believe to be haunted. If you dare.
Why this will impress your date: Because being scared on a date is kind of sexy. (Note: Being scared of your date is not).
The Inside Game: If you need something warmer than your date’s hand to hold onto, Eastern State will let you bring in your coffee.
Score Extra Points: By being able to give your date goose bumps with a great ghost story. Don’t have any? Borrow one fromTrue Ghost Stories or Your Ghost Stories. Both sites feature real stories of hauntings and other paranormal happenings.
Next date: Anytime. Eastern State Penitentiary is open 10-5pm, every day, year round.
How cheap we talkin’: $12 for daytime admission to Eastern State; 2$ for coffee or tea at Mugshots.
The afternoon that we decided to see the prison was gray and overcast, so we stopped in first at Mugshots for a warm-up. Mugshots Coffeehouse & Café has three Philadelphia locations, with the Fairmount branch occupying a prominent location on the corner of 21st and Fairmount Avenue, in the shadow of the Penitentiary. It’s a warm, clean-cut space, with plenty of plain wooden tables and chairs, and offers lots of choices in the coffee and tea department. We sat down, and the conversation turned to whether we thought the prison was haunted, whether we believed in ghosts, and whether we’d ever had an encounters with ghosts ourselves. Soon we were terrifying each other with all kinds of folklore, from tales of repeating “Bloody Mary” into a mirror to the one about the girl who stops her car in the woods and gets freaked out by scraping sounds on her car after hearing an announcement about an escaped inmate, and peels away only to discover later a bloody hook on the door handle. I’ve heard that story a hundred times, but somehow it still makes me shudder.
Sufficiently on-edge, we crossed the street and headed behind the thick, castle-like exterior walls of the prison. The room where you pay admission is also where you can pick up an audioguide, narrated by Steve Buscemi. Buscemi apparently took an interest in the prison after he visited it while scouting locations for a film. His unmistakable voice is fitting for the material, but my favorite part was how each segment ended with the ominous sound of a creaky prison door slamming shut.
The audioguide explains the history of the prison, which opened in 1829 with the radical and controversial aim of reforming inmates through a Quaker-inspired regimen of solitude, reflection, and penitence. Each prison cell was designed to be a self-contained unit, with no contact or communication allowed between prisoners. It is hard to imagine going months and years without seeing or speaking to another living soul. Yet, the “Penitentiary” soon became one of the most famous prisons in the world and its model was copied in all over the globe. The guide also talks about the building’s architectural significance as the first “modern” building in the United States. Each prisoner’s cell was centrally heated and had a flush toilet – at a time when the White House had no running water and was heated with a coal stove. However, debate over the humanity of isolation continued, and in 1913, the system was finally abandoned. However, Eastern State continued to serve as a prison until the 1971, housing such famous criminals as Al Capone, whose lavishly furnished cell has been restored to its original condition and remains on display.
The prison was constructed with a “wagon-wheel” design – long “spokes” of cell blocks are centered around a central hub. It was in need of renovations when it closed in 1971, and it remains dilapidated, with some parts in semi-ruin. It is dim and dank, and eerily silent, with most people walking around with their audioguides, and it is the kind of place where you can really imagine what it would be like to be a prisoner there in the 1800′s. It is also the kind of place you can really imagine that ghosts would reside, if they exist. In some cells, roots have taken hold and twisted tree trunks push their way up toward the tiny square of sun streaming in through the skylight. In others, the paint is peeling, and there is just emptiness and shadows.
The audioguide also recounts the stories, which are always fascinating, of the prisoners who tried to escape. One man who was involved in the famous Willie Sutton tunnel escape simply showed up at the prison door and asked to be let back in, because he was hungry. It was funny – for the same reason, after a few hours wandering around those grim grounds on an empty stomach, that’s why we wanted to get out.