Eastern State is eerie at night

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Eastern State Penitentiary’s first-ever night tours have proven so popular that the Fairmount institution is considering keeping them in lieu of Terror Behind the Walls.

The pandemic put the annual haunted house popup on hold this year, but Sean Kelley, ESP’s senior vice president, said the self-guided, late hour walkthroughs of the former prison have been a hit, selling out almost every night.

More than 100k visitors bought tickets to the yearly Halloween attraction. But it’s less about money than mission, Kelley said.

“We’re currently deciding whether or not to go back to Terror Behind the Walls, or back to night tours,” he told Billy Penn. “Terror Behind the Walls is extremely lucrative, but the night tours are closer to our mission.”

Opened in 1829, ESP was an archetype of the modern “penitentiary,” with isolated inmate cells and a heavily surveilled network of blocks, arranged like the spokes of a wheel around a center guard station. The prison closed in 1971 and was converted into a museum in the early ’90s.

In 2017, Eastern State pivoted to taking a more active role in educating people on the engorged criminal justice system in the U.S., which has more citizens per capita than any other country in the world by an enormous margin. Today the museum hires returning citizens and maintains a number of art exhibits and installations detailing the scope and impact of mass incarceration.

“It’s what the building can do,” Kelley said. “It can host conversations about civil rights conversations for our time.

Kelley noted that Terror Behind the Walls has diehard fans who the museum doesn’t want to disappoint. Many regulars have reached out to say how much they miss the annual frightfest. But some have also become fans of the night tour, the VP said.

Tickets should be booked in advance, due to the demand. There are also some walk-in slots or last-minute appointments that can be booked each night.

In compliance with local coronavirus safety regulations, the penitentiary has been limiting capacity, with 60 people per half hour across the 10.5-acre building compound. A recent visit found plenty of space to socially distance from other visitors. Masks are mandatory for all.

The tour itself will be familiar to visitors of ESP during the daytime, but with an eerie feel across the former prison compound at night. The castle-like walls are lit up, and the museum installed new lighting in the cell corridors — just enough to see your way around as you hear the harrowing stories of prisoner abuse and life in the yard from people who lived it.

The self-guided tours are also still narrated via headset by actor Steve Buscemi, who, while scouting film locations in Philadelphia two decades ago, became enamored during a visit to the penitentiary. In 2003, he recorded a new narration of the ESP story  — for free, Kelley said.

“He really is the perfect voice for the tour,” Kelley said.

Night tours continue through Nov. 15.

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...