Philadelphia’s Scariest Halloween Is Yet To Come

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Eastern State Penitentiary, passage connecting cellblock 4 and the central hub,
before stabilization, July 22, 2002. Photograph by Dick Gouldey.

It used to be Halloween was for kids: all fun and screams. Now it’s into the serious stuff of big business. Halloween’s about the bottom line. And at historic sites, it’s also about another line, the one that used to be a firewall between non-profit organizations and for-profit activity. In recent times, that line has gotten very squiggly.

Many historic sites subscribe to the principle that if it’s October, it’s OK to cross that line. Come November, it’s OK to cross back again—just in time to send out those end-of-the year, tax-deductable gift appeals that stuff your mailbox.

For better and for worse, Philadelphia’s biggest player of the Halloween scare-and-switch fundraising shtick is Eastern State Penitentiary. Not long after 1994, when the Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the 1820s landmark for its first season of interpretative tours, the Halloween seed was planted and nourished. Folks at Eastern State didn’t invent October magic, but they certainly reinvented it. Over the last two decades, Eastern State informs us, they’ve become “the nation’s premier haunted attraction, head and shoulders above the hay rides and other haunted houses out there. Our goal is to make you scared. Really scared.”

A couple of years ago, Haunted Attraction Magazine anointed Eastern State among the nation’s top three “must-see haunted houses” (it’s currently number 19.) Each year, the stakes grow greater and the slope gets more slippery.

Eastern State is hardly alone. Television’s Ghost Hunters (on the Syfy channel) launched its fifth season with a story of violence and death at the Betsy Ross House—from 1980. (Ghost Hunters’ current season exploits the 20th century horrors of overcrowded conditions at the closed Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Chester County.) Back in town, the City Tavern gets into the act with tales of a former waiter who died in a bar fight. Fort Mifflin brags of battlefield ghost Elizabeth Pratt, aka “The Screaming Woman.” There’s “The Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour.” Germantown has its “Ghosts of the Great Road.”

As the best in its class, Eastern State gets to charge as much as $30 per ticket, half of which goes to their bottom line. Then there’s a cut of parking sales and the “Fright and a Bite” dinner packages with nearby restaurants. Souvenirs stocked at the “nighttime haunted house store” include “Terror Behind the Walls” tee-shirts, shot glasses and boxer shorts (black only). Visitors can buy plush, miniature versions of “Frank the Gargoyle,” or the latest edition of Haunted Attraction Magazine, “the premier publication of the dark amusement industry.”

In 2009, according to documents filed with the IRS, Eastern State collected nearly $1.4 million from the fundraising event called Halloween. Where does that money go? A fire suppression system, stabilization of cellblocks, a tower cam. It’s no trick. Year after year, the bulk of Eastern State’s budget comes from Halloween treats.

What’s terrifying is that Eastern State has become deeply addicted to this funding scenario. And it summons up another frightening question: What is the site’s responsibility to the thousands of visitors lined up for a not-so-cheap thrill? It seems that during the Halloween fright-fest, Eastern State’s mission goes on hiatus, at least the part of it that claims to explain and interpret a “complex history; to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework; and to provide a public forum where these issues are discussed.” These issues, their mission statement adds, are “of central importance to our nation.” Even in October.

6 replies on “Philadelphia’s Scariest Halloween Is Yet To Come”

Well written article Ken. I am always impressed at the degree to which Temple professors and students engage with the local public history field.

In response to your observations, I disagree that the mission of Eastern State goes “on hiatus” during October. If anyone wants a tour of the site during October, the prison is still open during daytime hours, as usual. Before I attended the Haunted House last year, I enjoyed a well interpreted experience on the grounds of Eastern State during the afternoon. I learned of crime, punishment, reflection, architecture, religion, and many other important aspects of American history without any interference from the event.

From my recollection, I recall that the Haunted House is set up in a portion of the prison that is typically not a part of the Visitor experience. I applaud Eastern State for making use of an uninterpreted and unused area to generate further revenue. How is it any different then when a museum rents out their facility to business groups, or when other historical institutions host beer festivals or dance classes? The important thing to remember is that a historic site can serve many audiences, well beyond the typical visitors interested in history. Historic sites are a community space, and should be used for many purposes beyond interpretation.

That being said, I do think that the supernatural and haunted aspects of Eastern State could be used to effectively teach visitors about its history. I could see the Haunted House potentially addressing some juicy issues and interpreting new genres beyond the site’s standard tours, including:
– Is there oral tradition or documented accounts that discuss the supernatural beliefs of prisoners?
– How did prisoners cope with death?
– What were burial practices at the Penitentiary?
– How did family members of those who died imprisoned mourn?
– How has the haunted house evolved over the past 20 years–and responded to new visitor interests and tourism trends?

Certainly people want to be scared, and that is the main attraction–but perhaps these are some ways to integrate the prison’s rich history into a haunted house experience? I don’t believe Eastern State has made meaningful connections between the two just yet, but I do think that many people leave the Haunted House more interested in the site’s interpretation. It would be interesting to see how many people who attend the haunted house actually come back for a site tour. Or how many purchase the combo pack up front.

If haunted houses are bringing people to historic sites, then it is the public historian’s responsibility to find ways to engage visitors with history using these events. Its not how a visitor gets there, its what you do with them when they arrive!

All very good points. I, too, would like to see data on how many visitors come back for a “real” tour. (I’m guessing it’s a small percentage.) But I REALLY would like to know what misconceptions, stereotypes and generalizations are acquired by the thousands upon thousands who attend Halloween events at Eastern State and never return.

We can agree that this huge audience is all about potential at this point, but until that potential is realized, what is the current message and impact of the Halloween production? I hope we all get to know this someday, but until then, I’ll bet it’s inconsistent with the site’s mission.

Thanks, Rick, for making a few points that I would have made.

Ken, we believe this is a critical issue, as you know by attending our presentation of Anne Parsons’ critical discussion of the event in August. Video of that presentation can be found here:

But while we think its a critical issue, ignoring the funding issue makes the entire conversation a lot less meaningful, at least to those of us trying to save this building and interpret its complex history. You illustrated your story with a photo of a collapsed roof. Visitors to Eastern State today see that exact space carefully restored. Where do you think the money comes from to support our staff while we search for funding for projects like that? You don’t suggest an alternate funding source. Should we close the property on every day that we don’t generate enough daytime ticket sales to pay the tour guides? That would be most of them. We’re currently open seven days a week twelve months a year.

Finally, you hypothesize about the number of visitors who return for daytime tours. You should have just sent me an email. We track these numbers carefully, of course, as any professionally-run museum would. In 2009, exit surveys conducted during every month of our daytime operations asked visitors how they heard about the site. Just shy of 8% of visitors mentioned Terror Behind the Walls. In the same year, almost 10% of visitors had already been to Terror Behind the Walls. These may seem like a low numbers, but in marketing terms they are substantial. It accounts for more than 10,000 visitors a year who say they specifically came to the daytime tour because of their interest in Terror Behind the Walls.

And, in the same year, a survey of nighttime visitors asked how many would be interested in returning for a daytime tour: 95.7% of visitors said they did want to return for a daytime tour. A mere 4.3% said they were not interested in returning to learn about the building’s history.

The conversation is, as I say, critical. But to argue that there is a simple solution–just don’t host Halloween tours–misses the complexity of the challenges facing administrators of historic sties in the new millennium. A more nuanced discussion of either (a) how we run the Halloween tours, and what specific ways we could lessen their impact or (2) what business models could move fund raising away from Halloween tours would be far more compelling.

We do work with our creative team on all these issues every year, addressing everything from how we train our actors to how the building looks at night. We try to distance the site’s history from the nighttime tour to the maximum extent possible. That said, we acknowledge that the Halloween tours diminish the seriousness of the subjects we address in our daytime tours. Ken, we’d welcome your input in these discussions, and any other concerned stakeholders for that matter.

Sean Kelley
Senior Vice President
Director of Public Programming

Thanks for a great comment, Sean.

I never said you should STOP hosting Halloween tours. I DID say the site has become addicted to this funding stream. And like any addiction, it needs to be confronted. In ESP’s case, this might include hosting ongoing conversations in the profession and with the public about the practice and deeper exploration as to how to reach more Halloween visitors with the mission-based message. Heck, ESP’s in a position to literally “own” the challenge of managing two successful, conflicting identities – an enviable position for any historic site.

And as to the issue of where funds raised go: in addition to the mentions in my post, there’s more pictorial evidence at PhillyHistory here: and here:

Well, we agree more than we disagree, it would seem. I do want to reiterate that the Halloween event is drawing an audience to our daytime historic tours. That audience is young, the exact demographic that historic sites nationwide are increasingly unable to reach. The Eastern State audience therefore skews dramatically younger than most historic sites, a promising sign for the site’s future.

By total coincidence, a Temple student wrote yesterday about visiting the daytime tour after becoming interested on a Halloween tour. Note that he specifically mentions art installations and the sexuality in prison audio stops, aspects of our programming that address contemporary and challenging aspects of the this building’s history.

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