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.