Terror Behind the Walls: 'We don't just pop up and say boo'
Recognized as America's largest haunted house — and located inside the massive, castle-like walls of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philly — this year Terror Behind the Walls celebrates its 25th season with two brand attractions: Quarantine 4-D and Breakout.
Once inside the prison, visitors will learn of an infectious outbreak, the symptoms of which include hallucinations, blurry vision, distorted depth perception, and other mind-altering effects. Inside Quarantine: 4_D flat walls appear to have depth, creatures emerge from nowhere, and some brave visitors will be challenged to face their worst fears.
For Break Out, the final attraction in the show, visitors find themselves in the middle of a prison break, with crazy inmates surrounding them and using every means imaginable to escape, including ropes, tunnels, ladders and crates. As warned by the creators, visitors must keep an eye out at every corner, as inmates may even be using them to aid in their attempt to gain freedom.
According to Amy Hollaman, creative director of Terror Behind the Walls, one of the biggest challenges is making sure that the show stands out as a Halloween experience.
“The horror genre seems to get more and more popular in the United States. There are a lot more horror films, horror video games ... so our haunted house is up against a lot of these Halloween entertainments and we want to be different,” Hollaman said.
Terror Behind the Walls has grown from a single-night event in 1991 to a 30-night Halloween tradition. Having a mix of first-time visitors and a lot of returning ones, creativity is put into place so the performances feels different every season.
This year the show embarked on the most ambitious redesign in its history, demolishing two of its previous attractions. According to the creative director, the setting of a massive haunted prison can be limiting at times when it comes to a storyline that fits and that can give visitors a different experiences in an hour-long event.
“There are six attractions in the show. Quarantine 4-D and Breakout are brand new. (The new attractions) change the story, the feeling and the climax. So that is what we’ve done this year to really freshen things up and it is something I think, so far, has been very successful,” Hollaman said.
A project that takes almost a year in the making, the haunted house involves experts in costuming, makeup, theatrical and technical design. As early as May it begins production with the development of prosthetics and makeup, as well as the fabrication of the costumes.
By August the project continues, hiring the actors and operational staff, part of a total of 250 staff members.
“Each night we have about 200 performers on the show. It takes about three hours to get each of them into costume and makeup,” Hollaman said. “We have a professional costume department with 14 professional artists, who are working every night to get everybody in the look they need to be in for the attraction.”
Once they finish makeup they do a warmup, “the same way as if you were in a sports team.” The process involves much more than just screaming at people.
“Because the show is so long you can ran out of voice if you don’t use it properly. Actors need to have discipline because we don’t just pop up from behind the wall and say Boo!” Hollaman said. “You really have (in the process) some sophisticated scare tactics and different types of techniques that are more specialized. So while we want people to act like they’re crazy, they actually have to be cool, calm and collected as to what the logistics of their scare involves.”
For that reason, actors who are part of the Terror Behind the Walls experience have to be very particular. Among other things they have to love Halloween and they have to love scaring people. They also have to have a lot of energy to run for 30 show nights, each show lasting from six to eight hours.
Currently in her third year as creative director, Hollaman started her collaboration with Terror Behind the Walls as an actress. “I’ve played tons of different characters. One year my job was to fill in for different people so when I come in I wouldn’t know what role I was going to play.”
From zombie prison guard to hallucination, from monster to hunchback, Hollaman said she still works alongside the actors from time to time so she never loses touch with how hard the job is. “But also, how fun it is to scare people,” she added.
“It is in the heart and soul of Philadelphia, we are the most popular haunted house in the country outside of a major theme park like Universal Studios. People come from all over to see this event,” Hollaman said.
More than half of the visitors who attended in 2014 traveled to Philadelphia for the event, with tickets sold to visitors in 49 states and 21 foreign countries — making it a national and international destination for thrillseekers and Halloween lovers.
The current season ends with REMIX: Lights Out, which takes place on the final two show nights of Nov. 6 and 7. All six attractions that comprise Terror Behind the Walls will be open and fully staffed, but you will experience them in the dark. With the light from just a single glowstick leading the way, you will be left to find your own way out of the pitch-black, narrow, back hallways of the 11-acre penitentiary.
All proceeds from Terror Behind the Walls benefit the preservation of Eastern State Penitentiary, a National Historic Landmark. For schedule and ticket information visit Eastern State.