And this is during the day. | Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
And this is during the day. | Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

This Former Prison Is Throwing the Best Halloween Party Ever

Officially it goes until November 13. But the spookiness happens year-round.

The building is terrifying on its own. An iron gate guards the entry to Eastern State Penitentiary, which sits on 11 acres dropped right in the middle of Philadelphia. Hulking 30-foot walls surround the Gothic Revival fortress.

Inside, paint peels in nuclear green layers. Some crumbling cells have not been touched for over 30 years; in one sits an old barber’s chair, a pop of ominous red amid rubble. Rusted iron bed frames lean against walls. Some clothing still hangs, as though their owners vanished into thin air.

There are ghosts, of course—the disgruntled spirits of hardened criminals who were lost to suicide, torture, psychosis, and disease over the prison’s 142 years. Eastern State Penitentiary has been called one of the most haunted places in America, with reports of shadowy figures in Cellblock 6, cackling voices in Cellblock 12, a ghostly guard that patrols the dilapidated hallways, and specters of victims reportedly haunting Al Capone himself, who was locked away here for eight months.

Need a haircut? Seems to be in working order. | Zack Frank/Shutterstock

These days, you can take it all in on a daytime tour. And right now though November 13th, these eerie halls are hosting one of the most chilling—and entertaining—Halloween festivals there is. Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary not only lets you explore these famous grounds at night, but entertains with spooky attractions, tours, performances, food, and even a creepy cocktail or two.

This annual event turns 30 this year and they’re going all out. Ticket prices vary (tip: they’re cheaper online) but for $60 or less, you can wander through four disorienting haunted houses—where terrifying beings make sport of jump scares and neon monsters are given added dimension (if you opt-in for the 3D glasses, that is).

Make your way through a skeleton-filled bus to The Crypt where vampires roam, or stop by the Bloodline Lounge for a hemoglobin-themed cocktail and a selfie with the undead. You can also see the cell where Al Capone actually stayed; now it’s a speakeasy where ghostly flappers perform throwback tunes.

Sure she's a ghost, but she puts on a great show. | Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

A historical audio tour is narrated by Steve Buscemi, and a flashlight tour allows visitors to venture into the prison’s old hospital block at night for the first time. The award-winning Prisons Today exhibit dives into the current state of mass incarceration, and the Big Graph charts incarceration rates in the US by race, and in comparison to the world.

At the Fair Chance Beer Garden, brews are provided by Triple Bottom Brewing, which employs people who have experienced homelessness or incarceration. Pizza is courtesy of Down North, which also hires the formerly incarcerated; they’ve topped restaurant lists from Bon Appetit to the New York Times (and was recently named the best square slice in Philly).

See some dancing zombies at the Gargoyle Gardens or a misfit band at the Junkyard Jams scrap heap. Wind down at the S’mores and Lore, which pairs ghost stories with melty marshmallows. Then do it all again, if you dare.

Sometimes the theme from "Halloween" just wafts out of it. True story. | Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Opened in 1829 in a then-rural area of Cherry Hill (now Fairmount), Eastern State Penitentiary was a marvel of its time. When it was completed in 1836 for $780,000, it was one of the most expensive buildings of the day, boasting heat, plumbing, and running water before even the White House.

The space, initially intended for 250 inmates in the first solitary confinement "penitence" model, eventually held 1,700. With squalid conditions and frequent riots, the whole thing shut down in 1971—but not before it was designated a National Historic Landmark. “We think because Eastern State was open as an active prison from 1829 up until 1971, a lot of the United States’ history of incarceration took place at that one site,” says Brett Bertolino, Director of Operations at the penitentiary.

The site sat abandoned until the mid-1980s, when the City of Philadelphia formed the Eastern State Task Force: a group of architects, preservationists, and historians with an eye towards restoration and cementing its place in history.

Obviously they're using candles because it's energy-efficient. | Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

In 1991, Eastern State began hosting candle-lit ghost tours on Halloween nights to help raise funds. Eventually, they rebranded as the prison-themed Terror Behind the Walls (tagline: A haunted adventure in a real prison).

“We started adding ways for visitors to customize the experience,” says Bertolino, who is also a member of the Haunted Attraction Association. If you wore a special glowing necklace or a “bloody” X on your forehead, the actors might take you away on a gurney, or send you down a secret passageway.

With this 30th anniversary iteration of Halloween Nights, the experience has been fully overhauled. Visitors can roam and choose their own adventure, take in a performance, or just immerse themselves in the space. “You have Kaleidoscope Hall, where the 30-foot vaulted ceiling is projection-mapped, and there’s projections and moving lights and sometimes there are performers that move through those spaces,” says Bertolino. “It’s not scary. It could be creepy, but it could be beautiful.”

The new format also allowed them to re-think the theme. With its castle-like exterior, future Halloween Nights might get even more fanciful. “We were kind of in the mindset that it had to be prison-themed. Well, after 20 years that gets a little bit old,” says Bertolino. “When we went to a different model, our creative team was like, 'You mean we can finally talk about dragons??'”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Please direct her to your favorite haunted house.