by Kimberly Paynter and Len Lear
The massive Eastern State Penitentiary, a gothic, castle-like structure at 22nd and Fairmount in the city’s Fairmount neighborhood, is also home to one of the nation’s largest and top-rated haunted attractions, “Terror Behind the Walls.” Once the most famous and expensive prison in the country, Eastern State Penitentiary now stands as a living ruin with long empty cell blocks and remnants of the past.
Designed to scare the heck out of visitors, Terror Behind the Walls includes Hollywood-quality special effects and lighting, digital sound, animatronic creatures and custom props. More than 200 performers are needed for six separate attractions in the 11-acre complex.
What does it take to be hired as an intimidator or a creeper at the prison? A lot of energy and stamina, said Terror Behind the Walls’ creative director Amy Hollaman on the opening night (Sept. 22) of the 2017 season.
Of 300 employees, 200 of them get gory every evening to frighten visitors. Hollaman said the casting process starts in August, when the actors are asked to give it their all in a group audition. The key is variety. “It’s an hour-long experience,” she said. “We don’t just want people popping out from behind a wall. You get bored!”
Jenny Tomczack was dressed like a ninja with only her eyes showing, the left one obscured by a milky white contact lens. She’s been part of the show for 14 years. During the day, she works as an insurance agent, but she said she transforms when she walks through the prison gates. She credits her time as an actor for Terror Behind the Walls with making her more creative — and a leader, which led to a promotion at her day job.
Scaring people night after night can be exhausting, and Tomczack said the actors need to take care of themselves. “Keep your mind full of evil intentions,” she said, “and also be able to balance family and doing your laundry.”
Attraction manager Kenny Wittwer was in charge of getting a group of zombies hyped up for the night. They start by getting into makeup and costumes, then doing stretches and screaming to get loose. It’s unlike any other job opportunity out there, Wittwer said. His best advice for being scary is to find the darkness in your soul. “Any kind of weird energy you have, just let it out! No filters, no restraints. Just go big, or go home,” he said.
He’s also happy that the money raised by the attraction goes to restore the historic Eastern State Penitentiary site and keep it open for the daytime tours that focus on education around the American criminal justice system.
Wittwer was also profiled in the Sept. 29 issue of the Philadelphia Gay News. He was quoted as saying, “I found out about Terror Behind the Walls through friends at Franklin Institute (where he previously worked). They would tell me, ‘You have crazy energy, and you’re really weird. You’d fit right in.’”
On yelp.com, the customer review website, the first review of Terror Behind the Walls is from Rachel S., of Woodbury, New York (the first six reviewers all gave “Terror” five stars), who wrote: “It was awesome! I don’t get scared easily, so it didn’t really scare me much; don’t get me wrong, there were some moments that got me, but my friends definitely got scared, and we could hear people walking in front and behind us screaming.
“A group of people behind us actually got so scared that they went running right past us. It was actually very funny to watch … Dress warm, though, because you will be standing outside for parts, and even in the prison it is cold since it is a historic building; they don’t exactly have central heat!”
We recently had dinner at Jack’s Firehouse, which has been right across the street from the prison for 30 years. There were huge crowds across the street waiting to get into the prison when we walked in. Occasionally we saw people coming out of the event screaming and running down the street. Mick Houston, owner of Jack’s Firehouse, told us, “When people call here for reservations in October, I suggest that they come in November instead because the crowds for the prison are so huge. They can be really loud, and parking places are really hard to find.”