Get Spooked at Philly’s Eastern State Penitentiary

The historic prison museum has a haunted house that will scare you stiff.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Two places of interest were on Charles Dickens’ bucket list when he visited the United States in 1842: Niagara Falls and Eastern State Penitentiary. Opened in 1829, the Gothic prison’s design—based on the belief that convicts needed time alone to discover their good nature—included skylighted cells in seven cell blocks spread out like the spokes on a wheel. Through exhibits and tours, this Philadelphia slammer-turned-museum offers a fascinating look at both the history of incarceration and its current state.

The sobering Prisons Today exhibit highlights several reasons for the United States’ incarceration rate (the highest in the world), the effect it has on our eligible electorate, and how race and early life experiences impact a person’s chances of landing behind bars. Actor Steve Buscemi, along with former officers and inmates, narrates a free audio tour that includes details on why the buildings had central heat and hot water before the White House, and provides a glimpse into the stories behind infamous inmates Al Capone (and his “posh” cell), “Slick Willie” Sutton and Pep the Dog, an imprisoned canine. Added in May, a guided tour of the hospital wing reveals how the prison handled a tuberculosis outbreak and mentally ill patients.

A daytime visit to Eastern State is daunting, but the museum’s popular Terror Behind the Walls haunted house will scare you straight. Consistently ranked a top Halloween experience, including “#1 Haunted Attraction in the U.S.” by Forbes in 2013 and 2014, the spooky experience can be “enjoyed” on select evenings from Sept. 22 through Nov. 11.

Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia; 215-236-3300, $10-$14 online ($2 more at the door).Terror Behind the Walls: $19-$45 online ($5-$6 more at the door).

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