This year, Scare Zone took a weekend out of our busy Southern California haunt-stalking schedule to visit some of the biggest haunts in New York and Pennsylvania. On our first night, we experienced one of the most well-known haunts on the East Coast: Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This is one of those haunts that are always featured on Travel Channel shows in October, and the danger with these sorts of haunts is that they can be all hype and no substance (see our review of Cutting Edge in Texas, for example). But we can easily say that we found Terror Behind the Walls (TBTW) to live up to its reputation as one of the best and biggest haunts on the East Coast.
It was a drizzly night when we attended, and the foggy atmosphere helped to increase the feeling that it was actually Halloween season. October in California is usually just as hot as summer, so the rainy weather on the East was a welcome change for us (although we did experience the downside to Fall weather the next day, when the rain closed down the several hayrides in the area). The weather might also have kept crowds to a minimum, as the line was only about 20 minutes long. Outside the prison, zombie swat officers terrorized guests as they got in line. We waited in a small line to fill out a “waiver” (the waiver warns guests of unsafe conditions inside the prison), and then entered another line once inside the gates of the prison. More actors were on hand to scare people in line, and they did a really effective job of entertaining people during the wait.
Once we got to the front of the line, we were told that we had a choice to make: we could be marked with a red “X” on our face (the “monster tracker”), which meant that the actors could touch us, grab us, and possibly separate us from our group, or we could remain “unmarked” and avoid this extra terror. Of course, we opted for the full, “hands-on” experience. This was the first year TBTW employed this tactic, and we hadn’t experienced this type of thing in a haunt, except at “Gates of Hell” at Freakling Bros. (We later found out that this “touching” feature is popular with many haunts on the East Coast.)
TBTW consists of six separate mazes, but they are all daisy-chained, meaning that you go through all mazes consecutively and don’t really line up for each maze individually. For this reason, we won’t present full ratings for each haunt, but rather a general rating for the event at the end of this review.
The Gauntlet winds through scenes inside the prison and also outside into the prison yard, where prison guards and deranged prisoners lurk behind chain-link fences, abandoned prison buses, and other scenes. This maze has a chaotic mix of lighting and sound, but for the most part wasn’t that scary. The outdoor scenes were too well lit to really hide any actors, but it was a good first maze to get the blood warmed up.
This attraction is the full prison experience, going right inside the old, abandoned prison blocks, which in themselves hardly need any set dressing because they are so creepy anyway. Inmates lunge at you from behind the bars, and sometimes even escape their cells to chase you down. Since we were “marked,” we were grabbed a lot in this maze, with actors touching our legs and ankles. This maze also had a lot of fog and strobe effects, and the disorienting darkness made us easy targets for the actors, and we found ourselves screaming a lot in this one.
As its name implies, this is the prison’s hospital. Scary nurses and doctors assaulted us, and the corridors were filled with stretchers and archaic, rusted instruments of medicine. The whole thing was lit appropriately in a sickly yellow glow. In this maze, our “monster tracker” really caught up with us, and one of us was forced to lie on a table while a maniacal doctor attempted to inject us using a scary needle. This was one of the scariest and most detailed mazes at TBTW.
This maze goes through an original 1800s cellblock that has been completely overgrown with plants. So the maze has a greenhouse-type of theme, with even some actors dressed as bushes and plants. The bush monsters scared us a couple of times, but overall, there wasn’t much terror to be found in this jungle.
Although this maze uses a lot of standard 3D paint techniques we’ve seen in a lot of other haunts, what sets it apart from others we’ve experienced is the way the scares are set up. TBTW has managed to take simple neon dot rooms or splatter paint walls and make the scares actually work. For example, we passed through a neon splatter paint room, and saw what looked like a painting of a head on the wall, which actually turned out to be a cutout in the wall containing a wig head, which was thrust into our faces as we passed. Yeah, the scares in here are a bit silly, but we kept screaming at the silliest stuff. And to us, that’s a huge success for a 3D maze.
The last maze is very dark and in some parts is pitch black. The lack of lighting means there aren’t very detailed sets here, but the darkness is the scare factor. We thought this maze, along with Infirmary, topped the list of the scariest attractions at TBTW.
TBTW is a great value, with six solid attractions that offer a high scare factor. We suggest attending early in the season or any day but Saturday to avoid long lines and get the best ticket deals. The bonus with having a haunt set in an actual abandoned prison is that even when you’re not in one of the mazes, you still feel like you’re inside an attraction, since the prison grounds are creepy themselves. The corridors in between mazes were also filled with scareactors, fog, and strobe lights, providing a totally immersive experience throughout the night. The addition of the “monster tracker” also made the whole experience more fun, so we suggest you go for the full experience and allow yourself to be marked. Overall, we highly recommend checking out Terror Behind the Walls on your next East Coast haunt jaunt.
Terror Behind the Walls Overall Ratings:
- Haunt Design: 4.5 skulls
- Theming: 4.5 skulls
- Scare Factor: 4.5 skulls
- Fright Value: 5 skulls