Eastern State Penitentiary is scary enough on any ordinary day — with its intimidating neo-Gothic structure and dark history as a prison dating back to 1829. When Halloween season rolls around, however, Eastern State Penitentiary becomes the perfect setting for a haunted attraction and for the past 26 years, its Terror Behind the Walls event has been a Philadelphia tradition.
While I’ve gone through the 11-acre prison many times as an attendee, I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be an actor in the production. This year, I got to find out, as I was invited to perform as a zombie nurse for one night of fright.
I arrived straight from work, sans makeup and drained from a long day at the office. But the minute I entered the backstage area, the 200 actors I encountered had the sort of enthusiasm that was contagious.
There I met Costume and Props Director Alisa Kleckner, who had my zombie nurse costume all ready to go. “This one of our favorite looks,” she said after helping attach my leather belt and metal syringe.
Next, it was time for hair and makeup, which turned out to be a multistep process. “We’re going to put boils on you,” the makeup artist informed me. “But first, we are going to airbrush on foundation. You’re not allergic to peanuts, right?”
Apparently, the foundation is made from peanut oil because it lasts longer. Luckily, I don’t have a peanut allergy. The colors used were ‘corpse’ and ‘rancid’ — popular with the living dead everywhere.
The finishing touches were pretty standard — mascara, eyeliner and dark brown lipstick. “Even zombie nurses come back to the beauty basics,” I joked. My retro hairdo was magically whipped together in five minutes — certainly some hocus pocus involved there, along with an insane amount of hairspray.
While I now looked the part of the zombie nurse, I still felt like a stressed out Metro reporter, so it was time to call in professional help from Creative Director Amy Hollaman, who gave me a quick acting lesson in a dark, deserted prison hallway.
First, we loosened up the body with a bunch of fun vocal exercises — going from soft to loud, making unearthly guttural sounds that bear a striking similarity to the noises I make when I’m on a tight deadline. Then it was time for the physical part — stretches and developing the basic body movement of my character. I decided on a hunched posture, curled fingers and a wicked witch type of vocal inflection.
There was one more step left before I was ready to unleash Zombie Nurse onto unsuspecting Terror Behind the Walls visitors and that was learning the rules, which are typically drilled into actors over an intensive two-week training — instead of a mere fifteen minutes beforehand. Hollaman said, “The biggest rule is no touching unless the person has a red glow band around their neck.”
She added: “Our goal is always to entertain, not traumatize visitors. We want them to scream and laugh. An actor’s first priority is always safety.”
With safety in mind, I was not given the job of “drilling” in the dentist’s office, but simplygreeting visitors and coaxing the ones with red glow bands to sit into the dentist’s chair for a terrifying check-up.
In the beginning, I was hesitant to interact too much with the people walking through, but once I got into character, it became really fun. I learned how perceived threats — the sound of the drill for instance — are just as frightening as the real deal. A few attendees were completely mortified by my character and that kind of feedback helped fuel the rest of my performance.
Will this experience take away from my future walkthroughs of Terror Behind the Walls as a guest? Definitely not. It’s still going to be scary because all the knowledge in the world cannot compete with our basic survival instincts. Even a light touch from a boil-covered zombie gets the adrenaline pumping.
At the end of the night, as the makeup artist removed the my makeup (everyone gets cleaned up before going home), I couldn’t help but wonder if the staff thought Eastern State Penitentiary was really haunted. Hollaman admitted to having a paranormal experience there a few years back.She was all alone there with a colleague cleaning makeup brushes in dead silence, when all of a sudden, the sound of someone shuffling papers filled the room. They bolted and went for a drink. Who could blame them?
So whether you’re frightened by the actors or the thought of a real ghost lurking around the corner, a visit to Terror Behind the Walls is sure to send shivers down your spine.