‘Terror Behind the Walls’ is more professional theater than kitschy haunted house

Amy Hollaman is the first to admit that a good part of her job has been handed to her. As the show manager for Terror Behind the Walls, she’s responsible for creating one of the country’s most haunted of houses — which isn’t exactly difficult when your walls are those of Eastern State Penitentiary.

“We’re obviously starting with a world-class setting,” says Hollaman. “It’s a haunted prison — it was built to intimidate people from committing crimes.”

But that said, Hollaman and her team work harder every year to make sure you never drive by the imposing Fairmount landmark without getting the chills. Here is her recipe for the most artful of scares:

Start with actors who are scary in jeans and a T-shirt

The undead prisoners and creepy wardens at Terror Behind the Walls did more than fill out an application. At casting calls, actors are tested on their “startle scare,” among other skills that no amount of ghoulish makeup can replace. “Our saying is ‘go big or go home.’ Each actor has only a few seconds to make an impression on our customer,” says Hollaman. “So we want to see what each actor has. Do you have an intimidating noise? Or can you make a scary face?”

Work with your robots

Animatronics can make or break a haunted house. The secret, according to Hollaman, is not to strand your robotic monster by himself.

“We use animatronics to enhance the haunt, and usually pair them with actors,” she says. “We have this ferocious dog, but we don’t let him just sit there and startle people. We pair it with an actor who can operate it, who looks like he’s having trouble controlling it.”

Splurge on the makeup

Eastern State’s zombies don’t come to life with the same fake blood you’d find at the Halloween pop-up store. Terror Behind the Walls uses custom makeup palettes made by Skin Illustrator — the same company who supplies specialized products for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and other films and TV shows — in order to create consistent and realistic “pus, infections and bruising” (their words, not ours).

“I think that we have the most air brush stations of any haunted house in the country in our makeup room,” says Hollaman. “We have 14 artists, and every makeup artist has an airbrush as well as palettes and something to create build-up.”

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