The places that have haunted me; Eastern State Penitentiary meets Pennhurst Asylum

Photo by Rebecca Blanchard
James and Emily Thiel, brother and sister, at Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls.
Photo by Rebecca Blanchard James and Emily Thiel, brother and sister, at Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls.

I was never very interested in haunted houses. Actually, I have almost always disregarded them; the charades never appealed to me.

Even last year when we received media passes to Eastern State Penitentiary’s Tower of Terror tour at work, none of us gave it a second thought because the location is out of Berks-Mont News coverage area. However, this year our new staff came with a new perspective and a group of us decided to take Eastern State up on their offer.

We planned the date and then waited weeks for the day to come. Of the seven of us, half of us being journalists and the other half guests, none of us knew what we were about to experience.

According to the website,, the prison was in operation from 1829 to 1971. Terror Behind the Walls opened in the mid 1990’s.


There were six attractions inside the cellblocks: Gauntlet, Lock Down, Infirmary, Night Watch, The Experiment and Detritos.

Once we parked and found our way to the sidewalk, we were immediately swept up in the penitentiary’s energy. Event staff were scattered all over, directing members of the media—who were encouraged to dress creativity—to the appropriate area. After a few minutes, we were in the tunnel of a line between the concrete walls of the prison. A checkpoint, conducted by ‘zombies,’ asked each person whether they wanted to be touched. If that’s the case, you get a red glow necklace to wear—screaming fair game.

None of us wanted a necklace. As first timers, perhaps we were a bit timid.

As we entered, it quickly became clear that every dark corner and every flashing bright open space was guaranteed to contain a ‘spooky’ surprise.

Glimpses of history could be captured between the jumpy screams that came and went with each ‘zombie’ — zombies that came a little too close for comfort at times. I couldn’t complain. Losing all sense of comfort seems to be the point of these elaborate for-sale experiences.

Walking through the dark doorways seems to raises all sense of awareness; different senses are exercised. You depend less on your eyes and more-so on hearing and physical instincts, as well as the sense of physical secureness—keeping all limbs intact and accounted for.

Once we visited Eastern State, we were interested to see what else could compare to it in the area.

We came across PennHurt Asylum, which is one that hits a little closer to home for me—mainly because it is literally closer to my childhood home. I’ve heard stories about the asylum all my life from various people. In my town or in my high school, rather, it was practically a rite of passage to trespass onto that property. Things have changed quite a bit though, obviously, since they’ve opened it the public, a decision which is arguably controversial.

We were in the haunt before we realized it—seriously. One minute we were in line trying to get a sense of direction, and the next minute there was a ‘zombie’ actor growling uncomfortably close to us. It wasn’t long after that we realized there was no opting out of being ‘touched.’ The actors are allowed to touch all visitors, adding to the suspense. It certainly kept us on our guard.

According to the website,, the asylum dates back to 1908 and was in operation until it’s closure in 1986 as a result of reported abuse; it openned as a haunted house in 2010.

The asylum features four attractions: the Pennhurst Asylum, Dungeon of Lost Souls, Ghost Hunt and Tunnel Terror.

Each of these are fear mongering theatrics, except the ghost hunt—the title of which is about as self-explanatory as it gets. Visitors are allowed to enter Mayflower Dormitory, as it stands since it was abandoned years ago. There is no photography allowed through the haunted tour except in the dormitory, which reportedly is known to be haunted.

The website offers the gruesome details about the asylum’s history, none of which I read prior to the visit. However, now, after walking between those walls and throughout that property, my interest in its history has peaked.

I’m not here to compare the two venues, though this seems to be pouring out as a comparative essay more than anything else.

Each experience was completely different.

Upon arrival at PennHurst we were shuttled in onto large wooded property in school buses, away from society.

Eastern State maintains a center city setting, in Philadelphia, complete with pricy parking or the option to be shuttled. The prison is right off a street bustling with traffic and bar-hoppers.

Both places had me jumping and screaming, and grasping behind me to clench my friend’s hand.

The main difference was the option or lack of option to be touched by the ‘dead’ actors. The lack of option offers a lack of control, and isn’t that what these things are all about? Whether or not they touch you should be up the actors behind the scenes that are trying to put on a good show.

These places are meant to scare you and strip you of everything you all comforting expectations. A good thrill can be refreshing once in a while; I’d recommend taking the plunge more often than once in a lifetime.

About the Author

Rebecca Blanchard

Rebecca won't hesitate to tell you that she has enjoyed writing throughout her entire life. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she graduated from the professional writing program of Kutztown University in 2012. Rebecca joined Berks-Mont Newspapers in July of 2012 as editor of The Boyertown Area Times following her internship with the newspaper. In addition to writing, she enjoys traveling and cooking gluten-free foods. Reach the author at or follow Rebecca on Twitter: @boyertowntimes.