Escape Authority

In-Depth Escape Room Reviews

Review: Terror Behind the Walls

It turns out there’s much worse things than being sentenced to life, as the terrors that come after it will not soon be forgotten.

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First opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but stands today in ruin, a lost world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. This gothic structure, with soaring 30-foot high fortress walls, is intimidating enough during the day. At night, the cellblocks fall into darkness, and the building becomes truly terrifying. By 1971, Eastern State Penitentiary was all but abandoned.

Terror Behind the Walls, located at Eastern State Penitentiary, is a separately ticketed event that runs thirty-two select nights between September 21, 2018 and November 10, 2018, every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, as well as most weekdays in October. In its 27th year, Terror Behind the Walls features six different haunted houses, each set within the very real confines of a nearly 200 year old crumbling and abandoned prison. Although each of the six haunts are completely unique attractions, they are daisy chained together in such a way that guests essentially only need to wait to enter the first one. Once your visit begins, you’re guaranteed to experience all six haunts in order, one time each.

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Before even stepping foot into the first haunt, new inmates have an important decision to make. How brave do you feel?

Terror Behind the Walls begins with a critical decision for visitors: should they explore the prison and watch the action, or should they mark themselves to truly interact with the denizens of the cellblocks? Those who opt in for true interactivity may be grabbed, held back, sent into hidden passageways, and even temporarily separated from their group. They will deal with the consequences of their decision through six long attractions.

That’s right – you actually have the option of making one of the most unnerving haunts in the country even more scary by offering yourself to be marked as a willing participant in the “immersive experience.” Those who volunteer (and don’t worry, this is absolutely only if you’re willing) are given, free of charge, a red glowing necklace, before having an “X” etched across their face in blood. This signals to the actors contained within that they’re now free to touch, grab and kidnap you at their will.  (Just to be clear, nothing they might do to you is aggressive, and you will not actually be hurt in any way.)

Interestingly, thanks to the fact that each haunt sends guests almost immediately into the one that follows it, Terror Behind the Walls is able to tell a sort of flowing story of things getting worse and worse inside the notoriously haunted Eastern State Penitentiary compound. Haunts are featured below in the order guests experience them.

Lockdown

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Rioting zombie inmates have taken over, and zombie guards have lost control. The tables have turned.

Lockdown begins with us entering the cellblock to find prisoners still behind bars – though it’s clear that all is not right in Eastern State Penitentiary. Sirens sound and lights flash, and before the end, the inmates begin to break free. This sets the stage for the chaos that will follow in subsequent haunts, where the prison has become overrun and the guards truly have lost all control… and hope.

Set amid one of the actual multi-floor cellblocks of Eastern State Penitentiary, Lockdown is instantly unnerving, even without the effects, added scenic and scares. Centuries old walls literally crumble around us as we navigate between cells sealed tight by rusty iron bars. At least at first.

A thick fog fills the air as flashing siren lights not only trigger an immediate sense of danger, but cast an eerie glow all around us on a place that was already unwelcoming all on its own.

Further down the cellblock, massive vines begin to overtake the prison, further implying just how long this world has been left abandoned (and subsequently how long these prisoners have been left to rot… and plan their revenge.)

Perhaps an indication of an updated security system – a laser hallway blocks our path of escape, though it clearly wasn’t enough to stop this latest jailhouse riot.

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Lockdown instantly offers scares simply through the shock of its initial setting. Your first glimpse into the terrifying world that’s left behind within Eastern State Penitentiary shows just how horrible life here was for thousands of prisoners over the course of its existence. From the moment you step inside, there’s a tangible aura of a threatening presence in the air. Have you ever instantly gotten a feeling that you should leave a place? Well, you will.

And if the space itself doesn’t put you on edge, the violent prisoners literally grabbing at you from behind their cell bars definitely will. Some may even try to pull you in with them. And if you’re truly unlucky, some may leave you locked in their place.

We’re still not certain why, but it’s worth noting that Lockdown ends with large, human-sized bug monsters? They’re definitely cool looking, but we remain confused how they fit into the prison storyworld.

Machine Shop

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Hidden deep inside the cellblocks is a long-forgotten machine shop. Evil pervades this space – an evil with one mind but with many bodies.

The Machine Shop appears at first glance to be a space where inmates may be required to serve out a penal labor sentence. However, it won’t take long to realize they’re not here to make license plates.

There’s something distinctly evil about this shop – and the danger it poses has shifted its attention directly to us.

 

A heavy steampunk influence sets Machine Shop apart from the other haunts at Terror Behind the Walls. It’s a great tone to give an industrial workplace, and one that becomes instantly believable. Given how run down areas of this prison clearly are, it’s easy to accept its Machine Shop would carry such a style.

 

Hidden passages, including tunnels and even a slide enhance Machine Shop for those brave enough to opt in and risk facing their own kidnapping.

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The inmates here are notably active – not just working the machines, but with a clear motivation to capture and dismember those guests fool-hearted enough to cross their path.

Throughout Machine Shop, there are a lot of potential kidnap moments, and even more prisoners eager to create chilling one on one interactions with their guests.

Blood Yard

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The carnage sends a clear message: You could be next.

With the violence of the Machine Shop now a distant memory, we find ourselves longing for the relative sanctuary it provided in hindsight.
Blood Yard is a grisly affair, and one clearly many before us have not survived. Heads on pikes give a clear message to those who enter here, and it’s not you could be next, it’s you are next!

 

Different from Terror Behind the Walls’ other five haunts, Blood Yard exists primarily outdoors, in the actual prison yard just as its name suggests. With a path that weaves in and out of small shack structures, and even through an aging greenhouse, Blood Yard feels distinctly unique.

 

Narrow pathways between buildings create a feel of tight alleyways steeped in impending danger. And if the shadowy corners aren’t enough to scare you, the heads on pikes (and many other assorted severed body parts) are sure to get their point across.

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The inmates inhabiting Blood Yard carry an almost tribal, visceral feel. One needn’t spend much time with them to recognize they’re far more interested in tearing flesh and causing mortal pain.

Surprisingly given the highly tense, violent atmosphere, Blood Yard still has a few great one on one kidnap opportunities for those brave (or foolish) enough to opt in. I was “lucky” (?) enough to be pulled through a hidden door, into what can only be described as a demented playroom full of dolls and toys, just outside of all the desperate screams and brutal bloodshed. My captor slowly rubbed her doll across my face, then offered a knock knock joke before physically kicking me out of the room to fend for myself back amid the carnage.

Infirmary

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Infirmary takes the fear of hospitals to a whole new level. In this newly revamped and highly interactive attraction, you’ll encounter maniacal surgeons, dentists & nurses who are sharpening their scalpels for some unusual, unnatural operations.

Luckily (?) for those dismembered in the Blood Yard, the Infirmary is just a hop, skip and a… well I don’t suppose you can really jump if your leg was cut off by the maniacs you just encountered, but you know, you get the idea.
But nothing within the walls of this wicked prison will truly offer you respite; This Infirmary is as evil as the cellblocks (and escaped inmates) that surround it.

A long hallway leading toward the Infirmary offers a sort of bonus unadvertised scare zone. Frankly, it was impressive enough that we thought it was the next haunt itself, and we were entirely satisfied. It’s one of those long, seemingly endless shadowy halls that feels like it popped straight out of a horror movie. But as foreboding as it was, once inside the Infirmary proper, things get much, much more threatening.

A dark world lit by the occasional glowing red fixture, the Infirmary is a hellish place no patient would ever hope to be. Full of clearly dated medical equipment, there’s little doubt that no one that comes here will leave healed.

Heavy concrete walls surround the space, their paint chipping in large flakes that clearly paint a picture of as much disrepair for the structure as an unlucky patient may experience in their treatments from the doctors staffing it.

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Beyond the expected interactions with evil doctors, naturally armed with needles and bonesaws, Infirmary truly wowed us with some of the most brilliant one on one moments – again, for those brave enough to opt in early on – that we’d ever seen in a haunted attraction, anywhere.

Beginning before properly entering the Infirmary, in that “bonus scare zone” we made mention of – as we were slowly making our way through the fog and shadows, a group of nurses began shouting at us from behind to move out of the way, stat! Imagine our surprise when we turned to see two doctors quite literally running down the hallway, a stretcher in tow – with a guest actually strapped down to it, dragged along for the ride!

Unwilling human experiments continued from there – upon entering the Infirmary itself, we immediately found another actual guest strapped down to an operating table as one demented doctor measured needles of varying massive size, clearly intent on inserted it through their skull. This type of one on one interaction on display before the audience as a whole instantly sends a message that no one is safe, and anyone can, and perhaps will be taken at any given time.

Quarantine 4D

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Flat walls appear to have depth, creatures emerge from (seemingly) nowhere, and some brave visitors will be challenged to face their worst fears.

With not even a second to catch your breath, patients from the Infirmary are immediately placed into Quarantine (4D, that is.) Clearly the doctors were unable to heal you, so they’ve done the only thing they could: leave you to fend for yourself amid toxic waste, poisonous chemicals, and, um, clowns? For some reason?
Quarantine 4D is your standard fare ChromaDepth 3D style haunt, utilizing fluorescent colored paint and reactive cardboard glasses to create the illusion of depth and dimension by picking up on contrasting colors. It’s hard for haunts of this style to not feel a bit cheesy, and typically (although we’d honestly rather not see them at all) they really don’t “work” for themes beyond a cartoony circus flavor.

 

Within the realm of Eastern State Penitentiary’s dark and treacherous world, this styling feels all the more out of place. Perhaps that’s the point? But we’d suggest Terror Behind the Walls as a whole would be better suited to avoid this approach and stick to what makes this event truly special – the gritty reality of danger; not a glowing, spinning fun house tunnel.
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As is typical with this style of haunted attraction, Quarantine 4D relies more on a sense of disorientation from its glasses to create a distraction that adds surprise to its jump scares. Overall, it just doesn’t fit the level of quality otherwise exhibited by this stellar event.

We’re actually not even entirely sure what’s meant to be going on here – as we begin with what seems to be a toxic waste spill mutating inmates and then end up in a circus space with actual clowns?

It’s worth noting Quarantine 4D uses disposable cardboard ChromaDepth glasses, but rather than disposing of them as designed, they’re being collected and reused from each group. What results at best are massively beaten up glasses that were never designed to see a second use, but at worse, a potential sanitary issue as unlike plastic theme park 3D glasses, these cardboard variety styles obviously cannot be washed between groups. Needless to say, all around, we urge our friends at Eastern State Penitentiary to reconsider this particular haunt style in future seasons.

Breakout

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Inmates surround you using every way imaginable to escape. Keep an eye out at every corner, as inmates may even be using YOU to aid in their attempt to gain freedom.

 

It all builds to this moment. Locked away in the world’s most dangerous prison, our only hope of survival is a Breakout!
But nothing comes easy at Eastern State Penitentiary. Breaking out of this (after)life sentence will require us to escape through the most deranged and unquestionably most violent prisoners we’ve encountered thus far.

Breakout begins with a very dark tone – literally. The first half of this haunt is dark enough that it’s difficult to see a demented prisoner lurking in the shadows right in front of your face. But rest assured, your brightly glowing necklace (again, assuming you were brave enough to opt-in) makes it very easy for them to see you. And grab you. And pull you in before you even have time to react.

In its second half, Breakout takes a much brighter tone thanks to constant blinding strobe lights. Their reflection off the chain link fence barricades that surround you makes for a uniquely disorientating experience.

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Where Breakout works strongest is in the dark. The inability to prepare for a scare before it quite literally grabs you is a rare delight (or maybe we’re just demented.) Moreover, that uncertainty of what may be lurking in the shadows, for many, will require the maximum amount of bravery to get them to purge forward.

While this is certainly an enjoyable haunt, it may not be the strongest possible finale to the Terror Behind the Walls story. With every haunt interconnected and flowing as they do, for the most part all building in intensity and attention to detail, it would be great to see this enjoyable haunt upgraded into the “all hell breaks loose” gauntlet climax the twisted Eastern State Penitentiary storyworld truly deserves.

 

Terror Behind the Walls is an interesting event to review. On the one hand, there really are six distinctly different attractions at this venue. But on the other, thanks to their daisy chained nature, Eastern State Penitentiary has almost created one massively long, almost never-ending haunted attraction. But be it six or one, Terror Behind the Walls is damn cool, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that will ever match the authentic fear generated by using this environment as its setting.

Perhaps most interesting to us, Eastern State Penitentiary structured these haunts in such a way that they really do present a flowing story – from inmates still behind bars in Lockdown, to escaping their cells, riots, and ultimately our own daring Breakout from the nation’s most terrifying prison. And once it’s all over, you even have the option of refueling your courage with a drink in a private (actual) cell adjacent to the very one the legendary Al Capone himself was once locked inside.

But if that all sounds just a little bit too terrifying to the younger inmates in your cellblock, Terror Behind the Walls occasionally offers a much more welcoming family night. Make no mistake, the mood will still be foreboding, but kids will feel empowered by knowing that if they start to get a little too scared, all they need to say is “monster, be good” and the inmates around them will immediately qualify for time off for good behavior.

And then there’s the freaks among us who want an even more intense experience. Is wandering through an abandoned, crumbling, actually haunted prison somehow not enough for you? Then you’ll want to visit on one of Terror Behind the Wall’s Remix Nights at the end of the season. Imagine stepping into these treacherous cell blocks to find every single light has been turned off. And now, you’ll need to find your way through these six horrific haunts in total darkness. But don’t worry; you’ll be given one single tiny glow stick to “light” your way.

Eastern State Penitentiary has something incredibly unique with Terror Behind the Walls. Simply put, it’s one of the scariest haunted attractions in the country, and it’s authentic environment makes for an instantly immersive storyworld that will lure you in, whether you want it or not. There aren’t a lot of times we’d find ourselves wishing to be sent to prison, but each fall, Terror Behind the Walls makes it easy to wish we could be locked up once again.

You can find an extended photo gallery from our night at Terror Behind the Walls in this exclusive album on the Escape Authority Facebook page! While there, why not give us a “LIKE” if you haven’t already? We’ll give you candy!

 

 

Venue: Eastern State Penitentiary

Location: Philladelphia, PA

Dates: Select Nights September 21st – November 10th

Hours: 6:30pm or 7:30pm – 11pm depending on the night. Guests must be inside before posted closing time, but once in, haunts remain open until the last person has exited.

Cost: General admission ranges from $19 – 45 depending on the date of your visit, with Quick Pass (skip the line) admission ranging from $25 – 70. Purchase in advance online, as ticket prices at the gate are always higher!

 

We thank Eastern State Penitentiary for inviting us to experience this haunt. Although complimentary admission was generously provided, that in no way impacts the opinion included within this review.

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