Terror Behind the Walls – 2017 Haunted Attraction Preview

Location:  Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19130

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Terror Behind the Walls is one of the most popular haunted attractions in the country and has evolved over the past several years to incorporate personal experiences incorporating new levels of immersion into the traditional mainstream show. Each season, the creative team and management behind Terror Behind the Walls aim to deliver an enhanced “show” incorporating unique concepts that each season inject new life into this longstanding haunted attraction. For the 2017 season, Terror Behind the Walls has added a grizzly new attraction; “Blood Yard,” and has promised to enhance the personal, immersive experience for those looking for a mature scare.

Last season, Terror Behind the Walls added a new story-driven VIP experience, entitled “Hex Challenge.” For an additional fee guests, can opt for a story-driven experience incorporating theatrics, fantastic special effects, and team-based mini-games akin to those found in “escape rooms.” The core attractions at Terror Behind the Walls provide guests the opportunity to opt into a more “physical” version of the show, which caters to those looking for a mature haunt experience. Diversity in design is a key component of the yearly development underlying each attraction. Terror Behind the Walls strives to create a show that caters to diverse interests, focusing on producing a high-quality, world-class show with fantastic production values that create a spectacle upon an already impressive real-life backdrop. The addition of new interactive and unexpected “extreme” elements make this show one of the best overall attractions you can visit each season. Terror Behind the Walls consistently aims to please haunt fans of diverse backgrounds including experiences that cater to the more hardcore, mature haunt fan.

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Diversity in story design, coupled with exciting new interactive elements keep adding new surprises each season. When reading online reviews, we noticed that many mature haunt fans yearned for the attraction to take on an adult/extreme themed approach built off the historical infamy and reported paranormal activity associated with Eastern State Penitentiary. We found that by opting into the “physical” version of the show that scare actors worked tirelessly to touch, grab, and use adult language to increase scare levels. Furthermore, we were lucky enough to be “abducted” while waiting in the Prison Yard and subjected to an experience that is best described as a high-budget, borderline “extreme” haunted attraction. Terror Behind the Walls is more than capable of implementing scares that use psychological, physical and sensory-based triggers to create fear while maintaining an emphasis on providing quality entertainment for a wide array of guests.  While experiences may vary based on crowds, extensive effort is placed into managing lines and maintaining a quality show at all costs. We received a detailed backstage tour of the attraction’s operations and left with a new appreciation for the level of work, and planning implemented into the short and long-term development of this famous attraction. Furthermore, we had the pleasure discuss the haunt’s creative focus with Terror Behind the Walls Creative Director Amy Hollaman, who provided a wealth of information regarding short-term and long-term attraction development.

Terror Behind the Walls does not affect the operation of the historic site, which remains open for daytime tours seven days a week, all year. All proceeds from Terror Behind the Walls benefit the preservation of Eastern State Penitentiary, a National Historic Landmark. The creative and construction teams operating Terror Behind the Walls spend the entire year developing new ideas and planning for each season. It is important to note that a great deal of effort and time goes into the littlest of details, and due to the historic nature of the property careful planning must be undertaken to develop new aspects of the haunted attraction. Management, staff and creative development teams are focused on the continued evolution of Terror Behind the Walls, assuring that the attraction utilizes its one-of-a-kind environment to maximize its potential. Terror Behind the Walls is a world-class haunted entertainment show for guests of all backgrounds and horror persuasions.

Behind the Haunt

ST31 - Terror Behind the Walls - 2017 Haunted Attraction PreviewTerror Behind the Walls is a large-scale presentation that utilizes the historic Eastern State Penitentiary as the backdrop for its yearly haunted attraction. In speaking with the attraction’s management and Creative Director Amy Hollaman, we gained a new appreciation for the level of work and challenges associated with bringing to life a theatrical presentation in a historical, abandoned prison. Each season, the creative team aims to update its presentation to breathe new life into a popular mainstream haunted attraction. Development of such a large-scale show in a massive, abandoned prison, requires creativity that addresses the interests and persuasions of a broad array of guests. The mainstream success of Terror Behind the Walls can be attributed to effective marketing coupled with continued dedication towards creating a show that encourages guests to spend an entire evening at Eastern State Penitentiary. Over the past several years, the creative direction has focused on incorporating interactive, personal experiences into each attraction featured at Terror Behind the Walls. Several years ago, the attraction first began implementing a “touch” policy in which guests could opt into a more aggressive, physical experience. Beta tested during annual “remix” events; the optional physical haunt proved to be a success, providing veteran haunt fans with a mature, personal touch added to the already impressive attractions operated at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Terror Behind the Walls has continued to advance this optional concept of incorporating mature, immersive experiences on a smaller scale as a part of the larger show. This season, Terror Behind the Walls developed a storyline driven additional haunt experience coined the “Hex Challenges” implementing a sci-fi driven story into the context of each specific attraction. When looking at online and social media feedback regarding this additional experience, we found that many guests initially did not understand that “Hex Challenges” would incorporate science fiction into the gritty Terror Behind the Walls show. Furthermore, several of the early adopters who partook in this experience felt that several of the “challenges” and “storylines” intertwined within the haunt failed to deliver on the potential of each attraction. These early criticisms guided the creative team in streamlining and perfecting the “Hex Challenges” to tailor each additional experience to augment the length and value of the core haunted attractions. When we visited Terror Behind the Walls, we found “Hex Challenge” to be an entertaining diversion that created an engaging storyline incorporating “escape-game” inspired aspects of teamwork, and mature/adult themed scenes featuring aggressive scare actors. We found the additional experiences encountered during the “Hex Challenges” engaging and an exciting new way to bring to life an interactive story that we hope continues to develop and expand next season.

Some of the major criticisms hurled at this attraction involve issues related to pacing as well as an inability for all guests to experience the interactive show that is presented by Terror Behind the Walls. The production values and dedication to perfection is almost unparalleled, yet problems sometimes manifest due to the sheer number of visitors that pass through each attraction. Despite a timed ticketing system, on popular evenings each attraction is flooded with guests due to its immense popularity. As the season progresses, lines are typically longer and this at times hinders the attractions ability to provide unique personal experiences for each guest. The design of each attraction and scare actors themselves strive to pace each group effectively, but on several occasions, we encountered other groups along our journey. Furthermore, the “Hex Challenges” themselves in some cases added to the line management issues experienced during our visit. At times the additional experience would end, and we would be thrust into the main attraction with another larger group adding confusion to the attraction’s design and storyline presentation. The pacing of each haunt varies depending on the style of each attraction and scare acting. We found that at times scare actors would “rush” guests through each haunt, while at other times an over-emphasis on focusing on single guests slowed pacing to a crawl.  The challenges associated with managing such large numbers of guests are daunting and additional interactive experiences, coupled with the new “Hex Challenges,” adds a level of complexity in improving inter-haunt line management.

While we did run into several groups during the attraction, we separated ourselves with our “Hex Challenge” partners from the general crowds to experience the incredible detail and impressive design of each haunt in an intimate, personal manner. Terror Behind the Walls is a first-class experience, with impressive special effects, character designs and passionate scare actors that work tirelessly to provide each guest with the best show possible. Talented scare actors charge each guest, grab, push and act insane in an all-out effort to generate reactions. Improved pacing allowing guests to experience each attraction in its entirety, can help each scare actor use their already impressive talents to create a memorable, mainstream yet mature haunted attraction event.

Creative Development

Terror Behind the Walls uses guest feedback and experimentation to drive the short and long-term development of each year’s show. Customer feedback and constant dedication towards evolving the show, drive the creative process throughout the haunt development season. Concepts piloted during “Remix” end of season shows serve as the foundation for new attractions or additional components that factor into long-term and short-term development of each attraction featured at Terror Behind the Walls.  Set designs and environmental scares build tension at key locations allowing scare actors to startle or elicit responses based on their respective “characters.”  From a creative standpoint, detailed work is placed into character development aligned with the backstory of each attraction featured at Terror Behind the Walls. The attraction’s creative team aims to address major areas of the haunt each season, focusing on improving scares, or addressing story components which help develop a well-rounded show, which surprises even those veteran fans that visit each season. The creation of additional bonus events and unique immersive-horror inspired experiences allows the talented creative and development staff behind Terror Behind the Walls to maximize the amazing potential of the historic Eastern State Penitentiary.

Development of the “Hex Challenge” was the central creative focus for the 2016 haunt season, developing a story along with a series of interactive team-based scenes that incorporate puzzles, mini-games, and theatrical scenes. The “Hex Challenge” follows the unique storyline of the “Hex Initiative,” a cyborg/sci-fi themed event that follows the progress of a team assigned to eradicate the mutated inhabitants and prisoners of Eastern State Penitentiary. The challenges themselves are diverse in design, at times promoting a more lighthearted yet twisted “fun” tone to the attraction and at other times creating uncomfortable, adult-themed experiences that fit into the context of a larger story. Production values of the “Hex Challenge” are impressive and require guests to not only work together but complete physically demanding interactive experiences. Several of the more memorable experiences included a visit with a demented prison barber, who tormented a guest using physicality, uncomfortable touching, manic behavior and psychotic threats, while other participants had to complete a team-based game. Another memorable experience involved an underground visit with a psychedelic, brain-exposed mutant, who challenged guests to make a choice leading to the inevitable escape from the prison. The theatrical quality and presentation of the “Hex Challenge” add a level of quality and a unique storyline that stands out from the gritty nature of the core Terror Behind the Walls attractions. Creative development continues throughout the offseason, with team members discussing new ways to expand the guest experience at Eastern State Penitentiary.

While the sci-fi theming of the “Hex Challenge” may at first cause pause for those who expect a traditional prison escape storyline, implementation of the special VIP based event adds a new level of interactivity into the traditional attraction. Talented scare actors and diversity in each challenge’s design keeps each event engaging. The creative team is not afraid to think “outside the box” developing concepts that inject fantasy into the grim urban decay of Eastern State Penitentiary. Diversity in design allows for creative expressions that inject sci-fi, and theatrical horror themes along with traditional “prison” inspired scenes. Continued development and improvement of the “Hex Challenge” should focus on adding additional choices, and diverse story paths based on the decisions rendered by each team. Additional, bonus or VIP events that cater to fans of “escape rooms” and those looking for mature/adult themed haunts can be implemented at premium prices if they are a value to the customer. Those guests looking for an experience that utilizes the prison as the center of horror can be best served if Terror Behind the Walls implements additional events that cater to those looking for an “extreme” immersive experience. Development of new events, and continuous improvement to the core attractions, driven by customer feedback ensures that each year Terror Behind the Walls is a familiar yet fresh show.

Structural Design

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Terror Behind the Walls is a fundraising initiative supporting the history and preservation of the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary, a National Historic Landmark. The location of the haunt itself is imposing, intimidating and the perfect backdrop for a haunt that prides itself in using high-end production values to create a diverse show. While the environment of the haunt itself is unique in itself, there is a multitude of challenges associated with operating a haunt in a historical landmark. Extreme caution is implemented regarding every single construction and set design decision, to ensure historical integrity is maintained. For example, many of the attractions are built in areas that are considered to be historically “redundant” and similar to other areas of the prison allowing for intensive construction. When attraction designers have an interest in expanding or modifying an area, a historical review team excavates and researches the area to make sure the historical nature of the prison itself is paramount to the haunt itself. Despite these challenges, the design team excels in developing a show that uses the prison seamlessly while respecting the historical integrity of the institution.

Terror Behind the Walls staff has built a world-class costume, make-up, special FX design area that maximizes efficiency and allows actors to prepare for each evening’s show quickly. The central command center of Terror Behind the Walls is an impressive, hidden area housed within the prison featuring make-up booths, costuming department, full-fledged mask creation suite, monitors and break room allowing for a smooth operation. From an operational standpoint, Terror Behind the Walls has implemented systems that ensure consistently solid shows for each guest regardless of crowd size. Consistent monitoring by haunt management and creative staff monitor each show constantly tweaking and providing feedback to each scare actor. What is important to note is that Terror Behind the Walls is one of the most popular attractions in the country, and on busy nights it is almost impossible to prevent issues related to line back up and at times overcrowding despite best efforts of the haunt’s design team. Each season, new ideas and changes are implemented to ensure that Terror Behind the Walls provides a quality show that allows guests to enjoy a night at the Eastern State Penitentiary.

2017 Attraction

Terror Behind the Walls features six connected core attractions and several upgrade options including VIP options and the interactive “Hex Challenge.” Furthermore, guests may choose to opt for a more interactive, physical show, by “marking” themselves before entering the attractions. Terror Behind the Walls places the customer experience at the forefront of its development, focusing on providing all guests the opportunity to make their memories at Eastern State Penitentiary. Infusion of sci-fi based storylines and interactive team-based activities apart of the “Hex Challenge” bring a new level of value that extends the guest experience, and highlights the passion for creating a memorable horror show. Next season we look forward to the next step in the evolution of this famous attraction that promises a continued emphasis on creating an interactive show, focusing on augmenting the intensity and fear level of each core attraction.

 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 separated from their group. They will deal with the consequences of their decision through six long attractions.

 Lock Down

ST46 - Terror Behind the Walls - 2017 Haunted Attraction PreviewVisitors enter the looming façade of Cellblock 12, said to be the most haunted location inside the penitentiary. Rioting zombie inmates have taken over, zombie guards have lost control, and the chaotic scene is filled with thick fog and mangled bars. Guests are led to the second floor for an eerie view down the long-abandoned cellblock corridor, and finally, through a lineup of zombies, all standing very, very still…. Some visitors leave after Lock Down. It’s that intimidating.

Machine Shop

Hidden deep inside the cellblocks is a long-forgotten machine shop. Evil pervades this space – an evil with one mind but with many bodies. Will visitors survive, or will they become just another cog in the machine? This one-of-a-kind attraction features intense startles, immersive one-on-one experiences, and gruesome industrial scenes.

Blood Yard

ST44 - Terror Behind the Walls - 2017 Haunted Attraction PreviewWithin the ruins of the prison compound, visitors discover the camp of a gruesome colony. A path marked with bones leads them deeper into the lair of the butcher, the warriors, and their ancient empress – the forgotten who now reside amongst the fragments of the lost prison. The beating of the drums becomes louder and louder, faster and faster. Finally, they reach the source – a gory site of gnawed bones and decayed flesh. The carnage sends a clear message: you could be next. Hunt or be hunted.


 Infirmary takes the fear of hospitals to a whole new level. Visitors discover the world of prison medical treatment, including shock therapy, hydrotherapy, and other torturous experiments gone wrong. If visitors aren’t careful, they may become patients themselves.

Quarantine: 4D

ST42 - Terror Behind the Walls - 2017 Haunted Attraction PreviewInside “Quarantine: 4D, visitors learn of an infectious outbreak, whose symptoms include hallucinations, blurry vision, distorted depth perception, and other mind-altering effects. Flat walls appear to have depth, creatures emerge from (seemingly) nowhere, and some brave visitors will be challenged to face their worst fears.

Break Out

ST48 - Terror Behind the Walls - 2017 Haunted Attraction PreviewJust when visitors think they have found freedom, they find themselves in the middle of a prison break! Zombie inmates surround them using every way imaginable to escape the zombie SWAT Team, including barrels, ropes, tunnels, ladders, and crates. Visitors must keep an eye out at every corner, as the undead prisoners may even be using them to aid in their attempt to gain freedom.

Effective mainstream haunted attractions infuse fantasy into a realistic, gritty environment transforming the guest experience into a story-driven spectacle that assaults one’s senses. Terror Behind the Walls is not afraid of innovation and challenges guests each season to become direct participants in an entertainment-driven horror show that creates new realities within the confines of the ominous prison. The atmosphere of Terror Behind the Walls is unmatched, creating a sense of ever-present dread and paranoia. Design decisions, creativity and a willingness to take chances regarding the development of each attraction injects freshness into this longstanding attraction.

Written by Joe Rovinsky

Joe Rovinsky is a seasoned veteran media creator in the haunted attraction and immersive entertainment industry. Having worked with national and regional media outlets and numerous major attractions, Rovinsky has become established as one of the top influencers in the haunted attraction industry.

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