Written by: Matt McGraw
Photo by: Matt McGraw
It’s a dark October night and there’s a chill in the air and in the hearts of those who line up outside the prison, preparing themselves to face the horrors within. Ghoulish zombies prowl the crowds and frighten the already anxious young millennials who wait with anticipation to enter the gates.
Once within the walls, despite the best efforts of the many macabre and grisly denizens who incite fear into those brave or peer-pressured enough to enter, one of the only sounds that are as loud as the startled screams and expletives, is laughter. Often short and nervous giggling, sometimes loud and hearty chuckling, but in almost every thrill-seeker, a scream of fright is almost always followed by a laugh and a smile.
What is it about getting frightened in a danger-free situation that makes us feel the urge to laugh afterwards? Are the foul creatures of Eastern State Penitentiary not doing their job right? After all, people pay good money to be terrified. Or is this mix of fear and hilarity exactly what they want? Perhaps a harrowing account of a walk through the prison’s six attractions can shine a light on this subject.
The first thing one notices when walking in through the gates is the large line still waiting in front of them (perhaps one of the most terrifying things about Terror Behind the Walls if you bore easily.) It’s almost a relief when a costumed creature of the night decides to come by your area in line and startle someone who didn’t see them sneaking up behind them. They scream or curse, everyone laughs including the victim, and then everyone goes back to shuffling forward in line amidst small talk.
Once one finally makes it to the first area entitled “Lock Down,” they feel as though they are in fact, locked down. Stuck in a line with nowhere to go and awaiting a grisly fate at the hands of the ghouls within. One of the long-standing attractions at Eastern State, Lock Down has had years to perfect its art of scaring people and it doesn’t disappoint.
There are electrical sparks flying every which-way; insane, bloodied prisoners running wild and jumping at onlookers through the maze of barred cages; and best of all is at the end of the area when everyone walks through a long, strobe-lit hallway with a line of prisoners on either side whose heads are covered in black bags. Patrons of Terror Behind the Walls slowly walk huddled together between the rows of prisoners and jump in fear as the occasional statuesque individual lurches toward them. At first they scream and then are laughing after the assault.
The rest of the attractions aren’t much different from this basic model of a walk-through scarefest. The next area is dubbed “Machine Shop,” in which crazed, maniacal workers with wild fashion senses who are wielding wrenches and saw blades jump out at people from behind tables full of arms and legs. This industrial setting is particularly appropriate in that the entirety of Terror Behind the Walls feels as though it is one big conveyor belt: unafraid but anxious people go in one end, they walk through all six areas in groups of five or so, and scared but relieved people come out the other side.
Throughout the attractions, some people are singled-out randomly for extra horrors, like a crawl through a claustrophobic tube or a quick sit-down in a demonic, drill-wielding dentist’s chair, but mostly, people just go through the regularly programmed scare-fest and come out the other end, no worse for wear. People are put through the attractions in five person groups, which makes for lessened scares due to the simple fact that they are constantly surrounded by others who are laughing and talking and having the same exact reactions to everything. Scream and laugh, scream and laugh. No matter which attraction it is or what kind of ghoul or monster jumps out at them, the reactions are almost always the same. But why do people laugh after being frightened? Perhaps what people really enjoy most is not quite so much the act of being scared itself, but instead, the sense of relief and amusement they feel afterwards.