Sunday, October 19, 2008

Satisfyingly Spooked for the Year

No matter how many places I visit or events I attend, I'm always left with the sense that I could be doing more. Last Halloween, we went to the Headless Horseman in Ulster Park, the Great Jack o Lantern Blaze in Croton-on-Hudson, and The Trail of Terror in Minneapolis, and yet I still was bummed that we missed out on some of our other Halloweentime options.

This year, I am making up for last year, with visits to the Queens County Farm Museum's annual corn maze, and to Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary.

It's weird to think that there's still a working farm in the city, with livestock not residing in a petting zoo, but in Floral Park, Queens - deep, deep Queens. But families seem to travel from afar for their autumn hayrides and Amaizing Maize Maze, which Edith and I braved a moonlight tour of, wielding one small flashlight and a big flag so they could find us if we got hopelessly lost.

It wasn't as spooky as the one at the Headless Horseman, which was terrifyingly quiet and pitch black, with ghouls jumping out of the stalks at us. Instead, it was pretty loud and crowded, with an olde time announcer interviewing guests as they made it across the finish line, applauding their finish times whether it was 20 minutes or an hour and a half. With a little help from the announcer, who saw us walking in circles under the bridge where he was perched, we made it far enough into the rooster-shaped maze to find another staff member willing to give us a long look at her map, helping us escape from the labyrinth in about 38 minutes.

I think by then we were a little tired of walking anyway, after taking a trip this weekend to Philadelphia for two tours of their historic prison, Eastern State Penitentiary, which stands in preserved ruins in a hill in a residential area of the city. We'd been talking about visiting their Halloween haunted house event, "Terror Behind the Walls," for a year or two now, so we had to finally go.

It was built in the 19th Century to look like an old, imposing English castle, which at the time was placed in the middle of nowhere and terrified the city's residents over whom it loomed. But the city grew and built up around it, so now it really sticks out. Its outer castle wall and cell block spokes coming out from the central hub looks like this from above:

View from One Comcast Center, 54th fl Bottom left: ESP's hub-and-spoke structure

At night, they transform it into a haunted house replete with gargoyles and costumed actors who breathe Pop Rocks into your ear and jump out of the walls - literally - towards you. But, like the Queens corn maze, it's kind of so crowded and noisy (with long waits) that it's tough to actually get scared or be surprised at what's coming, and even if you think you might encounter a real ghost there (as people have described the locale as being home to a "stew of spirits"), I doubt any of them would come out to such a crowd. It has to be abandoned and still, like on Most Haunted Live.

My camera battery didn't drain like those of the ghosthunters have, but I did catch a lot of debris in the air whilst taking pictures. Was it the presence of ghosts? Or just crap from the smoke machines?

Corner Tower on outer wall

So we weren't that scared, but my appetite was whet for some daytime exploration of the ruins, when it would be quieter and I'd actually get to see the prison better without all the distractions of 3D glasses (as cool as that room was, way trippy) and animatronic cadavers and such.

We went to sleep early without nightmares at the new Independent Hotel (probably the best, reasonably-priced boutique hotel option in Philly right now), and had a fantastic French breakfast at the sprawling Parc brasserie on Rittenhouse Square before heading back to prison where we could take some more pictures and wander the grounds freely without any living beings jumping out at us.

Cell Block OneOne of the first things you notice at Eastern State in the daytime is what seems like miles of long hallways that you can look straight down, all leading to a central rotunda. It's dizzying and beautifully symmetric all at once. The early cell blocks, all solitary confinement, are lined on either side with wooden cell doors that slide on a metal track for access, peeling white paint everywhere except the one strip they've restored to show what it would have looked like when it was new. In fact, the audio tour (hilariously narrated by Steve Buscemi) takes you through some of the least-spooky areas of the grounds, where plenty of signs and photographs and even art installations abound. And lots of people. This place was even really busy during the day.

Of course I prefer solitary exploration myself, with only the rustle of the wind in the trees and some animals that may have built a nest nearby. With other people there, it feels more like a replica than the truly creepy structure it actually is.

Fortunately, the audio tour is pretty short, and then you can really go exploring on your own. Edith had already been there once earlier this year so she knew some of the cool places, but we also found some creepy nooks and crannies of our own, pulling on rusty doors to see if they would open, dipping our heads into empty, disintegrating cells, and flashing our cameras into holes to see what was on the other side. We climbed up to the observation tower and peeked in the peephole to see an old rotting spiral staircase inside, and even got to see the only cell block that you couldn't see all the way down, the last one built that had to be crammed into the only remaining space around the rotunda, forcing it to actually curve. It looks like nobody's walked through there in a long time. This was the good stuff.

Cell Block 14

One of the creepiest parts of the prison is of course Death Row, where no one was actually executed but where the most dangerous criminals were kept until the very end. This cell block is small but imposing, with the remnants of a wall that would separate the prison guards from the actual cells - for their safety. Some of the guards reputedly refused to walk in their "safe" hallway for fear of losing the respect of the inmates, so they would risk walking directly outside the metal bars that separated them from those biding their time in Death Row.

Death Row Death Row

Even now, Death Row is cut off from civilian access by a floor-to-ceiling chainlink fence. I feel like I spend my entire life hooking my fingers around that metal chain link, pressing one eyeball against a hole to see what it's like on the other side. I've got a permanent waffle pattern on my face.

ESP is historic not only because of its unusual construction and its most famous inmate Al Capone, but also because of its influence on prison systems throughout the world. Unlike Alcatraz, ESP was known for a more "correctional" method of treating and rehabilitating prisoners, though attempts at escape or attack on guards were punished severely. And later on, the maddening effects of solitary confinement came to light, revealing that it's a more terrible punishment and not the quiet, restorative environment they were trying to create (as they imagined, much like church). You can imagine the anguish the spirits in the stew experienced there.

There are still lots of areas of the grounds that you can't explore without a tour guide - the kitchen, hospital, operating room - and some you can't explore at all. Is it because they're too unstable? Maybe? Too much paranormal activity? Could be. But any uncharted territory makes me want to go back and see more.

Fortunately, a lot of what you get to see appears to be falling down even if it has been stabilized. The layers of paint that are peeling off the pipes and staircases and casting strange, spooky shadows on the walls are an essential narrative element of the overall tableau, allowing you to imagine a virtual time lapse of the changes the building went to while in operation through the early 1970s, and how those manmade changes are slowly being rejected by the building itself, which is shedding its skin and allowing plant life to literally burst through its walls.

I've been spending quite a bit of time in ghost towns and ruins lately. It's no wonder I think my apartment is haunted. But that won't keep me from Sing Sing if they ever open it up as a museum...

As for the timebeing, I feel pretty satisfied with my Halloween festivities, and with the addition of next weekend's Fort Totten lantern tour, I think I will have no regrets leading into next year.