Behind the Scenes: Eastern State full of fun and fear for Halloween

This article can be found published on the Southern Chester County Weeklies‘ website.
The author is transformed in less than half an hour from her regular self, left, to Eastern State’s newest zombie inmate, right, for a special, behind the scenes coverage. (Candice Monhollan)

The author is transformed in less than half an hour from her regular self, left, to Eastern State’s newest zombie inmate, right, for a special, behind the scenes coverage. (Candice Monhollan)

PHILADELPHIA — Halloween has always been one of my two favorite holidays of all time. On a normal, day-to-day basis, I’m not a fan of fear, but there’s something about the month of October which allows me to push that feeling aside as I drop a lot of cash to go to “haunted” places, watch marathons of horror movies and don crazy costumes to dish out my own share of spooks.

I’ve been on haunted hay rides, visited Pennhurst twice and Eastern State Penitentiary on numerous occasions. As someone who has spent years trying to make my own version of a haunted house on a much, much smaller scale, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to work somewhere such as an asylum or a prison.

… [Please continue the story on the Southern Chester County Weeklies website by clicking here.]

I finally got that chance this Halloween season as Eastern State gave me behind the scenes access to their annual “Terror Behind the Walls” (TBTW).

Not only did they allow me to see what it takes to put on the haunted prison, but decked me out in full makeup and costume and placed me in one of the several attractions.

“It’s a very sophisticated haunted house,” said Amy Hollaman, the creative director of TBTW.

This year’s TBTW has six attractions, with a brand-new one called “Machine Shop.”

The idea behind the show has been in motion since June, when all the designers got together to discuss what they wanted to put on.

“I oversee the entire production and make sure it’s coming together,” Hollaman said “I also deal with some of the administrative things, so sort of the big-picture of the event.”

And the big-picture is, in fact, quite large when it comes to what TBTW does every year.

The staff of actors and actresses alone stands at 250 people. That doesn’t include the makeup artists, costume designers, PR people, technicians and more.

After spending an entire evening there, I don’t think I glimpsed even a third of the staff who put on the amazing production year after year.

Running something of that magnitude has to be a tad bit stressful, but Hollaman does get to enjoy herself along the way.

“I like to get into costume and makeup once every show week so I can stay grounded and pump the actors and teach them how to scare people,” she said.

Arriving a few minutes after the VIP Tours began at 6:30 p.m., I was led through the hulking gates at the main entrance and back to the staff area and into what they call the green room.

It was like arriving during the calm after the storm. All the actors and actresses were already finished and in their appropriate part of the penitentiary for the VIPers.

I was first led back to the costume room to get my inmate outfit, where Hollaman yelled out, “Processing!” as if I were actually going through the steps of being thrown into the creepy jail to serve out my life sentence.

Waiting for me in the smaller room was Keith Lambert, the costume director for TBTW, along with my prison uniform hanging on the rack.

Right outside the room, which also had a couple sewing machines in it, were racks running down the hallway full of hundreds of costumes of every kind.

“About 60 percent of our show we make on these (sewing) machines back here,” Lambert said. “We’ll start hand-sewing and then we have two weeks for fittings and get all of our 250-plus staff in here and into costumes and then out into the show.”

Everything you see on the actors and actresses were created either fully or in some part by just the three people in the costume department.

“We do as much as we can,” Lambert said. “We make about 60 percent of our show and then any on-site repairs, we do. The only thing we do off-site is for laundry.”

As an example, from patterning to the finished product, a single costume made completely by hand by one of the designers can take about 10 hours.

But it isn’t always that time consuming. The inmate pants, which is what I wore, can be whipped up by Lambert in about 20 minutes because he’s had to make so many of them.

“I’ve gotten it down to a science,” he said. “You cut it, you sew it and you put it out. If everybody’s inmate pants just needed a whole new outfit tonight, we could probably get it done for tomorrow night’s show.”

On top of all that, the costume department is also in charge of all the props in the penitentiary as well, which is also custom-made.

I was handed my inmate costume and headed back to the makeshift women’s locker room, which was just another pre-existing room in the penitentiary.

It was hard not to wonder, when I was in there by myself, what that room was originally for when Eastern State was in operation.

I had my striped pants and off-white top on, looking almost ready to head out, but was missing the scary factor, so I was led to the other side of the green room where makeup booths were set up.

There, I was handed over to Lauren Palmer, the makeup director for TBTW.

A prosthetic was put on my cheek, making my face look like it had been slashed open with a knife — or maybe a shank would be more appropriate.

“Pretty much everybody on the team works full-time doing makeup and hair for film or body painting,” Palmer said.

Palmer herself, who has been with TBTW for seven years, has worked on big projects outside of the annual Halloween event, such as for New York runways and even in “Transformers 2.”

With as many actors and actresses that TBTW has and the limited time to work with, the 14 makeup artists on staff churn out the 250 characters at a breakneck speed of anywhere between three to 15 minutes.

“We only have two and a half hours,” Palmer said. “It’s very, very intense. Almost everybody (in the show) wears a prosthetic.”

Once my prosthetic was applied, my face was hidden from its usually rosy, Irish shade to a look of decomposition and death with the use of, surprisingly, an airbrush.

Palmer went through about five different shades or colors, ranging from the typical white and black to red, brown and even yellow.

I would use my phone to check the progress after every layer was added and was stunned each time at how horrific — but amazing — my face was.

Now that I looked the part, I had to act it. I met my dead correctional officer, Gary, who was in the same attraction area I was being put in.

We started off with a short stretch, which I never thought you would need until I was actually in the show, and went into “Crazy Eights.” We then spent a few minutes in a scare circle, where you practiced making creepy sounds and noises and where they also gave me some pointers on what to do.

Finally, it was time.

I was placed in the triad in “Lock Down,” which was inside Cellblock 12, reportedly the most haunted location in all of Eastern State.

It was dark inside the room, with a little spotlight rotating around the space every so often. It wasn’t so bad once my eyes adjusted to the dark, but I could only imagine how little the customers were able to see of us.

It didn’t take me long to get the feel of how to act scary. For anyone who personally knows me, I’m one of those people who like to ‘go big or go home,’ so once I was into it, there was no stopping me.

At one point, I was so enthralled with just scaring the pants off a group of ladies that when I moved onto the person behind them, I was still letting out the low growls and stare downs before I realized if was Hollaman coming through to check on how I was doing.

Needless to say, she was quite impressed and laughed at how much I had become the ghostly character.

I worked seamlessly with the other actors and actresses in the triad and like to think I impressed them as a journalist-turned-scarer. There were even points when they high-fived me over a good scream I got out of someone.

The most memorable scare moment for me came a little early on when, running out from behind the bars, I appeared suddenly right next to a lady who never saw me coming. I shocked her so badly she actually fell onto the floor. Her friend busted out laughing as I fought the urge to do the same.

If you are the lady I did this to and happen to be reading this, I do apologize if I made your bum hurt, but it was all in fun — hopefully for you as well.

I learned along the way that incidents such as that do occur often at the prison.

“One time, I was in one corner and another girl was in the other and these two girls came through and we came toward them,” said Tarah Yoder, an actress in the show for her third year. “They dropped to the floor and were just laying on the ground. They were curled up in a fetal position and took forever to get up. It’s so funny to see different people’s reactions.”

There wasn’t a moment where I didn’t have fun out there. I slammed into the bars to make people jump, crawled on the floor to sneak-grab ankles and snuck up on many a person to hear the screams ringing in my ears.

I lasted over two hours in the show, which according to the staff, is the longest of any guest. I came out of the show about an hour and a half before the last customer was due to enter. I returned to the green room where I transformed back into my normal self, albeit with crazy hair that I didn’t start out with.

They all applauded my efforts and even gave me the official staff water bottle for the year, given to each member, and inducted me as a part of the team, even if it was just for one night.

I was able to return a week later to go through the haunt at a customer and experienced some of the frights I had dished out seven days before. It was just as creepy as I imagined it would be and, I admit, jumped out of my skin on more than one occasion.

I came home with a new appreciation for what goes into making “Terror Behind the Walls,” along with some sore muscles and a few bumps and bruises from running into the bars or actual cell doors, but I loved every moment of it and would absolutely do it again in a second.

My thanks to everyone at Eastern State and TBTW who helped make my transformation possible.

What time is it? TERROR TIME!

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