Interactivity and Choice are the Skeleton Keys to Success at Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls in Philadelphia, PA.

Terror Behind The Walls

We interview Creative Director, Amy Hollaman, and General Manager, Brett Bertolino, from Terror Behind the Walls to find out what makes this 28-year-old attraction one of the best attended haunts in the country.

Each fall since it’s first Halloween night fundraiser in 1991, Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary turns the City of Brotherly Love into the City that Loves to ScreamWhat time is it? Terror time!” is the rallying call that has become popular enough among the haunt’s longtime fans that you can often hear it chanted by the guests standing in line waiting for their turn to get scared. This attraction now annually draws over 100,000 visitors during its’ 32-night operational season. Set inside a real, 11-acre abandoned prison in the middle of Center City, Philadelphia that opened in 1829, with its’ 40-foot castle style walls and crumbling cell blocks, Terror Behind the Walls is a haunted attraction unlike any other.

Recently, I sat down with Eastern State Penitentiary’s Vice President Director of Operations, Brett Bertolino, and Associate Director of Events and Operations, Amy Hollaman, to discuss both the history of the building & the haunted attraction and the creative strategy behind its’ ongoing legacy.

Terror Behind The WallsTerror Behind The Walls

“This structure was created to be the world’s first true penitentiary,” says Bertolino who has been with the attraction for 18 years. “It was designed with the intentions of making people good again. There were no life and death sentences here, and the average stay was two to four years. It was open for 142 years and closed in 1971. It sat vacant for 20 years before the city planned to redevelop the property. That got people energized to save it. The question of how to fund its’ preservation was answered with a one-night Halloween event in 1991. The historical tours came later.”

Terror Behind The Walls

Amy Hollaman, who started with the attraction as an actor 13 years ago, explains Terror Behind the Walls’ theory of entertainment as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style attraction because the guests get to choose their own level of intensity. “You get a choice up front to opt in for a more intense experience by wearing a glow necklace that means you can be grabbed, touched, pulled away from your group and dragged down dark corridors. At any point you can take off the necklace and throw it to the ground,” says Hollaman. “This makes every experience unique and keeps people coming back.”

“If you want a less intense experience,” adds Bertolino, “you can say, ‘Monster Be Good!’ and the monsters will back away and scare someone else. This started only on family nights and only for kids, but we found that it got so popular that adults would shout out ‘Monster Be Good!’ during the regular shows. Now you can have the experience at three different levels and really customize it to be what you want.”

“About 60% of our guests choose to wear the necklace,” says Hollaman, “but that doesn’t mean they all still have it on when they come out!”

When it comes to physical contact between the actors and guests, Terror Behind the Walls has a very in-depth actor training program in place  to reinforce management’s haunt philosophy. “We’re not in the business of humiliating and traumatizing people,” declares Bertolino. “If you pee your pants, you probably don’t want to come back. Extreme is NOT equal to interactivity. When you create something that is ‘extreme’ there is a ceiling on how far you can take that. With interactivity there is no ceiling. You can continue to do it in different ways that are new to the customer.”

Terror Behind The Walls

Terror Behind The Walls

“Rude is not scary,” adds Hollaman. “We want people to be the heroes in their own story. We don’t believe in characters who insult people or bring them down.”

Bertolino and Hollman agree that guests should feel safe even in a fear driven environment. “We are entertaining people through the vehicle of fear,” says Hollaman. “We are intentionally putting people into a state of anxiety, but nobody is going to come to your show if they don’t think it’s safe.”

“In our design, we use the Fright Triangle Theory,” explains Hollaman. “Each point of the triangle is one key principle of the haunt. One point is STORY, one point is SPECTACLE and one point is STARTLE. We try to balance these three points evenly. We’ve also found that people want to engage,” she adds. “They don’t just want to watch a TV show. They want to Live tweet a TV show. Our goal is for people to be able to step into the story themselves.”

Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary combines individualized choice with the Fright Triangle Theory to give each customer the ability to customize their own haunt experience, resulting in a long-standing reputation that attracts record setting seasonal attendance numbers. For more information about visiting this legendary Philadelphia attraction check out their website at http://www.easternstate.org/halloween/.

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