Weekend Trip Idea: Haunted Philadelphia and the Eastern State Penitentiary


As mentioned in last week’s Gettysburg Ghost Hunting, October’s “Weekend Trip Ideas” will all be Halloween themed. If you’re into Halloween and ghostly happenings, you really can’t pick a better place then Pennsylvania (ok, you could be in Sleepy Hollow or Salem, but stay with me here). Pennsylvania, as we mentioned last week, was home to the biggest battle to ever take place on U.S. soil, and besides for that is completely steeped in history. If you want to find the oldest and most historical location in Pennsylvania then look no further than Philadelphia.

I wouldn’t say Philly is inherently creepy, but it is one of the oldest cities in the country, Edgar Allen Poe lived there for a number of years and have you seen the Sixth Sense? Haley Joel Osment “saw dead people” in one of Philly’s fabled row homes. Technically Philly is the US’s most historic city and some say it is the most haunted as well. It’s a perfect spot to spend an October weekend.

And the perfect place to around which to build your weekend trip? The Eastern State Penitentiary.

East State Penn

The East State Penn is a former prison situated in the city’s Fairmount district. The prison operated from 1829 until 1971 and revolutionized the jail system as it was based on penance and reform rather than punishment, hence the “Penitentiary” title. That’s not to say that life in the prison wasn’t brutal. Until 1913 it was solitary confinement with guards wearing masks and gloves and bags over their feet so that prisoners couldn’t even tell there were people around them. That’d be enough to drive me crazy. In more modern days it became more like the prisons we’re used to seeing (on TV, of course) and even had the distinction of housing Al Capone for a time.

The prison is an imposing building that can’t be missed. It takes up several city blocks and looks like the kind of place horror movies take place. I suggest building your itinerary around the prison as there are two distinct ways to explore it during October. The most seasonal is “Terror Behind the Walls” a haunted house hosted in the prison. There’s also a historic audio guided tour that operates in the daytime. While the audio tour is a historical account, I would suggest you pick that option (if you’re going to pick one, if you’re going to pick both knock yourself out) for two reasons.

1) I’m not a huge haunted house fan. I typically think they’re overpriced and rely on cheap gags and aren’t that scary. Plus, PA is literally littered with haunted houses and hayrides and I doubt that there’s going to be a huge distinction between one in Philly and one closer to home.

2) I’ve been on the historical tour. I wrote about it here. I loved it. I’d go back in a heartbeat. The tour and the building are impressive and if you’re interested at all in history, psychology or social sciences it’s a revelation. The building is also inherently creepy.

While the tour doesn’t focus solely on the paranormal, it does address rumor that the Eastern State Penitentiary is haunted. Take a listen here, it’s a clip of the audio tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi (of Boardwalk Empire and every Adam Sandler movie ever fame). He and Charles Adams, author of Philadelphia Ghost Stories, discuss an encounter with the ESP’s longstanding locksmith who felt something happen. Mr. Buscemi claims that a lot of visitors feel something but discusses how the ESP is not haunted by one or two or three specific spirits but rather a “stew of souls.” A lot of suffering happened in that building.

Even if you’re skeptical, I think that if you walk the halls you’ll agree with Buscemi when he says “maybe you don’t believe in ghosts, but take a look around, if ghosts exist anywhere, they must be here”

I spoke with  a staff member of the ESP who reiterated that while most employees have not had any paranormal encounters their locksmith did.  She also directed me to the ESP blog where another staff member recounts a creepy experience, which coincidentally happened in October. She also told me that paranormal investigators regularly visit ESP. The building has been featured on Travel Channel’s Most Haunted Live, Ghost Adventures and Paranormal Challenge; Fox’s World’s Scariest Places; SyFy’s Ghost Hunters; TLC’s America’s Ghost Hunters and MTV’s Fear (God I miss that show). She also told me that, “footage captured on the second tier of cellblock 12 by paranormal investigators during filming of SyFy’s Ghost Hunters may be the most controversial ghost sighting of the past 10 years.”

The good news about Philly is that there’s enough Halloween activities and ghostly folklore to keep you busy all weekend.

The Mutter Museum is a museum of medical oddities and antique medical instruments that is sure to give you the creeps and as previously mentioned Edgar Allen Poe kept a home in Philly for some time.

Philadelphia has a number of ghost tours.

The original Ghost Tour offers a candlelight walk, haunted trolley tour or a ghost hunting tour that concludes with actually investigating paranormal activity in a Society Hill mansion. Spirts of 76 is a separate tour provider that takes you to 20 of Philly’s “haunted” locals as well as the locations of scary movies filmed in the city of Brotherly love.

If you prefer something based more in fact than legend take Grim Philly Tours.  It’s part ghost tour and part historical tour into the dark underbelly of Philadelphia from serial killers and torture to brothels. This tour also includes complimentary beer and relies on historically accurate data rather than legend (the English teacher in me loves this: cite your sources).  I will be booking this tour soon.

The Laurel Hill Cemetery has a full calendar in October from séances to movie screenings (in the cemetery) to historical tours as well.

And if at any point you get too scared check out my list of things to do in Philly and book yourself a Sunday Funday pub tour on Philly’s brand new pedal bar.

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