About 10 years ago, I braved Eastern State Penitentiary‘s nighttime “Terror Behind the Walls” haunted Halloween attraction. I didn’t need any chainsaw-wielding monster to scare the pants off me—passing those empty, pitch-black cells was the ultimate in creepy. Still, I thought I’d like to return someday for one of their daytime historic tours, which I did today.
Opened in 1829, Eastern State was the world’s first penitentiary and revolutionized what was known as the “Pennsylvania System” of prison management later copied by 300 prisons around the world. Proponents of this system believed that prisoners should be kept in solitary confinement, where they would serve penance and be rehabilitated. Inmates spent 23 hours a day in their cells, which contained only a toilet, table, bed, Bible, and a small skylight in the ceiling known as the “Eye of God.” Communication between prisoners was forbidden. In fact, when prisoners left their cells, black hoods were placed over their heads so that they could not be recognized. Because they spent so much time in isolation, many of the prisoners went mad. And violation of the rules led to harsh punishments such as the water bath, mad chair, iron gag, or time in the hole.
Like many other abandoned prisons and mental institutions, Eastern State is said to be haunted. One of the areas pictured below (Cellblock 15 – or death row) is reported to be an “active” location for paranormal events. I asked our guide about it, but he is not a believer.
Others disagree. In the mid-90s, locksmith Gary Johnson was working on removing a 140-year-old lock in cell block 4 when he had a ghostly encounter in which he felt as though he were being watched. He turned around, saw nothing, and upon turning back to his work, saw a shadowy figure dart across the corridor from one cell to another. Some theorize that when he turned the key, he “unlocked” some dark spirits.
Now I am drawn to doors, and many of them caught my interest today despite having that spooky story in my head. The cell doors at ESP are quite small, built that way so that prisoners would have to bow their heads to enter.
I also love photographing decay, and ESP, in its state of sustained ruin, is the perfect playground for this.
Now for the weird shot. I’m sure it is just shadow or plant growth on the wall at the end of the corridor here, but doesn’t it sort of look like a dark figure?
I’d like to return to ESP for further exploration. But not at night. And not alone.