Organizers Reflect on Controversial "Terror Behind the Walls" Attraction at Eastern State

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Sep. 21, 2011

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If these walls could talk: Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1970, but has been operating as a historical site and Halloween attraction since the 1990s.

Photo by letizia mariotti

Directly above Sean Kelley’s desk in the old parole office of Eastern State Penitentiary, a man killed himself in especially bloody fashion.

It was 1969, a year before the infamous, fortress-like prison on Fairmount Avenue closed after a century and a half. The man’s name was Norman Maisenhelder. Imprisoned following a 1954 murder conviction, Maisenhelder—desperate to see his young daughter and distraught over being denied parole—climbed onto the low roof of the building that now houses Kelley’s cubicle, screaming and brandishing a blade. After a two-hour standoff during which prison staff and fellow inmates tried to talk him down, Maisenhelder stabbed himself to death in front of the horrified onlookers.

It’s something that Kelley, Eastern State’s longtime senior vice president and director of public programming, thinks about often, but especially at this time of year. This week, Eastern State kicks off the 20th anniversary iteration of its “Terror Behind the Walls” Halloween attraction at the prison, which reopened as a museum and historical site in the early ’90s.

Eastern State’s atmospheric innards—long, dimly lit, decaying cell blocks that are creepy and compelling to walk down even during a daytime tour—have helped “Terror” evolve into one of the most popular and highly rated haunted attractions in the country.

It’s also a crucial cash cow for the nonprofit. Last year, “Terror” generated 65 percent of its approximately $4 million annual operating budget—the rest comes from grants and donations. The money goes to preserving and maintaining the prison as a historical site—recent roof repairs and upgraded safety systems cost Eastern State nearly $1 million, for example.

But Kelley, who’s overseen “Terror” for the past 16 years, considers the event a dance with the devil; an unavoidable exploitation of the prison’s complicated past—which includes brutality, suffering and misguided rehabilitation strategies—in order to keep the prison’s doors open year-round.

“There’s no way in which you can tell this building’s story at night as [haunted] entertainment and not really do some harm to peoples’ understanding of what went on here, or in some way dishonor the memory of someone like Norman Maisenhelder, who was a prisoner here but he was still a human being,” says Kelley.

While he acknowledges Eastern State’s ethical compromise, Kelley insists he has strived to minimize the harm over the years. Early on, he recalls, there were mistakes. In the mid-’90s, “Terror”—which brought in new consultants to conceptualize the haunt—started transforming from the creepy candlelight tours of the first few years to something far more outrageous and sensationalized, with its actors recreating scenes specific to the prison’s history: Women crying because they’d been raped. Prisoners going crazy and climbing the walls due to the unyielding solitary confinement that the prison’s Quaker founders believed would cause inmates to reflect and repent their misdeeds. And a man standing on the roof stabbing himself, fake blood spurting all over the place.

“I hated it, and I wasn’t the only one,” says Kelley, remembering some of the angry letters and protests from prisoners rights activists. “And it wasn’t even successful financially.” So Eastern State did away with that and tried to remove the prison theme entirely, and that, too, was a disaster. “We had, like, scenes of clowns, and there was such a disconnect. You’re in this abandoned prison in the clown room and it just wasn’t working.”

 So Kelley has since re-instituted a prison theme, but with plenty of caveats. No scenes of prison violence or sexual assault, no references to Quaker reform or the prison’s most famous inmate, gangster Al Capone. No references whatsoever to Eastern State Penitentiary as a real place. No overly monstrous prisoners or guards. “It’s not a great idea to flood the world with very cliche images of universally evil human beings locked in cages,” says Kelley. “That’s not what prisons or prisoners are. It’s much more complicated than that.”

The changes seem to have worked. “Terror” is financially successful. It’s become a Philadelphia Halloween tradition. Most of the overt protests have faded away. And Kelley feels more comfortable, though not entirely guilt-free, about the haunt.

But rather than pretend the “Terror” debate no longer exists, Kelley and Eastern State have embraced and even fostered it. On a recent evening, about 100 people gathered inside the old surveillance hub at the center of the prison for a talk about the ethical implications of “Terror.” Kelley spoke to the crowd about his lingering unease. Anne Parsons—a doctoral candidate from the University of Illinois who was in the area all summer to research the repurposement of formerly abandoned state-run facilities like Eastern State and the Pennhurst State School in Spring City as haunted attractions—challenged the crowd to consider whether haunted attractions like “Terror” stigmatize people who are incarcerated.

“One thing I’ve found [in my research] is that there has been less explicit controversy over haunted attractions at prisons than at asylums,” Parsons said afterward, noting the uproar over last year’s inaugural haunted house at Pennhurst, which some mental health advocates claim demonized and reinforced long-standing fears of the intellectually disabled. “People have said, ‘Well, prisoners have broken the law and so prisons as frightening places is appropriate, whereas people at mental health institutions were there for treatment and those places should be remembered differently and with more respect.’”

Voices of concern may be muted, but they’re still out there.

Tim Dunn, a 20-year volunteer with West Philly nonprofit Books Through Bars—which sends reading materials to inmates and fosters dialogue about incarceration issues—says he’s been critical of “Terror” for years and thinks they need to devise new moneymaking ideas to avoid the ethical conundrum altogether. “I’ve often been troubled by how and why Eastern State continues to use it as their main fundraiser,” says Dunn. They could be doing so many more creative things with this site.”

Meanwhile, Paul Eisenhauer—a prison historian, former professor of sociology at Chestnut Hill College, and prisoners-rights advocate since the early ’70s—was a volunteer at Eastern State for much of the 1990s, and occasionally butted heads with Kelley over the more outrageous “Terror” content. And while he has fewer misgivings these days and accepts the haunted attraction as a necessary evil, he’s still wary of the harm it can cause.

“A place like Eastern needs to be very, very careful how they depict the prison experience because you’re working with a population that is prejudiced, that doesn’t really think through what prison is about and doesn’t recognize the humanity of prisoners,” he says.

“That kind of thinking allows all kinds of horrible things to be done [to prisoners] to this day,” Eisenhauer continues. “Eastern needs to make sure they’re not contributing to that knee-jerk reaction. They don’t have to be advocates for prisoners if they don’t want to be, but they should not be contributing to falsehoods and stereotypes and bigotry.”

Kelley says he reminds himself of that all the time. And others remind him of it, too. “I’ve met Norman Maisenhelder’s daughter. I met an inmate who was friends with him and watched him die. We owe it to them and all the people who lived and died here to do this thing responsibly.”

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1. Norman Maisenhelder's Daughter, Dianne said... on Mar 29, 2012 at 06:09PM

“Yes, I am Norman Maisenhelder's daughter. I want to thank all who took issue with the way it was initially chosen to portray things @ the prison for"Terror". Sean Kelley has been very sensitive to this issue, & I applaud him for his work & his efforts toward changing the face of it. It was heartbreaking enough for my family & me to go through the real event. It would have been horrifying to deal with the reenactment of it.”

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