Eastern State Penitentiary’s annual Halloween festival returned for its 30th year in 2021 after a hiatus amid the pandemic. Loyal fans will likely notice some differences in this year’s festival, newly renamed “Halloween Nights.”
The almost 200-year-old prison-turned-museum in Philadelphia has welcomed the public to traditionally spooky attractions during autumn evenings for years. Programming has evolved in that time, but Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site senior vice president Sean Kelley said 2021 represents the most significant step toward incorporating the museum’s daytime programming into its nightly festivities. Halloween Nights features 15 total attractions with educational programming, designed to teach about the state of incarceration in the U.S., alongside haunted thrills.
“This year has allowed us to really pivot and have a lot of the fun that we've always had around Halloween, attract a lot of the same audience that we've always attracted, but find ways of introducing some topics that are more serious while they're here,” Kelley said.
Those more serious topics include mass incarceration, a trend in which the U.S. leads the world. It’s illustrated by a 16-foot graph in the former penitentiary’s baseball diamond, which also serves as a beer garden during Halloween Nights.
A flashlight tour of Cellblock 3 takes participants through a defunct hospital wing, where former inmate Al Capone had his tonsils removed in 1929. It was also where the hospital treated many patients for illnesses like tuberculosis.
“We're really hoping to educate guests, not only on the past of the site, but connecting it to prisons today, and how tuberculosis is very similar in COVID-19, as COVID-19 is in prisons today,” said Sam Phillips, assistant manager of the After Dark Cellblock 3 tours.
“A lot of folks look at this and they wonder why prison health care today is not up to standard like it was back then and why there was more of a focus on rehabilitation when it's not necessarily the case today,” she added.
Of course, there are still plenty of activities to appease horror buffs, like Machine Shop, a haunted house full of old-school scares. At the Blood Line Lounge, a VIP ticket grants participants over 21 access to a vampire-themed bar for cocktails like the Bloody Bathory (a vodka cranberry). And Gargoyle Gardens serves as a venue for some very talented skeletons, who convene hourly for a show.
As Eastern State Penitentiary looks to the future, museum staff hope the new mix of educational programming and haunted attractions will keep fans coming back for years to come.