Music and dancing. Wine and dining. Mystery and mayhem. A historic prison partially in ruins. These are what awaited attendees of Terror Behind the Walls’ 6th annual “Party at the Pen” masquerade ball.
Held on May 12th and 13th, this annual fundraising event has helped maintain the “living ruin” at Eastern State Penitentiary, a famous prison in Philadelphia. Ballgoers wore their best outfits and masks, explored the same corridors that held convicted criminals for over a century, and danced the night away… possibly alongside ghosts of those who never left.
For those unaware, Eastern State Penitentiary (or ESP), is the world’s oldest penitentiary and the model for many future prisons. The sprawling network of buildings is situated on 11 acres in the midst of northern Philadelphia, separated from the city by a castle-like wall and turret-like guard towers. The prison was in use from 1829 to 1971 and has a long history that would require more than this article allows. The facility now operates as both a museum to American prisons as well as a platform to explore the problems of our justice and correctional systems today.
What does this have to do with pop culture, though? More than you’d think!
ESP is one of the more famous prisons seen on television and in movies. This penitentiary was the filming location for the asylum scenes in 12 Monkeys and the “abandoned hideout” in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Steve Buscemi used the location for his film, Animal Factory; in fact, this began a lasting relationship with the site as Buscemi is now the narrator on their audio tour.
Beyond the silver screen, television viewers likely recognizethe penitentiary from numerous paranormal investigation shows. MTV’s Fear, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, and Most Haunted Live! have all visited the prison and supposedly encountered strange happenings. ESP continues to be listed on “Most Haunted” sites and will likely show up on more ghost hunting series.
Of course, ESP’s role in pop culture expands beyond TV and movies. From music videos to video games, the haunting ruins of this prison inspire all sorts of emotions. Today, ESP also serves as an art gallery, with numerous installations exploring the topics of crime, incarceration, and injustice.
What does this have to do with the masquerade ball?
“Party at the Pen” is one of two major fundraising events that help maintain this historic landmark. Most are familiar with Terror Behind the Walls, the lauded haunted house that attracts over 100,000 visitors every Fall. Fewer people know about this Spring-time masquerade ball, which is just as important… and possibly more fun!
Upon entering you’re given some basic instructions, mostly concerning safety and respect for the location. After that, you’re allowed to wander anywhere that hasn’t been locked off, and I highly recommend you wander. Although there is a central dance area in the heart of the facility, you’ll find entertainers and staff in many nooks and crannies. A carnival funhouse in the print shop. A queen entertaining guests with champagne on Death Row. Fire performers on display in the courtyard. Deranged vampires feeding “blood” shots to people in the hospital wing.
Even better, the entire place takes on a strange maze-like quality, as previously accessible sections are closed and new ones are opened. You might head back to a route you used earlier to find it closed and locked, but then suddenly discover someplace else. Some are lit, brightly or dimly, and others are in complete darkness – if the gates are open, you are free to venture. Be warned, however, as some of the cast are waiting and may drag you off to more macabre experiences.
The highlight of the night was the mysterious “speakeasy”, which we only knew of thanks to attendees from previous years. Instructed to find the “old timey” music, as the location is semi-hidden and changes each time, we’d just about given up. Then we discovered a previously closed cellblock where a lone DJ played music at the end of the corridor, his decks disguised as phonographs. We saw the exit behind him, and he gave us a silent nod, and then we were there.
The rest of the night was spent eating (tater tots!), drinking (peach tea vodka!), and listening to an amazing singer and her accompanist belt out jazz (Chicago!). Before we knew it, it was time to end the festivities and leave ESP behind. An experience to remember as we walked out the front gates back into reality, leaving the dark corridors and mysteries behind.
ESP and Terror Behind the Walls have proven themselves repeatedly to be worth the trip to Philadelphia. More importantly, they also provide a valuable service in helping to maintain this site that is essential to our history, social issues, and even popular culture. I highly encourage everyone to at least visit their day tours, but I will strongly recommend trying the Party at the Pen or Terror Behind the Walls.
You’ll be educated, you’ll have fun, and perhaps your experiences might even move beyond the academic or social.
Eastern State Penitentiary is open all year, 10 am to 5 pm, except for select holidays. You can find out more information on visiting, cost, parking, etc. on their website.
Terror Behind the Walls occurs every Fall, 7 pm to 11 pm, from late September until early November. You can find out more information on tickets, warnings, options, etc. on this website.
Party at the Pen: The Masquerade occurs in May, from 9 pm to 12:30 am, and usually for only two nights. This event sells out fast, and you can find out more information on tickets, requirements, etc. on this website.