If you’ve been to Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls haunted house in years past, you’ll find that things are a little bit different this time around.
There’s now a touching option, meaning you can elect to have the zombies, ghouls and murderous fiends that lurk inside the decaying den of horror reach out and touch you, probably at precisely the moment you don’t want to be touched. And there’s also going to be more blood and guts, says Eastern State’s Director of Operations Brett Bertolino, who is also on the board of the national Haunted Attraction Association. Yes, such a thing exists.
Below, Bertolino tells me what it takes to put together a massive spectacle like the one at Eastern State and answers the all-important question: Do people actually pee themselves?
So, wait. There’s a Haunted Attraction Association?
Yes. Most people don’t realize that there’s an entire haunted house industry. There’s an annual Halloween convention in Chicago. It’s a trade show every March with thousands of haunted house owners and operators from Busch Gardens to farmers with corn mazes. There are seminars, panel discussions. Even an awards banquet. In the industry, we talk to each other, we have the national association, we have a national PR firm in New York. We have a crisis communication plan.
I heard that Eastern State is gorier this year.
Yes. For a long time, we’ve had the philosophy that we are a high-startle, low-gore haunted attraction. We continue to have high startle, but we found that people want some gore. So we do it strategically. It has a place, a purpose. And usually, we use it to accomplish something else, to distract you before something is about to happen. But some scares are just tried and true.
Well, for instance, a camouflage scare. You have actors in a scene where they’re camouflaged. It might be a dot room, and they are wearing dot outfits, so you don’t see them, but all of a sudden they come out. Really, it’s a combination of things. It’s about the scare for sure. Secondary is the spectacle. And then third is the story line, which is really more for the diehard fans. Most people come to just be scared and entertained.
Why did you make the decision to allow patrons to be touched this year?
We decided after last year that we want a more intense show. We’re creating a more immersive environment. Before, you knew “They won’t touch me. No matter what happens, they are not going to touch me.” That feeling of safety is not something we want all of our visitors to have. But because we want everybody to have a great experience — some don’t want to be touched, some do — we came up with a system. When you arrive, you are confronted with the decision while you are in the queue, in front of the entire line. We have some awesome nurses all bloody and gory, and they confront you. If you opt in, the nurse puts a bloody X on your face and a glow necklace around your next.
What else is different this year?
The necklace also allows us to start separating people. If you have a necklace, you might be pulled away. Just for 20 or 30 seconds. But it’s that whole anxiety that you’re separated. And in another section, if you have a necklace, you might have to crawl. We thought that 50 percent would want to opt in to the touching, but it’s more like 62 percent.
How long does it take to plan each year’s Terror Behind the Walls?
We start right about now planning for next year. Twenty years ago, you would just hang up some black sheets. But visitors want to see more now. People are seeing horror movies and video games, and they want it to be like that. We’re trying to create a real-life, 45-minute movie that you’re starring in. It’s a year-round process. We build costumes, prosthetics — 7,000 custom prosthetics every season. Like any creative industry, we have more ideas than time or money, and so we maintain a scare book filled with concepts for the future.
Anything special for hard-core annual fans?
On November 9th, we’ll have what we call our remix night. Last year, that’s where we prototyped a darker, bloodier show. We were uncomfortable trying that for 29 nights, so we tried it once. That’s the remix. This year, we might turn off all the lights, change the music. We’ve done it where all the lighting is that you just get one flashlight.
Do people really pee themselves?
People do that. People do pee and poop and puke when they are scared. We constantly have teams taking people out of the building, every 15 to 20 minutes. People are too scared too continue. We want our actors to read the audience. We want a super-scary event. We want them to be entertained and come back year after year. And kids are told that they can say “Monster be good!” and the monster will back away. But people hyperventilate, they have panic attacks. We’re prepared to deal with anything.