Eastern State Just Canceled This Year’s Terror Behind the Walls

The roughly 200-year-old prison-turned-historical-and-educational-site will also lay off 40 percent of its staff due to coronavirus-related financial cutbacks. Here's what to expect there this fall.

halloween in philadelphia guide things to do

Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary, pre-pandemic. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

File this with the long list of 2020 events the pandemic has shut down: Eastern State Penitentiary has officially canceled this year’s installment of the region’s most treasured Halloween attraction, Terror Behind the Walls.

In addition, on Wednesday evening, the historic site announced that it has “laid off 40 percent of its staff, implemented salary reductions, and made deep cuts to its operating budget as a result of the financial impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”

President and CEO Sally Elk called the scaling-back “the absolute last resort.”

Eastern State hasn’t earned revenue since the pandemic forced it to close its doors on March 14th, according to a memo released by the organization on Wednesday. It had originally planned to go ahead with the Halloween event this year (preparations had been under way for months, per the announcement), but COVID-19 outbreak restrictions anticipated this fall — physical distancing guidelines, mask requirements, and other preventative measures — would have “presented significant operational challenges and financial risk,” the organization said.

In other words, the cost of implementing pandemic-related safety guidelines could have been prohibitive when factored in with the requisite smaller crowds. In recent years, the historical site has shifted away from hosting entertainment-centered events and toward initiatives focused on educating the public about criminal justice reform, which the organization calls “the civil rights issue of our times.” Instead of holding Terror Behind the Walls this fall, the museum will focus on smaller tours and other exhibits that more closely align with its mission, which is very much in step with current activism regarding policing and incarceration.

It’s the not the first time the site has canceled a popular event for financial reasons and to pivot toward its educational mission: Eastern State held the final iteration of its much-beloved Bastille Day event in 2018, stating at the time that it had “grown far beyond expectations” and become an “extremely resource-intensive” event that did not align with the organization’s then-newly updated mission statement. In that case, Eastern State canceled the summertime Bastille Day event for good. At this point, there’s no indication that Terror Behind the Walls, a major fund-raiser for the organization, won’t return next fall.

In a letter to stakeholders released at the time of the Bastille Day decision, the organization wrote, “Eastern State Penitentiary is already the site where [criminal justice] issues are most robustly addressed with a broad audience. … But, increasingly, we use the power of this rich historic setting to deepen the national conversation about some of the most critical and complex issues facing the United States.”

Among other events and programs Eastern State has run since then, the organization projected onto its walls last fall 12 short animated films about life in prison, all written and produced by then-current inmates at the Chester State Correctional Institution. The project was called “Hidden Lives Illuminated.”

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“Hidden Lives Illuminated” runs through September 12th. Photo courtesy Eastern State Penitentiary.

Films produced as part of “Hidden Lives Illuminated” will once again be projected onto the penitentiary’s walls this fall. Plus, visitors can expect small-scale evening tours and an audio tour featuring a 16-foot bar graph that depicts rising U.S. incarceration rates and racial disparities in the nation’s prison population.

Regarding the layoffs, Elk said that “after months of financial losses, and with such uncertainty ahead, we are simply out of options.

“The strength of this organization has always been its dedicated and ambitious staff,” she continued. “We are heartbroken.”