Eastern State Penitentiary event round-up

Editor's Note: Erin Wolf is a blogger for Nerdsburgh. She joined a Paranormal Pop Culture event to report about what happens on a "ghost hunt." This article appears courtesy of her site.


Smoke billowed out of the nostrils of the two gargoyles that sit atop the entrance gate of the 142-year-old Eastern State Penitentiary, bathing our small group in a fake, hazy fog. Terrified patrons flitted past us and flooded the sidewalk, excitedly swapping stories of their experience at the penitentiary’s unique version of a super deluxe haunted house called Terror Behind the Walls.

It was 11:00 on Nov. 12 and the last haunted tour of the Halloween season had finally come to a close after a special encore "haunt," post-Halloween. As teenagers ran squealing into the street and employees with makeup stained faces headed home for the last time this year, I couldn’t help but look around at all the commotion and laugh a little; for I knew that the evening’s real “terror behind the walls” had yet to begin.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary’s haunted attraction Terror Behind the Walls, there was a first ever two night event of intimate ghost hunting (with groups no larger than 7 people in the massive site). The paranormal investigation was hosted by ParanormalPopCulture.com’s Aaron Sagers and Kris Williams of Ghost Hunters International fame.

Once the prison had been emptied of all staff and straggling teenagers, our motley crew of ghost hunters reentered through the courtyard and gathered in the rotunda which, if you look at a diagram of the Penitentiary’s spoke and wheel architectural design, can officially be described as the “heart” or “nerve center” of the entire compound.

The group was abuzz due to reports from Friday night’s ghost hunt. One “investigator” claimed his head was touched by a ghost. Another said his digital audio recorder caught an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) saying, “Get out!”

The night hadn’t even begun and already I was looking for the door.

Our large party was quickly divided into three smaller groups each headed up by one of three lead investigators: Aaron Sagers, Kris Williams and Frank "Dr. Spectre" Cinelli. Special guests of the event also included Jackie Gordon from Season 15 of The Bachelor and Season 2 of Bachelor Pad as well as Tony Bruno from The Fanatic 97.5.

Prior to Saturday, I had assumed that the other “investigators,” excluding our resident experts, would be civilians and mostly amateurish ghost enthusiasts like myself. Boy, was I mistaken. While there were several newbies in this small group, I had barely gotten the lens cap off my camera in Cellblock 10 and already a fellow ghost hunting partner had set up various paranormal sensors and recording equipment all over the dilapidated cement floor. (Kris even jerry-rigged one of the devices to continuously record with the aid of simple penny!)

Kris (our small group’s first guide) then instructed us to “go dark,” which meant - to my horrific dismay - that we were all to extinguish our lights and wait in the pitch black creepy Penitentiary cellblock for ghosts of dead inmates and guards to communicate with us.

As it turns out, investigating ghosts isn't just about being scared but about pursuing facts and collecting evidence (although being scared is definitely a fun part of the experience!). Beyond what you see on television, professional ghost hunters spend hours patiently waiting, baiting and sometimes provoking spirits to contact them. Once set up in our cellblock with the audio recorder rolling, Kris asked several questions of the lingering spirits in hopes of eliciting a ghostly response. It seems that the pros, in addition to a lot of patience, incorporate a great amount of empathy and sensitivity when addressing the dead in the hopes of provoking a potential interaction. But such sensitivity is not to be mistaken for disregarding skepticism or blindly accepting all things as being ghostly.

A healthy dose of skepticism coupled with concepts of scientific discovery are almost necessary for any paranormal investigator in the difficult art of proving the existence of ghosts. In order to confirm contact, several methods of experimentation are often implemented during an encounter to generate the most conclusive results. Proof beyond personal experience is the onus of the investigator when it comes to ghost hunting, and once out of the dark hallways and into the comforting light of day, it’s hard to believe what you can’t prove.

As an example, Kris, Aaron and Frank are all pretty adamant skeptics who weren't quick to label anything as haunted or call phenomena ghostly. While they pursue the paranormal in their jobs, they were more likely to call things "weird," "creepy," or "hard to explain." This was both surprising and refreshing. Although guests paid for tickets to experience the paranormal - and it appeared that everyone did have some sort of experience and went home happy - the investigators were never pushing ghosts on others.

And although I spent the majority of my time in Eastern State Penitentiary sitting in the dark, wringing my hands and looking out for talkative ghosts, I did have one encounter. Despite my desperate attempts to remain an observer, Aaron Sagers (our second small group guide) insisted I participate in an experiment designed to incite any prison spirits that may or may not be present. He suggested that I, alone, take a long walk to the end of a particularly spooky Cellblock 4 which was reported to possess groups of "shadow people." Although I was quaking in my boots, from both the cold and sheer terror, I put one foot in front of the other and braved the darkness (and the malicious lingering spirits?) all the way to the end of the cellblock and back.

Aaron informed me when I returned to the group, “I don’t want to alarm you but some people in this group said it seemed like an unidentifiable shadow was following you on your way back down the hallway.” Awesome. Creepy living dudes I can handle but creepy stalker ghosts? Maybe, but only if he looks like Patrick Swayze.

The investigations continued late into the night and ended with groups venturing into even more sinister sections of the Penitentiary including Death Row and The Hole. I didn’t return home until almost 4 a.m. in the morning, but the dead don’t sleep and neither do ghost hunters.

Thanks to The Eastern State Penitentiary for successfully scaring me all evening long. From the five consecutive haunted attractions inside the Terror Behind the Walls tour to allowing our gang of ghost enthusiasts to invade the halls of the prison and poke figurative sticks tauntingly at the dead inmates; it was a wonderful and entirely unique experience.

Thanks to Aaron Sagers and Kris Williams for hosting the event and if I ever encounter a ghost in the near future and want to talk to it, at least now I’ve got a couple of good conversation starters.