Sunday, April 24, 2011

shackles, shivs and sharkfins

location: EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY, Philadelphia, PA

What first struck me about this location was the castle-like appearance within the urban landscape of Philly - the enormous walls jutting from the street a stark contrast to the single family homes and small businesses which surround it. Only upon entering the building did I realize the true juxtaposition ESP represents: The fortress walls were designed not to keep enemies out, but to lock them in.

Eastern State Penitentiary was built in 1829 and has been host to some of the nations most infamous and violent criminals, including Al Capone. It closed its doors in 1971, and now remains as an abandoned relic of our country’s brilliant dedication to incarceration, with a unique (for that time, but ultimately copied many times over) floor plan that included a center rotunda where, if one stood precisely in the middle, would have an unobstructed view down each of the prison’s eight cell blocks.


I was mildly dismayed, (for my own selfish purposes), to learn that ESP was now a working museum, open to the public. While many of the cells were left to organically decay, there were a few that were decorated to resemble their original state. The floors were routinely swept and modern lighting was installed to highlight the various informative plaquards throughout the  building. Not too scary, methinks.  Until, we are escorted to where we will be filming the show...

More that half of ESP’s buildings and cell blocks are not open to the public. With crumbling 180yr old floors, ceilings and rusted iron bars, these grounds are condemned and extremely dangerous. The museum employees will not even dare to enter these areas. With the exception of a few completely inaccessible places, (notably the third floor of the more decrepit cell blocks), this is where I was to be spending the next four nights - in complete darkness.

For the purposes of the show, no artificial light can used during the “hunt”. Paranormal researchers are restricted to small night vision cameras, as is the film crew (which includes yours truly). In essence, I will be traipsing around this gigantic, dilapidated and possibly haunted prison in the dead of night with no light to guide me. My initial thought was,  “Best case scenario: I break a leg.” 

While here, we have free reign to roam the grounds unguided by the prison’s employees. My own solo exploratory adventures lead me to stunning areas of visual interest. Original wire bed frames, rusted to the floor, remain inside clostrophobic cinderblock cells where frequently the only light source is from a two-foot square skylight. Other similarly sized cells housed bunks for those so unfortunate as to have to share their limited space.

The iron cages of each were blanketed with the colors of century-old rust and peeling paint, the chips of which flake off with an uneasy urgency - as if desiring escape from their God-forsaken place of rest.

Just off of the main structure lies Death Row. Normally fenced off to tourists, the barrier was removed for the benefit of the show, which enabled me to personally connect with the darkest of places within the prison. A dozen punishingly small rooms lined the wall, which over time, had deteriorated - their paint fading to a remarkably pastel palatte which appeared mocking in its sublime tone.  Here, society’s worst criminal offenders spent their remaining days on Earth.


On the first two nights the crew rigs the prison with assorted hidden cameras and IR (infrared) lights. During this time we can use small LED headlamps, but the throw of their luminance is only a few feet at best and, as the light decays in front of us, we are left surrounded by a thick, heavy darkness the likes to which I have never before been subjected. These areas where we will be filming were chosen not only for their rich visual atmosphere but for their notorious reputation as paranormal hot zones. Inside these tiny cells lived murderers and rapists, whose evil deeds did not cease once inside the prison walls.

Each cell block consisted of two or three floors, where rows of thirty or more cells lined the two main walls. Between the walls were two narrow walkways, separated by an open chasm, leading to the ground floor below. Inmates had been known to reach through their cage doors and grab guards, sometimes enabling them to throw a captured guard over the railing, through the open chasm and down to the floor below. After a few guards died this way, the prison built iron support rods between the two walkways, preventing the untimely demise of more employees.

The overall feeling of dread and oppression I felt in the lonely corridors of the prison were compounded by an actual experience of unnamable origin. On the night we filmed the show itself, I was a part of a five person team which explored the most dangerous cell block in ESP. The floors were flooded and the iron handrails disintegrated with minor pressure. There was only one area here where we were not able to tread due to the fact that the floor most likely would have collapsed underneath us. It was there, on the third floor of the block - where no human being has ventured in decades, where I heard it... or, more precisely, heard them. While trudging through the rain soaked ground floor, I heard two people whispering. It sounded as if they were right behind me. I quickly turned to see who was there, only to discover my back was to a wall. No one could have been there. I then heard the voices again, talking in the hushed tone of a stage whisper - soft enough to give the impression of whispering, yet projecting enough for their voices to carry. It was an eerie effect, almost as though the sounds occupied an alternate space, one of distance, yet very present. Although I could not make out what they were saying, I could pinpoint the location of the voices: The top floor. I asked the crew if they heard the voices. They could not. It was at that moment the voices stopped. And then, in a matter of moments, the voices were once again directly behind me, whispering into my ear from an uncomfortably close proximity. And then it stopped.

The entire experience lasted only seven or so seconds, but felt more like ten minutes. After that, I had no more incidents throughout the filming. The next night, we came back to break everything down, pack up the truck and head to the next location: an abandoned asylum.