A historic prison in which Al Capone and “Slick Willie” Sutton were both incarcerated is not necessarily a space where you would expect to find a big queer presence — but Eastern State Penitentiary has been a little left of center since its inception.
In addition to work on prison reform, ESP hosts film screenings and art installations, and has been a big supporter of the LGBT community. I first learned about Alan Turing at ESP and, earlier this month, was at SisterSpace in Maryland and was surprised to see the penitentiary listed as a donor for the silent auction. But the main thing that ESP is known for this time of year is the 32-day “Terror Behind the Walls.” It features Hollywood-quality sets, animatronics and custom-designed soundtracks, all taking place within the walls of the prison. An elite team of 14 makeup artists spends three hours preparing the cast of 200-plus performers each show night. Consistently ranked among the top haunted attractions in the nation, it was named “one of the top three must-see haunts in America” by Haunted Attraction Magazine.
I got a chance to go inside the walls to speak to Kenny Wittwer, one of the talented staff members at TBTW.
PGN: What was your favorite Halloween costume?
KW: I was always a pirate — every year — which was not my choosing. My mother would just cut out an eye patch, put a red and white shirt over some black pants and call it a day. But when I was in first grade, I went as an M&M. I was the orange one and had this big round body with tight gray pants and big gloves. It was really cute and I loved it, mainly because I was finally something other than a pirate! My favorite Halloweens were probably when we lived in Folcroft, Delaware County. It was all rowhomes so you could get a lot of candy in a short amount of time. Then we moved to a rural suburb in South Jersey and the houses were spread further apart, so you had to do a lot of walking to get the same amount of candy. You really had to earn it there!
PGN: Worst Halloween costume?
KW: When I was in high school, I had long hair, a little bit longer than now. I wore a toga-like robe and went as Jesus, hoping to spread a little love. But everyone thought I was Charles Manson! From the Prince of Peace to mass murderer, the complete opposite of what I was going for! It was a major costume fail.
PGN: [Laughs] Jesus! So you grew up in Folcroft?
KW: Yes, my parents are from Northeast Philly but moved there before I was born. We stayed until I was about 9. We were very eager to leave the neighborhood.
PGN: How come?
KW: Back in the day, there was a very closed mindset in that area. In 1963, there was what was called The Baker Incident: A black family, Horace and Sarah Baker, moved into the neighborhood. They had a young child and she was expecting another. Just days after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, thousands of people raided their house. They broke every window and threw Molotov cocktails into the house and terrorized the family as the local police watched. The National Guard had to come in to escort them in and out of their home. Though the incident happened about 30 years before we moved there, the attitudes persisted. I heard the most awful racist comments from first- and second-graders, racist nursery rhymes and jokes. It was not a comfortable environment, so we were happy to move.
PGN: As a kid, I’d guess you had an inkling about yourself even if you didn’t quite know what it was yet.
KW: Oh yes, I remember taking bath towels and tying them on my head and pretending I was a girl. I preferred to play with my sister’s Barbies over my G.I. Joes. When I did play with the Joes, I’d socialize them with the Barbies and make them peace-loving G.I.s. I’d turn the barracks into a condo and let them drive the pink convertible. I was also obsessed with Beanie Babies, but come on, who wasn’t in the ’90s? I think I had my first boy crush in first grade, even though I didn’t realize what it was. I just gravitated to him and knew I thought he was cute. Funny ending — at my first Philly Pride, I heard someone call my name, but couldn’t see who it was. Later that night, I got a message saying, “Hey! I saw you at Pride!” and it was from him. We’ve been friends again ever since.
PGN: That’s great! So I guess the atmosphere was not the best for a baby gay in Folcroft.
KW: Absolutely not. I was first called a faggot in kindergarten. Two of my friends were talking about some sport I wasn’t into and even at 5 they knew to take that as a clue to call me a faggot. I didn’t know what it meant, but I could tell it wasn’t pretty. I told my mom and dad and they told me that it was a bad word and my dad came out and gave them a talking to. But I was pretty flamboyant without knowing it so I’m sure there were plenty of people who connected the dots before I did. I got beat up pretty often for being feminine of center.
PGN: When did you come out?
KW: Halfway through my junior year of high school. The neighborhood in South Jersey wasn’t the most liberal place around, but it wasn’t as overt as what we experienced in Delco. When I came out, there were some people who were super into it, to the point that it became a little tokenizing and accessorizing: “Ooh, we can talk about fashion and go brow shopping together!” I actually ended up suppressing a lot of myself because I didn’t want to just be a stereotype. So the aggressive acceptance actually drove me back in a little. Then there was the other side of those at school who didn’t accept it and decided to distance themselves when I came out. But once I got to college, it was smooth sailing. I met a lot of queer activists at Drexel and it ignited the activism in me as well. There were some issues with hazing, between the fraternities and queer students, including me being threatened by someone shouting “I’m watching you, faggot!” from one of the windows. We reported it and the administration took care of it immediately. The queer students got together and demanded that they create a safe space for us and, though it didn’t happen while I was there, we did get an LGBT center in 2013.
PGN: Are you an only child?
KW: I’m the youngest of three. My brother Pat is the oldest and my other sibling Ezra is 26. Ezra came out as bisexual in 10th grade and now identifies as gender-queer, non-binary. My parents were surprised but they were supportive, and seeing that made it easier for me.
PGN: So what was a favorite toy growing up?
KW: For a little queer boy, I was surprisingly into cars. I wasn’t into the mechanics of them, but I loved to look at them. I had a rug with cars on it in the tiny room I shared with my brother. I was also into Beanie Babies and I would sleep with all of them until I moved to the top bunk. Then, after one too many falling on his head, he insisted I only take two to bed. My brother was nine years older than me and it wasn’t until I got older that I appreciated his patience in indulging me, living in a kid’s room from 9-18 without complaint.
PGN: What did you study in college?
KW: At first I studied psychology — I thought I’d become an industrial organizational psychologist and help workplaces become more functional and conducive for their employees — but psychology was very depressing and didn’t click for me, so I switched to Temple to study sociology and power structure and the dynamics of race and class, etc. I didn’t finish because I had some health issues and the medical expenses were adding up. I was working full-time to pay them off and trying to go to school. It was burning me out.
PGN: What a shame that someone would have to choose between school and health. But at least you would up in a cool place! How did you switch over to museum work?
KW: I started at the Franklin Institute volunteering for the Discovery Camp program. My brother and some of my friends worked there. I realized that I loved working with and teaching kids. I became an educator and assistant manager for the overnight program. I found out about Terror Behind the Walls through friends at F.I. They would tell me, “You have crazy energy and you’re really weird, you’d fit right in!” I’m skinny, weird, flamboyant — not exactly what you’d call scary or agro — so I didn’t think I’d get in. But apparently I was weird enough to be placed in The Infirmary and I just loved it. That was 2013 and I haven’t looked back.
PGN: What was your best moment scaring someone?
KW: I was in a scare pocket, where you’re hidden behind a wall and a window drops and you see my face really quickly before it’s hidden again. There was a group of what looked like six college buddies slowly inching forward, terrified, and when I popped out they all screamed and fell to the ground en masse! It was great, it was like — bam! Drop! Then laughter, so I knew they were having a good time.
PGN: What are some of the new things people can expect this year?
KW: I’m really excited, we have a lot of new things for guests to experience. One of our new attractions this year is Blood Yard. It’s in an area where the public has never been allowed at ESP, so you’ll see corners of the site you’ve never seen before. It’s a gruesome colony of savage cannibal-like creatures who feast on human flesh, complete with warriors and an ancient empress. Hopefully you’ll make it out alive without being sacrificed in a crazy ritual. The props and animatronics are through the roof. It’s very intense.
PGN: What is your role?
KW: I’m the attraction manager of Breakout, which is the last of the six attractions that guests go through. It’s the big escape so you’re surrounded by inmates trying to get out. There may be nightmares from things you’ve seen previously on the tour, they may ask you for help or turn you around. It’s a very disorienting and energetic grand finale as you try to get out.
PGN: If you don’t make it, do you have to work here next year?
KW: Exactly! That’s how we hire.
PGN: We’re in the section of ESP that was made famous in the “Dude, run!” episode of “Ghost Hunters” where they saw the unexplained apparition in the corridor. Have you ever had any paranormal experiences?
KW: Let me preface it by saying that I have a science background — I even have the word “science” branded on my arm — so I’ve always been skeptical about that sort of thing. I’d hear stories my first year and always found a rational reason to explain it — an air compressor or sounds bouncing from another area. However … I have had some experiences that my science brain has not been able to explain. The first year I worked The Infirmary attraction, I went in early one day. The soundtrack wasn’t on yet and there were no guests in the house so it was dead quiet when I heard the sound of a little girl laughing. Now we don’t have any kids in the show and we weren’t open yet. I looked up and saw the silhouette of a schoolgirl with pigtails and a poofy skirt dance along the wall and disappear. I thought, I must just be hungry or dehydrated or something, but no, it happened. Another time during a show I was in a section of The Infirmary in a very tight pocket — only big enough for one actor — when I felt someone in there with me, breathing on my neck. I turned around and, of course, there was nothing but wall. Then I turned back around and looked out my peephole to see if there were guests to scare, but the hallway was empty. Suddenly there were two hard knocks on the peephole door! I was staring out and there was no one there, not a soul, and my whole body just went cold. I was like, OK, this is too real. I don’t like this. But luckily it seems like whatever is there is on our side.
PGN: Yeah, I’ve had quite a bit of paranormal experiences, but fortunately, so far all positive. What do you do outside of prison?
KW: Beyond the walls … I like to bike ride a lot. I travel all over the city and take in the views. And I play music, I call it mega-gay synthy-dance music — Super Nintendo- and N64-inspired music. I went on tour for the first time this summer, which was fun, and I’ve been working to book other people, mostly queer and trans artists who don’t always get a fair crack at work — people of color, anyone who’s been having a hard time breaking into the DYI scene, which tends to be straight, white male artists. I’ve also been working with another amazing group of people on an Escape Room adventure called “Escape the 1980s.” They do a fantastic job of making sure both the staff and the guests have a great experience. It’s really cool, you have to “escape” through four different rooms by traveling back to the ’80s using a push-button phone and, though there are references to “Knight Rider,” “The Goonies,” Walkie Talkies, Cabbage Patch Kids and ’80s radio, you don’t have to know about them to win; you just have to look and listen. I’ve been doing something similar back at the Franklin Institute too. It’s really informed my work here at TBTW, especially with the Hex Challenge, which is a nice addition to the tours.
PGN: What is the Hex Challenge?
KW: It’s pretty cool, it’s one of our VIP experiences. At the beginning of each of the six attractions, you enter a secret room and you are dared to become part of the action. There are different mental and physical challenges that might require you to enter a ball pit, solve a puzzle, enter doorways as narrow as 17 inches wide or even crawl through small spaces to escape. It takes you even deeper into the narrative of the storyline for the haunt. We also have a speakeasy tour where, after going through TBTW, you can have a drink at Al Capone’s cell or, for historic-minded people, you can take a guided tour of the prison by flashlight before going to the front of the line for the terror tour.
PGN: Spirits with the spirits! Count me in.
For more information about Terror Behind the Walls, visit https://www.easternstate.org/halloween/node/3.