Amy Hollaman: Creating the terror behind the walls of Eastern State

I like to be scared but I don’t like gory stuff. Someone’s guts hanging out of their stomach isn’t scary to me — just disgusting. So one of my favorite Halloween attractions is the Eastern State Penitentiary’s “Terror Behind the Walls.” It’s super cool and scary, without being too graphic (though there are plenty of zombies and chainsaws to please the most twisted of you).

A bona-fide haunted site — if you’re a “Ghost Hunters” fan, it’s the place where the phrase, “Run, dude!” came from — you almost don’t need any of the special effects to make it creepy, but Amy Hollaman and her cast of more than 200 don’t just rely on the historic building to scare the bejesus out of you. Each year they put together an extraordinary theatrical production that turns ESP into America’s largest haunted house.

PGN: Tell me a little about the area where we’re sitting.

AH: Well, I thought it would be fun to do this interview in the ruins of death row, because for the first time at “Terror Behind the Walls,” visitors are going to be allowed to come to see this area. It’s part of our brand-new attraction for 2014, the machine shop. It’s going to be really interactive with immersive one-on-one experiences for visitors and, sorry, it’s going to be pretty gruesome! One of the great things about the penitentiary is that there are so many elements/areas of the prison where you really don’t need to do anything to make them intimidating or grotesque and picturesque, and this is one of them. But it’s also a cool spot to meet because during the day it really shows off the amazing architecture of the penitentiary.

PGN: How did you end up in a jail in Philadelphia?

AH: I’m originally from Stratford, Conn., and I moved to the Philadelphia area to go to Ursinus College. My senior year I finally got a car so I could drive to Philadelphia; that’s when I fell in love with the city. As soon as I graduated, I moved here.

PGN: What did you study in school?

AH: I had a double major, gender and women’s studies and Spanish. For my Spanish degree, I got to live in Madrid for three months and it was the time of my life! Both Madrid and Philadelphia have such a rich history and beautiful old landmarks juxtaposed with modern buildings. I really love both.

PGN: And how did you end up behind the walls?

AH: I actually got a job here as an actress. I was working at Kensington High School with AmeriCorps, where you get an educational stipend but not a full salary, so I was looking for a job. “Terror Behind the Walls” hired me to scare people and I’ve been here ever since. That was in 2005 and for the first seven years I continued working for different nonprofits during the day, then about two-and-a-half years ago I came on board fulltime as the events and operations manager, and I’m now the creative director for “Terror Behind the Walls.” Being here has certainly increased my passion for history.

PGN: What was your first role here?

AH: I was a zombie prison guard in front of an attraction called 13 Rooms. It was thrilling because growing up I had an obsession with the movie “12 Monkeys.” As a child I could quote the entire script and drove my parents nuts. Little did I know that part of the movie was filmed at Eastern State Penitentiary and, in a cosmic coincidence, my placement in the haunted house as what we called a “line beast” was right near the scene where Brad Pitt is in the insane asylum and freaks out. I played off of that intensive energy from Brad Pitt and became kind of this crazy prison guard who would sometimes be friendly and guiding but other times be panicked and worried for you.

PGN: What was your craziest moment with someone going through the tour?

AH: I’ve played different roles here — a zombie prison guard, a character I used to call the Night Watcher who was in an attraction that was pitch black and you had to use a flashlight to get through — but my favorite character was a prisoner called Knuckles. On our remix night, I was teamed up with two other actors/prisoners. We were on a chain gang so we had a prop that look like I was in the middle, chained to the other two prisoners. We had sledge hammers and were frustrated because we’ve been breaking bricks all day. At one point we’d stop and I would yell, “I can’t take it anymore!” There were about 75 people around us because it was at the end of the tour, where people gather and eat fried dough and buy stuff from the vendors as they listen to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Suddenly the three of us would lunge in different directions and it would look like our chains broke. It was a riot to see waves of people scream and laugh when we interrupted them with our mass mayhem. It was an epic moment.

PGN: Ha. I played the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” at Plays and Players Theater. My first night I apparently was so terrifying that kids in the theater had to go into therapy.

AH: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s a fine balance. We want to scare people but we try to make it entertaining as opposed to traumatizing

PGN: So, complete the sentence: My parents are/were …

AH: Extremely well-rounded and loving. I wouldn’t be the person I am without them. My mother passed away but I’m still very close to my father.

PGN: What were you like as a kid?

AH: Energetic, charismatic and probably musical. I used to sing all the time. When I was really little and had trouble going to sleep at night, I would hum theme songs to myself from shows like “Dynasty” and “Dallas.” I was a late-night kid too. I couldn’t sleep until I’d seen “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” I always thought that if I went to sleep, my parents were going to have a party and I didn’t want to miss it. Which is funny, looking back thinking, Oh, my parents and my grandma are going to have a wild party as soon as I go to bed. But just in case, I would sneak back down in the middle of the night to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Once in a while my mom would tease me if she caught me on the stairs and shout, “Don’t come down! We’re having a party here!” She’d make it worse!

PGN: So when did you come out?

AH: I came out to myself when I was 15 and to my father when I was 17 and in boarding school. He’s a behavioral psychologist and very liberal so I knew he would be accepting, My mom was more conservative and when I was young she once told me and my brother that she would rather have me be pregnant or my brother get someone pregnant or be addicted to drugs than turn out gay. That she would disown any gay child. Unfortunately she had had some bad experiences with people in her life who are LGBT, an inconsiderate female roommate in college who gave her a bad impression of the whole community. And a “straight” coworker who had a family but turned out to be gay. He contracted AIDS and took his own life, so she saw being gay as something destructive. That really weighed on me as I was struggling to come out. She actually asked me about it and when I gave her the answer she freaked out. She blamed the boarding school for turning me gay. It was pretty scary and I pretty much dropped the subject for years. But when I was in college I was the president of the gay straight alliance, leading Pride marches and quoted in the Princeton Review for helping make college a safe place for LGBT people. I thought, How can I be doing all this and not be open with my mom? It would be nice if all coming-out stories were pleasant but this one wasn’t. She cried, she asked me if I was going to be a freako like Rosie O’Donnell — and the ironic part is she loved Rosie O’Donnell — she was just a mess. She said she always pictured me with a house with a white picket fence and two-and-a-half kids and I explained to her that I wanted all those things, it just wouldn’t be with a man with a mustache, it would be with an awesome lady. Shortly after that she was diagnosed with cancer and we didn’t really talk about it anymore. Nothing else was as important as dealing with her illness. Near the end when she was in the hospital, I brought a woman who I was dating with me and my mother said she was glad I’d brought her. We ended on a good note. The last time I saw my mom, she was in the hospital in a wheelchair. I put my head in her lap and as she touched my hair she said to me, “Amy, you are so cool.”

PGN: Wow, what a moment. So what made you major in gender studies and Spanish instead of acting?

AH: I was in public school through my freshman year in high school and then I made a big change: I went to a boarding school called Westover. My grandmother went there and in high school I really craved a more challenging academic experience. Boarding school is not something that people in my town normally did. People think everyone in Connecticut is wealthy but we were very working-class in our city. At Westover I was the first head of the glee club and the first head of an a-cappella singing group and I was in a chamber choir, which are all somewhat theatrical. But in college I started to realize that I was identifying as lesbian, I still do, and I wondered, How does society not get this? I was raised as a Protestant Christian and the core tenants of what I was taught was to love and care for everyone. So even when I struggled with coming to terms with myself I thought, God made me like this. I don’t want to hurt anyone, all I want to do is give someone a hug and a kiss and love them. How bad could that be? And that got my wheels turning about people’s understanding of sexuality. Then I took a sociology class on gender as a construct and that really intrigued me. I was also the president of the GSA and I was going to start a gender revolution: I wanted to be a gay Martin Luther King, if you will. It still might happen. I worked for a long time with the Girl Scouts of America developing programs for girls’ empowerment. I built a staff of about 200 employees at a residential camp and had hundreds of girls, as well as 14 horses, on the property. I taught them how important it was to have pride in yourself as a woman as well as courage, confidence and character. And even though it’s not at the forefront of what I do now, I try to carry myself as an example of a strong woman who’s not afraid to be herself regardless of gender roles or sexuality, and I encourage all my 250 employees to do the same. So, in conclusion, that’s why I majored in gender studies. To start my revolution!

PGN: Back to ESP, what other programming do you do here?

AH: We do a lot of events throughout the year like our Search Light series, the first Tuesday of every month, where we dive into subjects like modern-day prison reform. Even though we’re a historic site, we still think it’s important to talk about what’s happening today in corrections. We do an event called Pets in Prison where you can learn about pets at the prison, like Pep the dog who folklore says was in prison for killing the governor’s cat. We team up with New Leash on Life and show what they’re doing currently with prisoners and dogs. We have artist installations year-round and my favorite event, our Pop-Up Museum, is in the spring. That’s when we bring up a bunch of artifacts that aren’t usually available for the public to see; inmate drawings, photos, even handmade shanks, are on display for a short period of time. “Terror Behind the Walls” is a fundraiser for us and we do another one in May, which is a mysterious masquerade ball. It was sold out last year.

PGN: Have you had any paranormal experiences?

AH: I was a real skeptic. I didn’t believe in ghosts or spirits but I had one experience here at the penitentiary about 10 years ago. It was the night before Halloween in 2005 and I was in the old parole office with the person in charge at the time. We were the last two in the building. Suddenly in the back of the room we started hearing noises. It wasn’t like a shelf fell or there was a huge gust of wind, they were independent sounds, like someone was moving papers around and lifting up things, kind of like if you were looking for keys on a messy table. I’m usually a brave person but I truly learned the meaning of the word “petrified” that night. My friend said, “There are a lot of stray cats in the building” and I said, “You think that’s a cat shuffling papers?” but I only said it in my head because I was too scared to speak. She suggested we leave and I just nodded. We didn’t say a word until we got down the street to London Grill and ordered a drink.

PGN: Where would you like to be laid to rest?

AH: Growing up, the family had a log cabin in Connecticut in the woods by Lake Doolittle. My family has a plot in a tiny, creepy little cemetery there, so I guess that’s where I would choose. But I always wondered if I wanted to be cremated or donate my body to science or be traditionally buried and I’m going with [snaps fingers] buried. After going to Europe this summer on an awesome trip down the Danube River, I saw more bones that I’ve ever seen in my life. I went to the Church of Bones in Prague where they have the bones of about 50,000 people and they used them to decorate the church. It was just beautiful and crazy. And in Austria … I’ve never seen cultures so obsessed with bones but now I’m like “I gotta become bones, I can’t go straight from flesh to ashes.” I think of weird stuff like this all the time. I want my grandkids to have my skeleton and joke around playing drums on my rib cage like in an old cartoon, “Grandma Holla [sings and plays air drums], bum, bump bum.”

PGN: The best thing I own is …

AH: My leather and denim jacket that I bought in Madrid. I have told past roommates that if there was ever a fire, that’s the only thing they need to save. I hope my family is not upset about their heirlooms, but that jacket is so cool!

“Terror Behind the Walls” runs through Nov. 8 at Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave. For more information, visit www.easternstate.org/halloween.

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