Spooky and scary and fun, oh my! That’s how I would describe one of my favorite places, the Eastern State Penitentiary. I love the place year-round because of their support for progressive causes, but at this time of year, the penitentiary really comes alive — by way of the dead. For its annual event, Terror Behind the Walls, ESP hires hundreds of actors to portray a myriad of characters throughout the grounds. I corralled Senior Operations Area Manager Luis Santiago, who took me through a maze of winding corridors until we landed in a quiet space not open to the public to speak about what’s in store for this year’s event.
PGN: Phew, that was quite the brisk walk, do you ever get lost here?
LS: Oh yes! My first year it took me quite some time to figure out all the different routes that the actors take — what door to go through to get to the right place.
PGN: How long have you worked here and how did you get here?
LS: I’ve worked here for 12 years, but the first time I came here was with my Spanish club on a school trip when I was 14. We took a historic day tour and then came back for Terror Behind the Walls. I fell in love with it. My mom’s been taking me to haunted houses since I was a kid and I immediately told her, “We have to go back!” We came here every year until I started working here.
PGN: That’s a cool school trip.
LS: They thought it was important for us to learn about prison reform and justice. Me being Hispanic it was especially important to learn about how and why Black and Brown people are incarcerated at such higher rates. And then, we got to have fun at the haunted house!
PGN: You grew up in Cherry Hill?
LS: I actually grew up in Camden until my mom got us out of there. She was a single mom raising three boys. She moved us to Cherry Hill for a better education and truthfully, it was a bit of a culture shock, but I’m so happy she did it. I met some great people and had so many more opportunities there.
PGN: What kinds of things were you into as a kid?
LS: Well, I have a cleft lip and a cleft palate, so I wasn’t able to play many sports. But I used to love rollerblading, and I joined the choir and theater, which eventually brought me here, so I’m not going to complain!
PGN: Why weren’t you allowed to play sports?
LS: I’ve had multiple surgeries since I was a kid; there’s essentially a hole in my soft palate that they have to keep filling up. They take bone grafts from my hip and insert it in my mouth, and because the mouth changes and gets bigger as you grow, I’ve had to have it done more than once. It’s very sensitive should I get hit in the mouth playing football or soccer, not to mention it would ruin all the work we did.
PGN: Was growing up with a speech disorder difficult?
LS: Truthfully, most kids with cleft lip and palate tend to be shy, but I was a spunky kid, and I did not care. I had a great medical team including a therapist and a great family who would not let me focus on it. They taught me to feel comfortable in my own skin and to be proud of who I was, scars and all.
PGN: What was the first scary movie you remember seeing?
LS: The whole family is into horror, so I’ve been watching them my whole life. I don’t remember the first, but one that stands out is when my mom took me and my older brothers to see, “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” We were still living in Camden, and we had chicken wire on the windows for safety. When we got home, my mom left to run to the store. On her way back she thought, “I should really mess with them…” so she started making scratching noises on the chicken wire. Me and my brothers were FREAKING out, “Mom is gone, and we’re all going to die!” It was traumatizing but great!
PGN: She created your first special-effects show. I’m the opposite. I’m not a big horror fan, which is why I like TBTW. It’s spooky and scary but not just a bloodfest.
LS: True, we try hard to be more theatrical and interactive. We try to think outside the box. We tell a story that you can follow as you walk through; it’s an hour-long journey.
PGN: And people can opt for the level of fear that they want.
LS: Yes, we have a way that people can indicate if they’re comfortable being touched or grabbed or nabbed. Sometimes we just will take someone away for a few minutes without anyone seeing it, or we may have you crawl through something or slide down something, it’s ever-changing and people can decide at any time if it’s too much for them or if they want the whole experience.
PGN: And that experience starts with the building itself, which is so magnificent.
LS: Yes, and then we have different areas that often play up various things that are common phobias for people, there’s an airbag passthrough that plays on fears of claustrophobia. We play on people’s fear of clowns, spiders, you name it.
PGN: What’s special this year?
LS: We’re improving all the departments, even the way you come in is going to be more theatrical. We’ve added more scares, we’ve added more actors, we want you to be fully immersed in the show as soon as you scan your ticket.
PGN: How many people overall are employed for TBTW?
LS: There’s over 350 staff and about 300 of them are actors. The operational area called, “Bloodlines” is now part of it, and I’m dying to tell you about it, but I don’t want to spoil anything. You just have to come and experience it for yourself!
PGN: You do some of the auditions for the actors, what’s the worst audition you’ve seen?
LS: Mostly, it’s when people come here and they’re really quiet. This is the place to go big or go home! I worked in the health industry when I started and this was the place to have my release. I had to be polite and patient all day, and then you come here and it’s your job to yell and scream and act crazy. How cool is that? It’s very therapeutic.
PGN: So don’t audition with a monolog from “Death of a Salesman.”
LS: Exactly! Willy Loman is great, just not for here.
PGN: Ever have someone come in who’s too creepy for you?
LS: Not yet! But I’m pretty good at reading people. For the acting auditions people mainly do improvised situations like, “You’ve been locked up here in a cell for 1,000 years and you’re innocent. Tell me how you’re going to convince me to let you out…” They can beg and plead for mercy, or tell me they’re going to break my legs and file my bones into a skeleton key.
PGN: What’s the creepiest thing you’ve done in real life?
LS: Hmmm, I’m really into collecting bugs. I don’t do taxidermy on animals, but I do have a pretty good-sized bug collection.
PGN: Any phobias?
LS: Not really, a slight fear of heights which keeps me from skydiving, but I do want to try it someday. I like to push myself and try new things.
PGN: Speaking of trying new things, when did you come out?
LS: It’s a tricky question, I identify as bisexual. Most of my life I had a girlfriend. In the Spanish culture, it kind of goes that you find a girl at a young age, you get married and have a baby by age 23. I’d always been attracted to guys too but didn’t know what to do about it. When I hit my 20s, I was like, ‘I don’t only have to date girls, there are more options out there.’ I came out to my friends at around 22 and after that to my family. I’m 29 now and have been dating a guy for two years now and it’s great. The family and everyone else have been really supportive.
PGN: Back to spooky stuff. Have you ever had any paranormal experiences?
LS: It’s funny, a lot of my co-workers have had experiences, and in all the years I’ve worked here and been here alone at all hours of the night, I’d never had anything happen. But finally a month or so ago, I was near cellblocks 210 and 211 with a co-worker at about 1 a.m., and we heard a sound coming from the cellblock. It’s hard to describe — it wasn’t wind, it wasn’t an animal, but it made a sound almost like humming. It sent chills up my spine. On the one hand, I was excited but at the same time, I was like OK, let’s lock the door and get out of here. Now I’m part of the club, but I’m good, I don’t need anymore.
PGN: Yeah, I’ve had quite a few things happen and it’s pretty interesting.
LS: Yes, in Hispanic culture we have a lot of things that dabble in the realm. You hear a lot about black magic or white magic, so I’ve been around it, but it’s different being in this big building.
PGN: The penitentiary has been used in a number of films and TV shows, what’s one of your favorites?
LS: “Creed” actually filmed some scenes here that were later dropped from the movie, but I got to work on them, and it was really exciting. My job was to help make sure things ran smoothly and that they didn’t have people wandering into other areas. It was amazing how quickly they put up a whole set at 5:15 a.m. and then took everything down by 10, as if it had never been there. And then did the whole thing again the next day. It was truly movie magic. Having the “Transformers” movie film here was pretty cool too. They were supposed to be in Paris, but it was shot here in Philadelphia.
PGN: My favorite was a “Cold Case” episode that was filmed here. They showed a lot of the area.
LS: Here? I did not know that. I do know that Tina Turner filmed a music video here that was really exciting. It was for the song “One of the Living” from the MadMax movies. They had a fire burning right in the middle of the hub, a motorcycle and all sorts of things that would probably not be allowed now! It was cool to watch.
PGN: What do you do the rest of the year?
LS: I work doing special events. We do all sorts of things — fundraisers, photoshoots, weddings, lectures, movie screenings, but my favorite event — other than TBTW — is our masquerade ball in May. It’s a fundraiser for TBTW, which is a fundraiser for ESP. It’s a costumed event but not as scary as TBTW. There are singers and performers, catered food and food trucks, an open bar… it’s a good time. And we encourage people to wander the prison at night. There might even be a few little scary surprises here or there as you wander.
PGN: Nice, I was at the launch of “Hidden Lives,” that was well done.
LS: Yeah, we projected animated movies made by incarcerated people onto the building’s walls outside for everyone to see. It was really powerful.
PGN: I love the fact that you do so much work around prison reform in this former prison.
LS: True, we don’t shy away from the hard subjects.
PGN: Tell me about the Speakeasy?
LS: It’s going to be great fun. It’s an addition to the Haunted Attractions. The admission is $10 to get in and I think you get a drink ticket. There are different cabaret performers, tarot card readings, you can win candy at poker, all sorts of things. You can even rent a private cell with a hostess for your friends or group.
PGN: OK. Random questions. Have you ever used a Ouija board?
LS: Yes! OMG, I forgot about that. I was maybe 13 or 14 and at home with some friends and we turned off all the lights and lit candles. The eye of the Ouija board was moving around and suddenly all the candles went out at the same time! We ran out of the room, and I looked down and there was blood on my wrist. I didn’t have and cuts, my nose wasn’t bleeding. To this day I don’t know where the blood came from, but we never used that board again.
PGN: What do you do in your spare time?
LS: My boyfriend is a photographer, and we like to go into abandoned buildings and take photographs. There’s something beautiful in seeing the decay and imagining how it once had life before. We started taking photos using nude male models. We use smoke bombs to obscure the genitalia so that there’s no frontal nudity in the shots, but they look beautifully innocent against the backdrop of the dilapidated buildings. It’s something we really enjoy doing together.
PGN: What does community mean to you?
LS: I find that sometimes people have trouble accepting that I’m bisexual. I had a girlfriend who I loved, who I’m happy to say is getting married soon and now I have a boyfriend. So for me, community is people who can accept me as I am. And I do the same, I’m not trans, but I will fight anyone who disparages anyone from the trans community. We need to protect and respect our own wherever we fall on the LGBTQA spectrum. The world is hard enough without us disrespecting each other. I’m happy to say that we have the biggest number of trans people on the staff this year than ever before. We’ve had people who identified as something else last year and this year have new pronouns and we’re just like, “Great! Good to meet you again!” It’s nice to know that people feel comfortable enough to share themselves fully with us and know that this is a safe space.
PGN: Safe yet terrifying!
LS: Yes! All of the above.