Monday, December 20, 2010

Eastern State Penitentiary

This summer I was lucky enough to have one the of best experiences of my life. I took a cross country road trip with PoseySessions. We drove from San Diego to Connecticut and visited NYC, Washington DC and a bunch of other awesome places. One of the best things about the trip was the fact that I could stop at several places along the way and visit friends and family who are spread out all across the country. One side trip took us to Philadelphia where we planned to stay a few days with my cousin Desi. Without anything really planned Desi decided to show us around her home city. We feasted at several great ethnic restaurants, saw the famous Rocky statue and played in a few fountains. Now if you know PoseySessions you know that she is sort of a bibliophile. Desi recommended a neat little used bookstore near a place she used to work. So we went, and found a great parking spot, which was surprising! But what was even more surprising is what was directly across the street from our destination. While I drove along the cramped streets of Philly I did not even notice the hulking stone mass (hey I am a small town boy, I had enough on my plate just understanding if I was going the right way down any of the one way streets). We stepped out of the car and then I saw it, well I saw a huge block wall stretching high into the air. It did not fit, here we were in the middle of a major metropolitan area and there was a castle across the street from a coffee shop, a Greek restaurant, and a used bookstore. I wondered out loud what that could be. It is Eastern State Penitentiary my cousin responded, and then my heart skipped a beat, I immediately thought of this.

Those (few) of you who follow the blog may have noticed that I am slightly interested in the paranormal. That being so I have been a fan of Syfy’s Ghost Hunters since its first episode. I don’t claim to believe everything that happens on the show, but I do get a fun little tingle by tagging along into creepy places in the middle of the night. F you have seen the show then you might know that Eastern State was one of the locations that TAPS investigated early in the series. They came out with some spooky (if controversial) evidence. Later in the series they returned for a live event. The TAPS crew announced Eastern State was officially haunted. So there I was, standing, staring (gawking) at this mass of stone and mortar. It cast a pall over the neighborhood, its mere presence making the cloudy day even gloomier. We have to go, I announced. And so we did.

Eastern State is a fantastic place. While the self guided tour seemed a bit lacking, the experience of being able to roam on your own through the dark crumbling halls was better than I could have ever imagined. The stories told by inmates and guards alike are enough to put even a person without knowledge of the supposed haunting on edge. It was the country's first penitentiary. Penitence being the root word. The prisoners were kept in silence, devoid of human contact. Guards wore special socks over their shoes as to make no noise when walking the halls to alert the inmates to the presence of another human being. A reverent pall settled on me as I entered into the first cell block, men actually lived years of their lives in this place, it was a sobering thought. The halls were crumbling and the rusted, warped doors led into dark voids filled with damp, cracked walls. As we walked through the oppressive atmosphere I could not help but feel a rush, this was a legitimately spooky place, this is how they are supposed to feel. if a ghost lives anywhere in the world, I bet there is one at Eastern State.

As we concluded our tour feeling suitably humbled and slightly creeped out we walked out into the courtyard and the threatening storm broke loose on us. Lightning flashed briefly brightening the day darkened by black clouds. Thundered boomed across the prison and rain spattered down. It was the perfect ending to the amazing experience.

Another interesting aspect to Eastern State were the numerous artistic installations. While I found some of them to be a bit out of palce for my taste (the ode to Abu Ghraib in particular) several of them only served to enhance the experience. One was a set of televisions located in different parts of the prison playing scenes from famous prison movies. In the bathroom was an endless loop of bathroom scenes, in the hallway were scenes that take place in prison halls, and so on for cells and other parts of the penitentiary. Another that served to capture a moment of Eastern State and freeze it in time was the addition of several white plaster cats placed among the crumbling ruins. They were crafted in homage to the pack of stray cats who made a home in the prison walls, and to the man who took care of them. The story of the cats was almost as sad as that of the penitentiary itself. Animal control spayed and neutered all the animals and the clan eventually faded away, like their statues which are crumbling and disappearing from the grounds of Eastern State.

In the end I cannot say if Eastern State is haunted, but I can say it is a wonderful place to visit. PoseySessions was the photographer for this excursion as she is for most of them.. She got some shots that captured the creepiness of the place.

This might not be a ghost in this picture, in fact I doubt it is, but I like to pretend we caught something paranormal during our time at Eastern State. Below: extremely creepy barber chair in one of the cells.


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