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Sept. 23, 2022

Day 22: Halloween Nights 2022 at Eastern State Penitentiary

Day 22: Halloween Nights 2022 at Eastern State Penitentiary

This is the 31st year of Halloween at Eastern State Penitentiary. Listeners will be familiar with Terror Behind the Walls, which is the predecessor to Halloween Nights. Over the years, the event has transformed from a linear experience to a full...

This is the 31st year of Halloween at Eastern State Penitentiary. Listeners will be familiar with Terror Behind the Walls, which is the predecessor to Halloween Nights. Over the years, the event has transformed from a linear experience to a full Halloween festival – thus the rebranding to Halloween Nights. Coming up, we’ll speak with Brett Bertolino about this season but also about what the transformation from linear haunt to full festival was like. Halloween Nights opens Sept 22nd and runs on select nights through November 12th. Follow along to our Hauntathon:


Brett Bertolino: My name is Brett Bertolino, I'm the Vice President and Director of Operation for Eastern State Penitentiary Historic site, and one of my responsibilities here is to oversee our annual Halloween fundraiser, which is called Halloween Nights.

Philip Hernandez: Tell me a little bit about this year. Tell me about the new changes you've made this year.

Brett Bertolino: So, Halloween Nights is a Halloween festival of epic proportions. This year we are introducing 3 new attractions, two of them are haunted houses, one of them is a themed bar and lounge. The first haunted house is called Nightmares. So, it's a haunted house that brings you into your worst nightmare. So, every room in that attraction is themed differently.

Brett Bertolino: The second brand new Haunted House is called Big Top Terror. It's the first time we've ever done a carnival-themed attraction here, so our team is really excited about that. So, it's a carnival-themed haunted house and what's really cool is when you exit that haunted house, you exit into an area called Bizarre Bar, which is our brand-new themed bar and lounge. 

Brett Bertolino: That's got live entertainment, carnival-themed food and drinks and it kind of continues the experience you have inside the haunted house out into kind of this festival area. It's an added bonus because if you want to skip the haunted house, you can go right to Bizarre Bar. So, we're trying to, with the festival, create enough opportunities where if you're part of a group and some people like to get scared and some people don't, there are enough things to do on-site. So, I think it's really cool.

Philip Hernandez: Let's talk a little bit more about that, because we know, of course, listeners I think will know, you have a legacy and the past several years you have been shifting over to the Halloween Nights model, which I think is a little bit more like what you just mentioned. It's more something for anyone, depending on what level of scare they're comfortable with.

Brett Bertolino: So, this is our 31st season of Halloween at Eastern State Penitentiary, and what I'm really proud about is, as a team we've never rested on our laurels and we've always, in my opinion, been on the forefront of what's happening in the industry. So, when you look back at the history of Halloween at Eastern State, you can see some of those moments where we've made big changes. In 2013 we started this opting-in, which you heard about today, and part of the reason that we started that was we felt like we were developing a reputation for being too family-friendly. Opting in allows us to customize the experience for our visitors so they can amp up the scare by opting in, they can say that monster be good, they can customize that scale, make it less scary.

Brett Bertolino: You know that interactivity is something that we really believe in here, and I think that's critical for these events that we're creating, these big, immersive Halloween events. But intensity is something that I feel like there is a ceiling of how intense you can make a Halloween event. So, we knew in 2013 that we were taking an event that wasn't as intense as we wanted it to be, and we were making it more intense. I feel like we've gotten our haunted houses to the point where they are intense, that's not the issue anymore. The issue became that a lot of people said, "oh, I know about your event, it's too scary, I don't want to come." So, we were developing this reputation that it was too intense.

Brett Bertolino: So, what we wanted to do was, during the pandemic, take a step back. You know, as you look around the energy live entertainment industry, people are not looking to just go out and do an hour-long entertainment for an evening. They want to go out and have an entire evening of entertainment, they want it to be immersive, they want it to include themed food and beverage, and so that was something that we had already been on the journey with at Terror Behind The Walls. We had a choreographed dance that visitors loved, we had the Speakeasy at Al Capone's cell, which visitors loved.

Brett Bertolino: We still have both of those experiences at Halloween Nights, except, as an example, we took that choreographed dance and instead of it being an afterthought that was kind of jammed in a concession area, last year opened up an entirely new area of the penitentiary, situated the dance right in the middle of that space. This year we built a brand-new multi-level stage for this area, and then we put some concession vendors around the dance. But the idea was we started with the entertainment, we didn't start with the concessions. This year we're adding projections to that space and really just amping up that level.

Brett Bertolino: We found that we could finally do what we wanted to every year, we couldn't with Terror, with a festival. What that really means is, with the old model you had to go through the haunted houses back-to-back, and we would always have these discussions at our creative team, "what if you could stop halfway through, you could get a hotdog or something like that?" We couldn't even make that work. Now we have five standalone haunted houses, each have their own entrances and exits, you can pick and choose, do them in whatever order you want, and you can get more than a hot dog in between. You can get a really cool cocktail, a really cool mocktail, you can get Halloween-themed food and beverage, and you can have a lot of fun just hanging out with your friends and being entertained.

Brett Bertolino: I knew that Halloween Nights would be a success last year before we opened, but I was certain it will be a success after I started visiting with my friends. It was really those experiences that convinced me that we're on the right track, because I had so much fun. Even though I knew everything that we were doing, and I know where most of the scares are, it was those moments in between attractions, it was those moments roasting us more and listening to a ghost story and talking to people that had visited. Some of them had come the last 10 years, they knew exactly what we used to do, and now we had this opportunity to be inside the prison and hang out and then go to another haunted house. So, we're really excited about this model. 

Brett Bertolino: I told you a little bit about our new haunted house, Big Top Terror, and the accompaniment Bizarre Bar. That idea kind of came to us because last year, one of the things that was most successful about Halloween Nights was this pairing of a vampire-themed haunted house, The Crypt with a vampire-themed lounge called Bloodline. Visitors loved Bloodline, and visitors love this idea that you have these many experiences inside the festival that all hold together. So, it's not like they're spending their entire night in a vampire-themed experience, but they're spending 30 minutes, an hour, having a cocktail, having a vampire bite cupcake, and then going into that vampire-themed haunted house. Visitors loved it. 

Brett Bertolino: So, when we were thinking about this year, our plans for what was new, it made complete sense as we were going down this road of like, let's finally tackle carnival here, that we wanted to do a brand-new themed bar and lounge. With both of these experiences, what's great, and this is what happened last year, you'd have a group and five members of the group want to do the haunted house, and three are too scared, they go into that lounge, they're entertained, they're getting food or drink, and most of the haunted houses kind of end in one of these lounges. So, it's easy to find your group and it makes sure everybody has that immersive, or that kind of cohesive experience. Even if you don't like the scare, when your friends come out, you still want to hear about them getting scared, you want to hear the stories about the person jumping or screaming or running or laughing.

Brett Bertolino: Haunted houses are a communal experience, I think, and a lot of times I feel like, in the industry, people forget that, and they think it's all about having the scariest experience. Scares are certainly important, people won't come back if there are no scares. But people don't just go to a Halloween event, in my opinion, to be scared, they go to have a well-rounded evening of entertainment scares, fun, laughs, and like I said, more themed food and drink. That is, in my opinion, critical to any Halloween event that you're doing these days. 

Philip Hernandez: Festive model means you need to be able to hold a lot more people. So, talk to me about some of that, because I imagine capacity is challenging. You're in the middle of a busy area.

Brett Bertolino: So, capacity is always important, and this is a fundraiser for us, so revenue is important. When we were looking at our transition last year, you know we were in the middle of the pandemic here in Philadelphia, and our team, the year before, we tasked them with thinking outside the box, like we typically do. One of the ideas that kept resonating with people is using more of the penitentiary. Terror Behind the Walls only used the front half of the property. When we moved to Halloween Nights last year, we opened up all 10 acres of the penitentiary, and there's a perimeter drive that runs along the inside of this big, massive 30-foot high wall, we turned that into a midway.

Brett Bertolino: So, a lot of times in the old model we'd say, "well it would be great if we could get some visitors that want to see our flagship History Museum program to go see that." But that was in the back of the property, and we were like, "how do we get them back there? Are we going to walk them back there? Is going to be a tour?" We talked about, like, having them all hold a chain and go back so we don't lose them in this big, massive property. Last year we figured out the easiest way to do that is to let them walk there on their own. So, that was a big revelation to us that we have these big spaces, and we have to think about using them in new and different ways. So, this transition didn't necessarily impact our capacity.

Brett Bertolino: We did make a decision last year to reduce our capacity, for two reasons. One, because we were still in COVID, and because we wanted to create an experience that is an experience that people want to come back to. I think we're still trying to find that right balance, we're going to increase our capacity a little bit this year. But the great thing about the Halloween Nights model, and it's similar to a theme park, when you go to a theme park sometimes there are long lines for certain attractions, short lines for others, and you pick and choose what you want to do. Our haunted houses all have stand-alone lines now and so it really gives us that opportunity to take the people they want to do haunts, and give them a better show, and the people that might be kind of drug along by their friends and would prefer not to get super scared or doing other things on the property.

Brett Bertolino: So, it really was eye-opening to us last year to be in these spaces that literally had never been open to the public for Halloween, never been open for daytime prison tours, and convert them into spaces and see visitors on the property enjoying themselves. A lot of those were back-of-house spaces, and so last year we spent a lot of time kind of converting them into public spaces. 

Brett Bertolino: One of the things we did this year, which is not going to appear in a press release, is taking all those areas that maybe felt like you were kind of walking a little bit behind the scenes and bringing them more into the festival. So, we invested in some big custom pumpkin photo OPS, all these Instagrammable moments that people want to get scared, but if you get scared and it doesn't appear on social media, did you really get scared? So, there are all these things that we are creating throughout the festival to make it a cohesive experience that is, I don't want to say intense in scares, but intense in the amount of different things you can now pick and choose to.

Brett Bertolino: So, we've really found that the model works well, it allows us to still offer scares, but to also offer a lot of other things. I've had, you know, people in the industry question what we're doing. You know, there's a lot of questions about what we're doing, why we're doing it, how we're doing it. Last year we went and we had two haunted houses of start, we converted two spaces that were kind of theatrical, non-scary walkthroughs into two more haunted houses last year during the middle of the season because we found that we had so much other non-scary entertainment that the balance wasn't right.

Brett Bertolino: I'm really proud of the work that the team did last year. We did a walkthrough attraction called Take 13. It was kind of similar to Sleep No More where it was eerie, it was immersive, there was a story there, it was something that our team had never done before. We were really proud of it, but we found that visitors wanted more scares, that is what they wanted. So, we added some scares to that attraction last year, but when we were going to the kind of drawing board this year and looking at all the visitor's comments, the feedback, and looking at how many attractions we had and bars and lounges and things, it was clear to us that we had to add some more scary, that the scary was too light last year. So, we think that five haunted houses is the right balance.

Brett Bertolino: We're not a haunted house, that's what I would say. I mean, if somebody asked me, "like, are you a haunted house?" I say, "no, we're a Halloween festival that has five haunted houses." To me, that distinction is really important, because I think when you tell the public, "do you want to go to a haunted house?" In their minds, I think they're going to a standalone attraction that's got a queue line outside and maybe one vendor, you're going to park in a parking lot, you're going to go in, you're going to be out in 30 minutes, and you're moving on with your night. That's not what we do here. We do an entire evening of immersive Halloween entertainment, and if you want to be scared, you can pick and choose from 5 haunted houses. If you don't, you can skip all those and still have an entire evening of entertainment.

Brett Bertolino: I think it's the future of the industry, and I'm really proud of what we did last year. I'm more proud of what we're going to do this year. This is going to be the biggest Halloween fundraiser that this organization has ever mounted in 31 years. It's got more attractions, we're using more physical space than we've ever used before, it's just massive. That's why we're saying, it's epic. It is huge. What's really cool is we're in the middle of Center City, Philadelphia. So, you step inside this 10-acre property that's surrounded by massive 30-foot walls and we have the opportunity to literally tune out everything that's around us and create this immersive Halloween world. You can see right now, you don't feel like you're sitting in the middle of the city. It's quiet inside, we have the opportunity to control really every aspect of what a visitor is going to see, smell, hear or feel. 

Philip Hernandez: Whereas previously people would leave, basically they'd come in and they'd leave after the linear experience. You've opened up more physical space so that they can stay longer, and as we all know, as listeners know, they stay longer, they have a higher spend per guest then. Then you're encouraging them through themed food, then velvet ropes, and all sorts of other experiences you're adding, that they can spend more and spend longer. In the previous model wouldn't work because people had no place to go, they couldn't collect, they couldn't decompress, but then also the physical space wasn't enough because you were using all your space. You've opened up and transformed areas so you can hold more people physically in the event, and they can spend longer and have fun.

Brett Bertolino: Yeah, I mean, you're exactly right, it's what we knew. We did it in the old model with that's that dance, but the area was so tight with concessions that sometimes visitors would exit, and it would be uncomfortable because there were just so many people watching the dance. We built the Speakeasy, for this exact same reason, because people said, "the event is great, but when I'm done, I don't want to leave and go somewhere else to find a place to hang out with my friends to talk about that experience. I want to do it here, I want to do it in this awesome architectural environment." So, we built the Speakeasy. The issue with the Speakeasy was, as you're saying, it was super popular, but it has a small footprint. 

Brett Bertolino: We still have the Speakeasy at Halloween Nights, and now it's exclusively for our VIP ticket holders. Which again, a velvet rope, people love it. But we kind of replicated the success of Speakeasy with our three themed bars and lounges that are open to the public. So, it really, again just gives you that opportunity to have your entire evening here if you want, as opposed to coming in for an hour, leaving, and then kind of talking in the car right home, or going to a neighborhood bar restaurant.

Philip Hernandez: Do you find that the guests are trained already in what to expect, or are you having to do like education like where you say Halloween event and they think linear haunted house and you're like, "no, no, it's a full festival, plan to spend the whole evening," you know?

Brett Bertolino: Well, I mean, it's a great question. I mean, there are some theme parks in the Philadelphia market, there are a lot of haunted houses in the Philadelphia market. We like to think of ourselves on the cutting edge. We were doing the opting in, I think, before other people, the touching, even at the Speakeasy. I mean, we've been operating that for probably about more than 10 years at this point. Again, that was something that nobody else had in this market. So, I do think you have to train your audience. We've been doing time ticketing since 1991, we sell about 94% of our tickets online. That is an easy lift for us now.

Brett Bertolino: When we were operating Terror Behind the Walls, we were training an audience for two decades about, this is what Halloween is like here. We always wanted to give visitors a choice and the opting in gave them those choices. Everything else, as far as their experience, was very scripted: you're going to come in, you're going to go to this haunted house first, then you're going to go to the second one, third, 4th, 5th, then you can see this dance if you want, then you can go to Speakeasy, and then you have to leave.

Brett Bertolino: So, when we opened Halloween Nights last year, part of the reason why we wanted to change the name and really make some big kind of public changes was we wanted people to know this is different, and to understand why it was different. But when we opened there would definitely die-hard Terror fans that first night when they got out of the first haunted house were like a deer in headlights and didn't know. They wanted you to say, "go here, do this." They didn't understand that they could leave that haunted house and get a drink, get some food, see a show, do another haunted house. 

Brett Bertolino: So, it definitely is training your audience, but with this event, we're trying to have a bigger tent, meaning that we want the folks that love scary and love Terror to come, but we want more people to come with them, different people to come that would tell us, "it's too scary." So, the folks that had come for the first time really did get that festival model, because they were experiencing it as a first-time visitor, they didn't have anything to compare it to. So, I do think we're on this journey of retraining the Terror audience and welcoming a new audience, and I'm confident that the product that we have this year and the mix of scary versus non-scary is the right mix. I think we're going to be really successful.


Brett Bertolino Profile Photo

Brett Bertolino

Director of Operations at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site