While most jobs for students don’t entail fake blood, fangs and color contacts, working at Terror Behind the Walls is not your average part-time job.
Terror Behind the Walls is a production at the Eastern State Penitentiary on 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue. Once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, Eastern State Penitentiary is a historical landmark. Although TBTW is held at Eastern State Penitentiary, the separation of the two is stressed — TBTW is a theatrical production and Eastern State Penitentiary is a historical site.
The TBTW “Scream Team” includes actors, event staff and FX makeup artists, many of which are Philadelphia-area college students. For junior English major Emily Rupert, working at TBTW has become a fixture of her fall season.
“For a lot of people, [their reason for working at TBTW is] because they love Halloween,” Rupert said. “But for me, it’s become what Halloween is. That’s what I know it to be now.”
While Rupert originally applied at TBTW on a whim last year because her roommate did, senior communications major Kara Koser started seeking out possible positions for this year in February.
“That is something I’ve always thought about doing,” Koser said. “When I would go to haunted houses I’d think, ‘Those people aren’t really creatures, they’re actors.’”
Although the positions at TBTW vary, both Rupert and Koser are actors in the production. Koser’s role is stationary but Rupert is considered a “titan” changing roles each night.
“It’s kind of more fun than having a position,” Rupert said. “It’s fun to experiment with different things and to get to be different characters each night.”
Despite both Rupert and Koser having acting positions, neither of them have any professional acting experience. However, Koser said that those in charge of hiring for TBTW are less concerned with what you have done and more concerned with what you can do.
“I’m very in touch with my creative sides — acting and arts and all of that stuff,” Koser, who also auditioned for American Idol and The Voice, said. “I didn’t have any real experience in plays or anything, but the audition process for [TBTW], they weren’t really concerned with how much experience you had — just more so if you could bring it or not.”
Rupert, who shares a similar lack of acting experience, had a similar outlook on the hiring process.
“I can be a little wild about things, so I feel like that helps more than any theatrical background,” Rupert said. “Terror is just a place where you can sort of let loose.”
Working at TBTW has an additional benefit, Rupert said — stress release.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do it again is because it’s almost relaxing,” Rupert said. “You get to be somebody else, you get to freak people out, and sometimes you get to yell at them — and that feels really good. It’s sort of therapeutic, in all honesty.”
Rupert laughed as she realized the irony of her job’s benefits.
“Instead of paying someone $50 an hour for therapy, I get paid for my own therapy,” Rupert said.
As an actor in a theatrical production, a job requirement to be a part of the Scream Team is to scare attendees. Koser is not shy about her affinity for this aspect of her job.
“I just get this confidence and this rush when I can scare someone, just knowing I got that rise out of them,” Koser said.
Being the cause of shrieks and squeals has given Koser a unique perspective to basic human qualities.
“People’s body language — you would think people are made of spaghetti and rubber bands, how they are scared,” Koser said. “It’s funny to be on the other side of that because you can literally see raw human emotion. That is a person’s impulsive reaction to being frightened, and that’s great.”
Koser also enjoys the benefits of working with a professional FX makeup team. On average, the process takes anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, Koser said.
“It’s really cool because they use maybe five kinds of products, but they create such exquisite pieces because of how they are able to finagle that material,” Koser said.
For Koser, seeing herself with horror makeup for the first time made her realize that she would really be a part of the TBTW production.
“If you’re a doctor or something and you put your white coat on for the first time, you’re like, ‘I’m really doing this,’” Koser said.
Rupert also enjoyed seeing herself in scarier form.
“It’s always interesting to see yourself afterward and see how terrifying you look,” Rupert said.
However exciting, Koser said there is a downside to wearing multiple FX makeup productions several times a week.
“My skin’s really oily and sensitive right now — just because you’re supposed to have terrible skin for the month of October if you work at Eastern State,” Koser said. “It’s one of the things that you accept.”
In addition to sacrificing skincare, Scream Team members must be willing to work difficult hours, often not getting off of work until 2 a.m., even on a school night.
“If I were only doing Terror, it would be fine,” Rupert said, who balances TBTW with a full-time course load, an internship and another job. The odd hours caused Rupert to adjust her lifestyle accordingly.
“I have to rework my life around the hours — and that’s really hard to do,” Rupert said.
Koser noted similar difficulties in her schedule.
“It stings — the aftermath of having to go to my 8 a.m. in the morning,” Koser said.
While skin problems and sleep deprivation are common side effects of working at TBTW, some employees claim to get much more than they bargain for at Eastern State Penitentiary in the form of paranormal encounters.
The long hallways of the wagon-wheel infrastructure of Eastern State Penitentiary have caused both Koser and Rupert to be a bit on edge while walking alone at night, they said. On the way to take her break one evening, Koser had a strange experience in one of the hallways.
“I had this experience,” Koser said. “I don’t know if it was a spirit or anything like that, but the air was so cold. Freezing.”
Koser said she asked her manager if there were any fans or vents in that particular area of the hallway; he said there were not. She also said she has heard stories of workers feeling a tapping on their shoulder while walking down the same hallways.
While Rupert has yet to experience anything firsthand, she said a coworker from last year had a particularly chilling experience.
“Someone that I work with last year, she said that her room had a light that would go off if she pressed the button and the wall would fall over,” Rupert said. “She said it was happening and she wasn’t doing anything. She said at one point, [her and her coworker] said, ‘If you’re in here, make the light go off’ and the light went off.”
However unusual the benefits may be, from ghost stories to ghoulish makeup, both Rupert and Koser beam while describing their experiences as Scream Team members.
Jenelle Janci can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.