November 24th 2009
Halloween is not something we care about in Kenya. Very few people back home even know what it is all about. My interaction with this scary season was only on TV and books; my favorite being a comic known as Archie. Jughead, one of the characters visits a haunted house with talking gigantic spiders hanging on cobwebs as long as ropes, ghosts, Dracula, skeletons, talking mirrors and all. Jughead however is not shaken by any of these and at some point even asks the Dracula whether the stuff coming from his mouth (blood) is some jelly or something. And if so, could he also have some of the stuff and some Halloween cookies? He leaves all the scary people frustrated.
Based on Jughead’s experience, I quickly sign up to take kids to the haunted house at Eastern State Penitentiary, a closed prison declared as “the most haunted” in the US by the Travel Channel.
We are on our way there, Wednesday night in a bus full of excited kids. I am seated next to Patricia the only fifth grader brave enough to go. In the middle of a conversation she whispers, ‘Miss Winnie are you scared?’ I laugh out loud. ‘Who? Me? Scared? No sweetie! This entire hullabaloo about prisoners haunting the prison is all exaggerated. It will be nothing scary.’ She holds on tight to me and says that she will hold on to me that way as we go through the corridors of the prison.
The penitentiary is in Philadelphia’s Fairmont district, with an exterior resembling a fortress. Albert and Boston, camp directors pay for the tickets and we are ushered into the prison doors. Patricia reminds me that we are about to see ‘terror behind the walls’. There have been many reports of paranormal activities in this prison but I am not scared. We are divided into groups of six.
As we enter into the dark corridor, I feel a shudder go through my spine. A ghostly music fills the darkness, shadowy figures move along the wall. I hold on tightly to Patricia. ‘Miss Winnie you are scared!’ I just nod. My nod is interrupted by a piercing scream made by a shadowy figure with an ashen-white face with hideous scars streaks of dried blood. We scuttle through the corridors—I am screaming on top of my lungs.
Other shadowy figures appear from the corners and skeleton hands unexpectedly emerge from behind the walls trying to grab us as we flee. My scream goes a notch higher and my pace fastens even though it’s impended by Patricia who is clinging tightly to me. We run in the maze of sinister passageways to the prison infirmary where spine-chilling figures clad in hospital gowns with streaks of blood, and opened up bodies lay chained to the small beds.
Eastern State penitentiary was operated under the Pennsylvania system from 1829-1913. This system used by the Quakers required that inmates be kept in solitary confinement and were not allowed to communicate with anyone.
Prisoners were locked up in their cells except one hour when they left their cells with their heads covered in a hood to prevent them from seeing other prisoners. The prisoners’ cells had a toilet, a table, bunk and a Bible. This solitary confinement was meant to make the prisoners find God. However, this did not bear fruit and most sane people became mad. In hopeless need for human contact, the prisoners would whisper through vents or tap pipes. If caught the price would be very cruel. This included being dunked into an ice cold bath tub and being hung overnight from a wall. This punishment known as the ‘water bath’ was popular during winter months. The ‘mad chair’ was another brutal way to punish prisoners. They were strapped to a chair for days (without food or drink) so tightly that they could not make the slightest movement. Another deadly punishment included being put for weeks into ‘the hole’, a dungeon with little air and no light. Prisoners who violated the ‘no communication policy’ got the ‘iron gag’. They were strapped high behind their back, with chains on their wrists. An iron collar was clamped onto the tongue of the prisoner. Most bled to death.
As we scuttle through the dark prison corridors, the reenacted scenes with actors clad in orange overalls and hoods, screaming, howling, shaking chains, with some on hanging on the walls crying for mercy, my terror disappears and in its place comes anguish and pain. My pace slows and I pause to look at the faces behind the hoods.
When we come out of the prison, I realize that Patricia eyes are wet. “You are crying Patricia, what’s wrong?” Looking at me she says, “You are crying too.” I touch my face and it is wet. “Miss Winnie, I am crying because it I feel so bad they treated the prisoners so cruelly. Did you see their faces? Did you see the man who was chained to the wall? Did you see them clinging to the bars? ” I tell her I saw all that but remind her they were acting. “But they just portrayed what used to happen, didn’t they?” I nod realizing that this girl is thinking the same thing as me.
We walk to the bus, still holding each other’s hands. As other kids excitedly talk about their experience at the haunted house, Patricia whispers, “Miss Winnie, I will start praying for people in prisons”
I squeeze her hand tighter and close my eyes in prayer.
By Winfred Kiunga, UPI Fellow (Kenya)