Horror and History

Two alumni serve as communications professionals at Eastern State Penitentiary, a former prison known for its seasonal haunted attractions that has a year-round mission to interpret the legacy of American criminal justice reform.

By: Meghan Kita  Wednesday, October 19, 2022 09:05 AM

Ally Duvak ’22 (left) and Jackie Phillips ’13 (right) with a performer at Eastern State Penitentiary’s Halloween Nights. Photos by Erin Davis

When Ally Duvak ’22 started her role at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary in June, the historic prison was already beginning to prepare for its nationally renowned Halloween celebrations.

“I had no idea that Halloween had the potential to start so early — it’s a five month endeavor,” says Duvak, who was an English major with minors in creative writing and French & francophone studies at Muhlenberg. “It’s given me a whole new appreciation for not just the holiday but for how much can be done at a place like this.”

Duvak is a specialist in marketing & digital media, working with another alum, Jackie Phillips ’13, a senior specialist in communications who joined Eastern State in 2018. When Phillips started, Terror Behind the Walls, as the site’s Halloween event was then branded, served as a major fundraiser consisting of six haunted houses set up on the prison’s 10-acre property. All that changed in 2020, when COVID limited capacity and capabilities.

“Our event has always been very hands-on in a literal way — people can pick up a glow necklace to have the actors touch them, to make the experience scarier,” says Phillips, who was a media & communication and music double major at Muhlenberg. “In 2020, we started offering night tours in the fall, where folks could come take our audio tour at night. It was something that people could still do during the pandemic. It's just a different, interesting way to see the building.”

The night tours proved so popular that Eastern State started offering them in the summer and has incorporated similar elements into its rebranded Halloween Nights events, which begin at the end of September and run through mid-November. Halloween Nights includes five haunted houses but also themed bars, live entertainment and Fair Chance vendors (vendors that hire formerly incarcerated people). Now, there is also some educational programming on incarceration and criminal justice reform, dating from when the prison opened in 1829 through the present day.

Both alumni are charged with promoting the site’s programming: Duvak focuses mainly on its daytime programming, while Phillips’s role is broader. While both are not equally passionate about Halloween — Phillips loves it; Duvak is “a self-proclaimed haunted house hater” — they share a passion for Eastern State Penitentiary’s mission.

“Our mission is to interpret the legacy of American criminal justice reform, so we use the history of the building to foster dialogue about what’s happening in criminal justice today, including the impact of mass incarceration on communities,” Phillips says. “Halloween Nights has expanded our programming so that anyone coming into the building has access to the educatiational programming that we do, in some short form, and hopefully we'll encourage people to come back and take a full daytime tour.”