It was a shockingly cold winter’s night when my plane landed in Philadelphia to shoot an episode of MTV’s FEAR at the Eastern State Penitentiary. Having signed my virtual life away with MTV’s well-known standard legal non-disclosure documents, I was sworn to not reveal my location to anyone – family members, friends, NO ONE. There was even a clause in there that stated something along the lines of (and I paraphrase) “…If you should die while filming at this undisclosed location, well then… we @ MTV Networks are not legally liable for that.”
Now that I’ve been informed of the possible dangers, having waived my legal rights to sue if something terrible should happen… I begin my story.
My plane landed with no delays at Philadelphia International Airport, and I was picked up by one of our production “runners” (usually hired once the crew arrived on location.) We made it to the hotel just in time for me to throw down my bags, unpack what I was going to wear for that evening’s documentary shoot, touch up my makeup I applied on the flight there, and take a quick look around to make sure everything was right where I left it in my assigned suite. (You see, I make it a habit of checking the room thoroughly, taking a mental snapshot of the exact details, so I know if anything has been ‘disturbed’ or ‘altered’ while I am gone – especially in light of all my psychic materials – these must not be touched by anyone but me. Ever.)
I hang my “DO NOT DISTURB” tag on the door handle outside, and had already emphasized to the hotel staff at the front desk my express wishes for no room entry for any reason during my stay with them.
So Carla’s “Operation Lockdown” was complete — check ✓
On the drive over to the long-abandoned penitentiary facility, I was preparing myself for what paranormal activity may present that evening. I had been told by one of my production team about a disturbing incident the night before – where one of our experienced camera operators (very tall, athletic build) was literally PUSHED down the stairs while filming his B-roll footage of the prison grounds. (Granted, I had also heard he was antagonizing whatever spiritual entities may have been entombed there, making himself a virtual target for any displaced anger held within these unforgiving fortress walls.)
Upon entering the prison, the camera guy from the ‘event’ practically has a seizure while recanting his story of the ‘fall’ down the stairs, camera rolling during the entire ordeal – from ‘shove’ – to landing – to running like hell out the prison gates! (We note the utter professionalism here.) I listen with eyes wide open, wondering what I may encounter next that icy, cold night.. snow glistening in frozen patches on the ground.
Ok.. it’s just me, and my camera operator in the dark of night, 10pm, crew all departed to their warm hotel rooms to return next morning. We have utility flashlights, but that’s not helping in this dungeon setting – we can barely see in front of our faces as we climb those forbidden stairs, known only the night before to expel unwanted visitors.
I want to get out of there as soon as humanly possible – this place being definitely one of the more ‘inhabited’ paranormal sites I had filmed for FEAR. … OMG … WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?! Someone – or something – just touched my hair!!! (Yeah, let’s hurry up and get out of here! )
We wrapped up about 12:45am, exhausted, chilled to the bone, shaking from that and the Fright Night encounters. Please just let me get warm… PLEASE. The hotel suite looked undisturbed when I arrived – nothing seemed out of place. Thank God.
I was too tired to even take a hot shower… put on my pajamas, and added the plush hotel robe because I just couldn’t seem to get warm. The heat was working, but it felt at least 10-15 degrees cooler than what it read on the thermostat. Climbed into bed quickly – had this unshakable feeling that someone was ‘watching’ me from the living room just outside the bedroom door. Too tired to deal with anything at that moment, I yelled out loud at the open bedroom door – “Whoever you are, just stay out there! You are not permitted to enter this room at all while I am sleeping!!”
I felt kind of ridiculous just then, but completely justified in my explosive reaction to the presence I sensed infiltrated my temporary domain.
Ahhh.. sleep. Well, that didn’t really happen much that night. I tossed and turned and was even afraid to get up to go the bathroom. (I ran back to bed as fast I could past that eerie bedroom doorway.)
Morning. Sun was shining through the windows. I could see the coffee pot in the kitchenette area beckoning me to start my a.m. routine before the day’s filming schedule at the prison. (Maybe during the light of day, it wouldn’t be so bad, I thought.)
I walk out to the kitchen, and start brewing my coffee, warming my breakfast pastry. I just happened to glance back at the bedroom out of the corner of my eye… and WHAT was that big black smudge on the door frame?! It wasn’t there last night – I AM POSITIVE. As I crept closer to examine, it appeared to be a man’s hand print. What?! High up on the door frame – too high for any housekeeping personnel to reach. The ceilings were roughly 15 ft., and the doors nearly 10 ft. in height. This mark was almost at the top of the frame on the right side.
I was baffled. And a bit frightened. But I didn’t have much time to process this that morning as I had to get showered, makeup/ hair for the day’s shoot. The FEAR cast members would be arriving soon. One of my assigned duties as official psychic for the show was to give short private psychic readings for each of the cast, and preparing them for the possible entities/ events they may encounter as they embarked on their individual documentaries into the unknown.
The day’s shoot went well, the producers briefed me on the night’s slate, the cast members were all psychically read and prepared as best I could in the brief time allotted.
Now we wait.
As per my usual routine on location, “cast” nights I would try to get some light sleep on top of the covers – fully clothed, makeup on, awaiting the first phone call to alert me a cast member has quit – too frightened to go on with their paranormal quest that night. I was unofficially assigned duties as “debriefing specialist” – talking to each of them through the night, as long as it would take, to calm them down. (A few of the cast members kept me with them all night until the dawn as they were beyond any calming measures. The place would leave an indelible mark upon their psyches for the rest of their lives.)
I fell asleep for what seemed like 20 minutes, then the phone rang. It was so loud, I jumped off the covers – I forgot to turn down the ringer a bit.. it was set at the highest volume. I said “Hello, did someone quit already?!” The guy on the other end with his foreign accent asked, “Is this Carla?” I said, “Yes. Is this production? Are you downstairs? I’ll be right down.” Then he asked again, “Is this Carla?” I said, “YES. I’ll be right down!” Then he asked the same question again. (I’m thinking this guy is either really dense, or hard of hearing, or both, at this point.) This exchange went on for roughly 5 minutes.
Silence. The phone goes dead.
I immediately dialed the front desk to ask if someone from production was waiting downstairs for me in the lobby, as I had just received the call.
“No one has called you this evening, Ms. Baron. There have been no calls to your room.”
I was exasperated. I explained that I had just been woken up by the loud ringer, talked with this guy who had a foreign accent for 5 minutes! The front desk manager gets on the phone as I am somewhat bewildered, confused. No one knows I am here – I signed the freakin’ non-disclosure agreement!!
The manager remains calm as I tell him what happened. He then says, “Ms. Baron, all calls must go through our switchboard here at the front desk – whether from outside or within the hotel itself. You have received no calls this evening. Of this, we are certain.”
Ok. Not being satisfied with that answer, I had the manager put me through to the security desk. (I was really concerned at this point.) Meanwhile, I had them hold while I called the production crew on my cell phone to see if they had sent someone over for me.
They said, “Carla, we haven’t started filming yet. Our generator blew and the electricians are getting another. We won’t be starting for another 45 minutes!”
Security guy tells me the same thing – there were no calls to my room that night. That it was impossible. That they would be keeping an eye on the situation, but there was nothing else they could do. I thanked him, and tried to lay down to rest again. Somehow, I fell asleep.
It was about an hour later near midnight – a violently loud knock on my hotel door! Startled out of a dead sleep, I ran to the door and asked, “Who is it?” The guy with the SAME foreign accent says, “Housekeeping.” I looked through the tiny peephole, and no one was there.
I was visibly frustrated – yelled through the door, “Do you know what time it is? I did not call housekeeping, I did not order anything. Who are you?!” He says again, “Housekeeping.”
I flung open the door immediately. There was no one there. Not a single soul. I looked quickly down the hall to the left, then the right. My room was in the center of the 15th floor with about 100 rooms on the floor – 50 to each side of me. (No one could have run that fast.)
The first girl quit about an hour later, then the call from production came. (The real one.) This girl quitting surprised me, as she was the most level-headed I thought out of this particular cast – a law student. As I did not wish to return any time soon to my hotel suite, I gladly spent the wee hours of the night ‘til break of dawn with the girl. She was still shaking @ 6am when I suggested we go have some breakfast in the hotel restaurant.
The events of that evening I remember as clearly as if they had happened last week. I will never forget that guy’s haunting voice, or accent. Or the way he just kept repeating the question – like I didn’t hear him the first time.
Was this an inmate who attached himself to my spiritual light – following me back to the hotel from the prison that 1st night? Was he the one who touched my hair when I was filming my documentary segments up in the 2nd level cell block?
Yes, in this case, I was afraid of that ghost.
*Designed by John Haviland and opened on October 25, 1829, Eastern State is considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary, despite the fact that the Walnut Street Jail, which opened in 1776, was called a “penitentiary” as early as 1790 . The word “penitentiary” derives from the word “penitance.” Eastern State’s revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the “Pennsylvania System” or Separate system, encouraged separate confinement (the warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day) as a form of rehabilitation.
The Pennsylvania System was opposed contemporaneously by the Auburn System (also known as the New York System), which held that prisoners should be forced to work together in silence, and could be subjected to physical punishment (Sing Sing prison was an example of the Auburn system). Although the Auburn system was favored in the United States, Eastern State’s radial floor plan and system of solitary confinement was the model for over 300 prisons worldwide. The original goal was for prisoners to want to open up to God, thus seeking penance.
The original design of the cells were separated by a metal door and a wooden door to filter out noise. The halls were designed to have the feel of a church. Some believe that the doors were small so prisoners would have a harder time getting out, minimizing an attack to a security guard. Others have explained the small doors forced the prisoners to bow while entering their cell. This design is related to penance and ties to the religious inspiration of the prison. The cells were made of concrete with a single glass skylight, representing the “Eye of God”, hinting to the prisoners that God was always watching them. Outside the cell, there was an individual area for exercise, enclosed by high walls so prisoners couldn’t communicate. Each exercise time for each prisoner was synchronized so no two prisoners would be out at the same time. Prisoners were allowed to garden and even keep pets in their exercise yards. When prisoners left the cell, a guard would accompany them and wrap them in a hood.
The original design of the building was for seven one-story cell blocks, but by the time cell block three was completed, it was already over capacity. From then on, all the other cell blocks were two floors. Toward the end, cell blocks 14 and 15 were hastily built due to overcrowding. They were built and designed by prisoners. Cell block 15 was for the worst prisoners, and the guards were gated off.