Making up Terror Behind the Walls


When Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971, the prisoners left, but the stories remained. For years, people have come to soak in the landmark’s history, and, every fall, to get scared half to death.

“Besides new zones we have new characters and new creatures,” Lauren Palmer, of 22nd and Carpenter streets, said of Terror Behind the Walls, which consists of six haunted attractions at the former prison. “It’s not just your regular guards, and everything across the board looks great. The whole show looks great. I just love this, every aspect is taken into account.”

Palmer, who joined Terror six years ago as a makeup artist, stepped into the role of makeup director this season after serving as an assistant director last year.

“We started about the end of May, and, in June, we had creative team meetings. I’m part of the group that decides what the haunted house will look like, aesthetically, characteristic-wise, and help contribute to the entire scale of things,” the 29-year-old said.

The months of planning can be seen nightly on display in the streets around the penitentiary and inside the nooks and crannies of the 183-year-old Fairmount site, where more than 100 actors don various levels of Palmer’s prosthetics and makeup to transform into ghouls and other creatures of the undead.

“We have a ranking depending on how visible the person is. Actors rotate so they get to do different makeup choices,” Palmer, who oversees a 19-member team, said. “Makeup artists get a number, like a “2” requires around three minutes, maybe a “5” is 15 minutes.

“So with 107 actors, roughly, to get through the chairs, it’s about two-and-a-half hours time. They have to average between seven to 11 per chair, depending on the looks they get, each night.”

The work for the first-time cosmetics head of this production started months prior, when she conceived her creative concepts and execution procedures.

“I really wanted to push the idea of film-quality makeup but in a haunted house. There are a lot of prosthetics this year. I designed the looks and the concept behind them,” she said. “I made slab molds and sculpted on-face looks. It allows for different looks. You don’t have to cast the full face on each person. It’s what I did all summer.”

From Ocean City, Md., Palmer made her way to Philly to matriculate at Temple University. The groundwork for her intended major — film and television media arts — had been laid as early as age 3.

“My parents allowed me to flourish. I was in college plays at 8 years old. I was interested in [being a] character designer at a young age,” Palmer said. “I was big into the costuming and makeup being done correctly. I ran the makeup department in high school and that continued in college.

“I started doing people’s senior thesis projects. I would take on multiple job positions, including defining the visual aesthetic.”

Graduating in 2005, Palmer continued her studies in special-effect makeup, taking a brief trip north.

“I’ve gone to a ton of school. I’m a believer in school; I think it’s great. You can hone your craft and talk to other people,” Palmer, a certified makeup artist and licensed cosmotologist, who attended the Make-up Designory in Manhattan, said. “I think you can learn every single day from somebody.”

With further training under her belt, she moved back to the area to pursue a full-time career in the very competitive independent film industry.

“I had to do a lot of free work to build my résumé and make connections, get experience,” Palmer said. “Eventually you start saying ‘No.’ You realize you had experience so you start setting limits low and then they get higher and higher.”

Pleased she was able to find steady work in Philly, Palmer finds the Terror gig to be a nice supplement to her yearly calendar, though she also is glad the city is pushing for increased big-budget filming.

“I like to be challenged and for my work to differ,” Palmer, whose work has been showcased on the New York runways and in “Transformers 2,” said. “I appreciate doing a wedding and I appreciate making zombies. There are different types of characters here and there are new zones — that was great, designing new characters for that. It’s the same thing with film.” I do different films to be challenged to make new creatures and characters, designing stuff.”

Setting up shop in South of South four-and-a-half years ago, Palmer said she was drawn to the neighborhood feel that reminds her of home.

“I like Philadelphia. I’m from a small town and when I tried living in New York, it was busy, busy, busy — no one pays any attention to anybody. Here, you know your neighbor and people that come to the local restaurant. I found an area that I thought was up-and-coming and decided to buy on new construction there. My neighborhood has changed 360. It’s a beautiful space to be.”

Until Terror closes its doors for the ’12 season Nov. 3, Palmer will be spending every night — except for her exactly one day off — at the penitentiary, which housed Chicago gangster Al Capone from 1929 to ’30 and New York bank robber Willie Sutton in the mid-’40s. In anticipation of one of her favorite holidays Oct. 31, the Terror team is making big plans.

“For Halloween, the green room managers, we come up with a design every year then we all have our own costumes,” she said, adding that it’s always a secret until that night. “It’s a ritual.”

Every other night, however, is also a party for the makeup director as she gets to see the immediate impact of her designs, on performers and audience members alike.

“The most rewarding part is seeing an actor you’ve designed for enjoy the way they look and the way they feel,” Palmer said. “Another rewarding part is seeing the reaction of the customers and how much the actor is feeling the character. You can see the actor enjoy it and the customer enjoy the actor.” 

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