Uncanny Kenny

Upon going through an audition three years ago, Kenny Wittwer, hoping to secure employment as a Terror Behind the Walls worker, thought of the film “Monsters University” and feared that he, like several candidates for the narrative’s scare program, would hear that he lacked the look to petrify patrons. When the opposite estimation came his way, he set out to sure up his shock appeal and has become a commended quickener of pulses, with the Eastern State Penitentiary enlisting him as the attraction manager for its Lock Down: The Uprising element.

“I marvel at how amazingly fun it is to scare people,” the 23-year-old said of his chief task for the historic prison’s annual homage to horror. “It’s really addicting to me, and I think of it as an art form and a crazy skill to master.”

The South-of-South occupant has revelled in rising through the ranks for the seasonal offering, with last year marking his transition as an attraction manager for the infirmary component. With the powers that be conjuring a new iteration for Lock Down, Wittwer wanted to continue to energize the proceedings and loves having such a vast expanse in which to lead a team of more than two dozen fellow fear inducers.

“It’s like having a big playground to manage,” he said of fraternizing with the staff and the brave of heart as a zombie cyborg guard. “The job calls on us to be very athletic, and I have to say I’m always in the best shape during Terror season.”

That enduring physical rush and the mental might that his job helps to engender, particularly through the immediate recognition of how well his antics go over, have led him to dub his assignment as “gym and therapy.” He loves giving thanks for the double endowment, which he will nurture through Nov. 5, and finds this year’s chores true tests of his ability to provoke.

“Once you’re in your element, you can feel so much in control,” Wittwer said of this year’s endeavors. “Knowing you can scare people multiple times is so rewarding, and I think Lock Down is great at helping us all to terrify and question everyone’s tolerance.”

Through the attraction, one of six in the ever-popular presentation, a force brings evil throughout the site, with Eastern State’s website noting that the performers are “agile,” “ruthless,” and “hungry for flesh.” ’Tis the season to be scary, so Wittwer will stop at nothing to encourage his contingent to bring about sleepless nights and urges to return.

“It’s just so much fun to create characters,” he said of their careful consideration of what will cause the most piercing screams. “That attention-seeking part of me really finds satisfaction in this line of work, and I certainly enjoy being among so many people who likewise enjoy taking the things that go bump in the night and amplifying their reach.”

WITTWER HAS LONG been accustomed to securing reactions to his creative endeavors, having made music his most endearing passion. The Folcroft native gravitated toward the trumpet initially and subsequently forged a deep interest in 1980s synth pop tunes, with video game music also a source of enthusiasm. Seeking an additional means to channel his artistic impulses, he acted on an interest in acting that came in part due to the success of brother Patrick.

“I watched a ton of television, too, and because of that and what I saw from him, I began to think about how fun acting could be,” the young man, who came of age in Swedesboro, said of his second yet nonetheless powerful pursuit. “I started to ponder the release of real and raw emotional energy thanks to acting, and I loved thinking about how the right use of it could make characters more believable.”

Validation came early thanks to friends and teachers, and Wittwer, wanting more engrossing means to address his place in the world and to explore his curiosity for cultural influences, decided to test his “big picture” views by studying writing and publishing, psychology, and sociology at Drexel University. Switching to Temple University and reducing his concentration to sociology, he credits eye-opening course work for giving him a better grasp of numerous topics, including how influential one’s youth and early adulthood can be.

“That’s part of what made my time at The Franklin Institute so thrilling,” he said of his recently ended six-year stint with the educational titan, for whom he served as a discovery camp counselor and facilitator, curriculum assistant, and museum educator, among other titles. “It’s always great to see people getting excited over acquiring knowledge, and I can tell you that it never bores me either to make a new realization or find myself impressionable because of some intriguing line of thinking.”

Such a school of thought led to his Terror Behind the Walls audition, with Franklin Institute contemporaries having told him of their enjoyment as hires. Always a fan of Halloween yet never a devotee of its ultra frightening possibilities, he had the aforementioned moment of doubt when presenting parts of his skillset, but fast forward three years, and one would think he went before the evaluators as the picture of calm.

“We all love what we do because we wouldn’t come back each year to scare the pants off people,” Wittwer said with a nod to the scores of individuals who have helped Terror Behind the Walls to gain national acclaim. “I feel very much at home when around them.”

South-of-South’s environs have also proven quite calming, as he is nearing the end of his third month as a South Philly resident. Clean, quiet, and conducive to his penchant for bicycling, the expanse is already a tremendous influence on his state of mind, so even when Terror Behind the Walls ceases, he knows he can rely on the neighborhood to provide therapeutic benefits. Eager to write the next chapter of his life, Wittwer is looking for employment with a social justice-oriented nonprofit and is hoping for more exposure for his music enthusiasm, with two videos for his “escapist instrumental work,” with nods to late-’80s and early-’90s synth pop, set to drop soon.

“It’s all about finding the right formula to make your dreams come to life,” Wittwer said of his aspirations. “I’m all about doing what I can to bring stuff to life. No pun intended, but I don’t ever wish to be someone who scares easily.” SPR

Event: Terror Behind the Walls

Date: Through Nov. 5

Where: Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave.


Tickets: $19-$45


Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview.com.

Background Photo: courtesy of easternstate.org

Action photo: Maria Young

Make up photo: Ellen Feist/Eastern State Penitentiary