Kenyon students may believe they live in the most haunted place in Ohio, but the Ohio State Reformatory gives Gambier a run for its money.
The Reformatory, located in Mansfield, Ohio, was an active prison from 1910 to 1990. During those years, hundreds of inmates were executed and several others died of various other horrifying causes. This earned the Reformatory its reputation as one of the most haunted places in America. Now a museum open to the public, the former prison is a popular destination for paranormal investigation enthusiasts. Every year during the Halloween season, the Reformatory hosts a haunted tour called “Escape from Blood Prison.”
In terms of atmosphere, the Reformatory’s large, ornate stonework can’t be beat. Bars are still on the windows. Of course, slight changes were made to transform the Reformatory’s exterior into a “Blood Prison”: Colored lights flashed across the edifice, and heavy metal blares from speakers. A line of food trucks are parked near the entrance.
From the start, the Blood Prison was chilling — and not only because of the Grim Reaper and zombie Marie Antoinette scaring visitors waiting in line. Temperatures dipped below 36-degrees on Sunday, Oct. 21, which became unbearable after waiting in line outdoors for an hour and a half.
When visitors finally gain admission to the Blood Prison they are immediately thrust into the creepiest part of the experience. The first quarter of the tour leads visitors down a long, narrow hallway that was once home to the prison’s solitary confinement cells. The absence of decorations draws visitors’ attention to the stomach-churning surroundings and suggests anything could be lurking in the near-darkness. When an actor does pop out from behind the bars, the screams of the attendees are genuine.
Unfortunately, after this first leg, groups are shuffled into yet another line. A scene from Texas Chainsaw Massacre plays on a flat screen above visitors’ heads as they wait for an employee to tell them it is their turn to proceed. The tour’s momentum halts, and the operation’s artificiality stands out.
After this second wait, visitors walk through the final three quarters of the Blood Prison. This consists of several themed rooms, including a haunted hospital, a ruined church and the vague-yet-threatening “Clown Town.” The Blood Prison’s sets extended only to the Reformatory’s first two floors, making the experience feel more contrived than claustrophobic. “Clown Town” is the most glaring example of this; the circus music and brightly-dressed actors does not match the intrinsic spookiness of the Reformatory building, and because of this the display fails to inspire serious fear.
The actors working at “Blood Prison” are certainly enthusiastic, especially toward the visitors wearing glow stick necklaces (which signified a purchase of a “Touch Pass” for an extra $5 that permits actors to touch the wearer). Grabbing aside, the actors’ performances range from spooky to goofy. Jump scares always earn a scream or two, but the actors’ frequent use of bizarre dialogue (telling a woman she looked like a pillow, for instance) is more funny than frightening.
What makes “Escape from Blood Prison” unique is also what makes it underwhelming. The Ohio State Reformatory is an extraordinary place with a haunted history — one that “Blood Prison” too often disregards in favor of cheaper, trendier thrills. The sinister features of the building’s interior only emphasize the silliness of the actors and sets. If the haunted tour put more focus on the Reformatory’s own ghosts and found a way to make waiting in line less tedious, the experience could scare like no other. Until that happens, “Escape from Blood Prison” will continue to be overshadowed by all its wasted potential.
This year’s “Blood Prison” will run through Nov. 4.