Terror at Alcatraz

This blog is part of an exchange between students at Stanford and CCNY, for their studies in the rhetoric of architecture, space and tourism



Cell House Room

As we toured Alcatraz, our focus was on its emotional appeal which was presented through its tour guides, general structure and audio tours. Our first impression upon entering the island was one of emotional detachment. We had a preconceived notion that the abandoned prison would be frightening, yet we were greeted by an enthusiastic tour guide who lightheartedly joked about the lack of bathrooms. We followed another tour guide who was equally enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the island’s history. As we were walking, we noticed a sea bird perched motionless in a prison window. After further inspection, we discovered that the bird was in fact fake. The placement of the bird was intended to amplify the island’s authenticity; however, it lacked realism and suddenly the entrance to Alcatraz seemed more artificial. Knowing that fact, we felt more emotionally detached and much less frightened.

Although the immediate entrance did not set the emotional appeal that we expected, the general structures beyond the entrance provided a more sinister atmosphere. Bird feathers littered the ground. Iron bars barricaded all of the windows. Bricks were deteriorated. Paint peeled off the walls. The overgrown vegetation was wildly uncontrolled. All of these details created an unkempt, chilling atmosphere.

We next entered the cell house itself and opted to participate in the audio tour. This was the most harrowing experience we went through during the island visit and struck a chord with our emotions. In the audio, correctional officers informed us of the history as they experienced it, so we felt that we were living at Alcatraz ourselves. We felt transported back in time to the period when Alcatraz was a running prison. In addition, inmates spoke of their crimes and feelings about being in Alcatraz (“I wonder if the cell is a part of me or if I am a part of the cell”). Sounds of beatings, shots, and footsteps produced a realistic quality to the tour. One of us felt frighteningly uncomfortable and removed her headphones during these violent noises.

The audio tour and the general structure helped to invoke the fearful emotions in us tourists as intended. On the other hand, the entrance seemed less stimulating. Leaving the island and going back on the boat, we carried with us the sense of emotional terror and entrapment.

Molly Hayes

Obianuju Ugwu-Oju

Fatema AlGharbi

This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Stanford-CCNY, Fall 2010: Interrogating Architecture ||. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Terror at Alcatraz

  1. Jon(Stanford) says:

    While collectively reading and analyzing this post with Sumaiya and Franco, we came to the conclusion that experiencing Alcatraz the way you did is perhaps the most heartfelt and life-changing way to experience this icon of our society. We felt as though beyond a tour, your experience at Alcatraz changed you in that you were able to re-live history but also appreciate the present. You mention “Sounds of beatings, shots, and footsteps produced a realistic quality to the tour. One of us felt frighteningly uncomfortable and removed her headphones during these violent noises.” From this, we assumed that at times it was as though you were experiencing first-hand encounters with this place’s past but you were always aware of the present as was the person who removed her headphones. This, we believe, is the ultimate purpose of a tour. Aside from being told about something, the tourists are only able to truly experience that something when they incorporate the history of the place and its current state. For Alcatraz, it served as a captor of criminals in its history and as a captor of minds in the present. By this we mean that it captivates the mind, it changes the tourists and it allows them to experience this history and present as vividly as either can get.

    -David Tovar, CCNY

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