Ah, fall, how I love thee. The crisp smell of autumn in the air, the beauty of the color-changing leaves, the gentle cooling breeze that blows, the sight of zombies and other creepy things roaming about. Wait, what? No, I’m not conjuring up some apocalyptic, post pandemic landscape, I’m actually on the grounds of the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) where they’re gearing up for their Halloween extravaganza, Halloween Nights, a Festival of Epic Proportions. A little different from the pre-pandemic Terror Behind the Walls, this one allows more time and freedom to check out the 15, yes I said, 15 attractions spread throughout the site. There are 2 scary haunted houses and 3 not so scary immersive walk-through experiences, 3 live-interactive performances, 4 themed bars and lounges, and much more! Cheers to all that! Last week I sat in the courtyard of the historic building (some say it’s haunted; check out the Ghost Hunters episode) and had a chat with long-time ESP fella Zach Palmer.
First off, I love the name Zach, I have a soft spot for any name that has a “Z” in it. Tell me a little about yourself.
I was born in Texas, but my parents moved out of there when I was fairly young. By the time I was two, we were living in the suburbs in Hatboro, PA, which is near Horsham.
So you escaped the madness of Texas right now.
I did! I tell people that thankfully I did not have to go through the public education system in Texas which tends to be one of the lower ranked states in the nation.
And yet, I think I read that a good percentage of our school books come from companies based in Texas!
Yes, the catch is that because they have so many people, and this is something I’ve read, that often the companies that make the schoolbooks do so with Texas in mind because they purchase so many, and so Texas can call the shots when it comes to content.
Ugh! So back to you and the family, what do the folks do or did they do in the past?
My father passed, it’s been a few years, and my mom’s retired, but both my mom and dad worked in insurance. I was just on vacation with my mom, we were down at the shore. She still does some work on the side to keep busy which is always a good thing.
And what was little Zach like?
I… I was a bit of a brat. I definitely was.
And owning it, I like that!
[Laughing] Yeah, I don’t look back on my childhood and think, “Now there’s a stellar example of a fine young boy!” No. I don’t intend to have children but I think if I ever did and had a child like me, I’d be frustrated. So for all the adults that were annoyed with me as a kid, I understand; it was well deserved!
How did it manifest itself?
I tended to talk. A lot. And I’d focus on things that seemed endlessly fascinating to me, even if they weren’t particularly fascinating to other people. Not everyone wants to hear a 5 year old lecture them on Egyptian Mythology.
So I’m guessing you were a little bit of a geek?
Very much so. Always and then some!
And I’ll venture to also guess, you were an only child?
I was. I’m sure that didn’t help.
What was a favorite toy as a kid?
I loved video games, but generally speaking, I’d say Legos. I could play with them for hours. I’d reconstruct them into all different sorts of things. The best was probably a pirate ship I put together.
Were you always on the creative side?
I guess so. Unfortunately, I’ve found that I don’t have much in the way of artistic ability, but I have good crafting ability. I can take existing things and cut them apart and put them back together as something new with duct tape, sewing thread and glue.
What were some of the extra curricular things you were involved with?
I was a marching band person, I was a musical theater person, and those things took up most of my free time.
Musical theater, do you sing?
[Hesitantly] I can carry a tune. I was a dancer, singer, and actor.
What was your best moment on stage?
The best moment was probably as an adult doing community theater. An actor missed their entrance in the show and it was a farce, so entrances are extra important. So we were all just standing there. My character only had one or two lines, so for fun, I’d throw it in different languages every night. They didn’t have much meaning so why not? I speak some Spanish, so I went into a random improvised monolog in Spanish until I could see the actor off stage finally ready to come on. Darned if I could remember what I said but it filled time and it was a lot of fun going off randomly like that!
Cool. Did you go on to higher learning and if so, what did you study?
I did, I thought I wanted to teach Spanish, so I actually have a degree in Spanish, but I never really have the opportunity to practice it, so it is what it is at this point.
Yeah, I took a few education courses and that was enough to convince me that I did not want to be an educator! So instead I pursued technical stuff and currently work full time for a digital marketing company and of course I do anything and everything for Eastern State.
What or when was the first time you visited ESP?
The first time was on a school field trip, I think in elementary school. It was back in the ‘90s when you still had to wear hard hats to tour the grounds.
How did you end up getting involved with the Halloween events?
I was dating someone who worked at the Halloween event and he encouraged me to come and try out because he knew I was into Halloween and horror and that type of stuff. I auditioned and got a part. We’re no longer together but still friends. In the beginning, I was going to school in Virginia and I arranged my classes so that I could leave early Thursday afternoon, hop on the train and be here for the weekend shows. The pay back then pretty much covered the train fare!
What was your first role?
I was an actor in the area called the maze, which is no longer part of the experience. This was before they had the touching option, so I wore an outfit and mask and was hidden in the dark and when people turned the corner I’d jump out at them.
So do you have to do stamina training to be able to stand still in a corner for hours?
Part of the reason why I don’t do that any more is that I’m not getting any younger and it is not easy! I very much give props to people who are in there going for it all night. I prefer handling tickets, where I get to sit and look at a computer screen.
What was your favorite role or job?
[Laughing] I’m one of the .001% that enjoys doing retail. The concept of commerce, “Give me your money and I’ll give you goods in exchange” is weirdly satisfying to my brain. It’s very appealing and I have no idea why. Most people do not like doing retail.
Years ago I interviewed a woman who opened a hot dog stand and she was beside herself, after her first day she said, “Suzi! I give them a little hot-dog and bun and THEY GIVE ME MONEY! LOT’S OF IT!”
Yes! I understand that completely, it’s weirdly fascinating and fun.
What was an early sign that you were gay?
It’s kind of mixed. One of the things I wanted when I was little was a Barbie Dream House. But I didn’t want it for the Barbies, I wanted the house because it had an elevator and I could tinker with it going up and down. I think it threw my parents a little, but they got it for me! I played with that thing for a long time. Though it was probably more an extension of my Lego obsession.
And your coming out experience?
I think the first time I heard the word gay and knew what it meant was when I was a very young child. I was big into ’80’s music and I bought some retro, throwback, multi artist CD that had a picture of Boy George on the cover, and I asked my mom, “Why is he wearing makeup and why is his hair like that?” and she told me that he was gay. I asked her what that meant and she explained it and I think somewhere in my brain it clicked, “Oh that’s me.” I didn’t say it to anyone but it was there. In high school I met some other people who were queer. As I recall they were all girls, but it was a start. I didn’t come out to my parents until I was in college and very far away. I told my mom over the phone when I was coming home for Thanksgiving because I wanted the person I was dating to be able to visit me. It didn’t go great at first. It took her about 3 months to come to grips and she’s been incredibly supportive even since. Anyone who knows her now would be gobsmacked to know that we had a rocky start.
I didn’t tell him until much later and by the time I got around to it he was like, “Yeah, I already knew…” He had moved to Florida and I was going to visit him and he invited me to bring my partner. The next month my father passed away before we got to visit.
Well sorry to hear it, that’s a shame. Let’s brighten the mood and talk about the new Halloween Experience.
Yes! It’s going to be exciting, unlike the past where you would go through the houses in order and end up at the food area and gift shop, which was nice, this year you can make your own tour. If you just want to go to the not as scary portions you can do that, if you prefer to get scared, do it all. It’s like a massive Halloween Festival. We still have some of the favorites like the Speakeasy and the After Dark tours, which have been cut down to 20 minutes instead of an hour.
What’s your favorite part?
I love the 3D, it’s fantastic. It’s one of our themed walk-throughs, so it’s not scary, people won’t be jumping out at you but it’s trippy. It’s a visual feast.
People will be coming to the prison this month, but in the past, there were some famous escapes here if I’m not mistaken, didn’t someone go over the wall at one time when this was in use as a prison?
Over the wall, under the wall, out the front door. There were several escapes, but only one of them, Lee Callahan, was ultimately successful. The rest were caught and brought back. I have a friend with a cat who always gets out who is named after him.
And there was a dog inmate as well, correct?
Yes, Pep, the supposedly cat-murdering dog, but I suspect the truth of the matter was that he was here more to boost morale and act as a lighthearted news story.
Almost a precursor to the idea of emotional support animals.
Yes, there are a lot of programs now that pair animals who have been traumatized with prisoners who help train and socialize them so they can be adopted.
Speaking of support, tell me about your partner?
He was doing ticketing for a theater and now he’s working for Ticketmaster, so we’re both doing ticketing jobs at the same time. He was working for one of the theaters here in town and most of his focus is in arts work.
Who would you want to bring back in a seance?
Freddie Mercury. I think he would be fascinating. I’m intrigued by people like him who have had a profound effect on the arts.
Favorite Halloween costume?
I consider myself part of the Bear community. Often when we think of gay Halloween costumes, we think of sexy or slutty outfits with six pack abs showing, and I am so far away from a 6 pack. It’s never getting there. I’m also a video gamer and there’s a game called “Banjo-Kazooie” which features a bear named Banjo and his side-kick Kazooie, a bird who lives in a backpack that Banjo carries. So I made the costume with the bird sticking out of a backpack and wore yellow shorts and boots like the character and a hat with bear ears. I was shirtless and that was my idea of my big gay costume.
You’re a horror movie fan, what’s your classic?
My long term favorite, and for me it’s a cozy movie to watch, is the original “Friday the 13th.” Just because I’ve seen it dozens of times and there’s something about being in the woods and the cabins and
[Laughing] Well, yeah, there’s that aspect that’s not as pleasant. But there’s something about that classic film that’s appealing. I have a Camp Crystal Lake tee shirt and I’ve visited the Boy Scout Camp where they filmed it, which is not too terribly far from here. They do fundraising tours there to help maintain the campsite.
I’m not someone who can handle gore, but I enjoy suspense and thrills, which is one of the reasons I love Halloweens here at ESP. Always scary and fun, but not overly disgusting and gory, [laughing] for the most part!
Yes, there’s definitely something for everyone!