I recently moved into the Gayborhood and though it is great being in the heart of things, I do miss my old neighborhood and the Halloween spirit that we had there. Neighbors would hang outside, the grown folks would share spiked cider and I would hand out candy and books to the kids. This year, I’m going to have to lean towards the spookier side of things to get in the ghostly groove and for me, that means my annual trip to Halloween Nights (HN) at the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP). The annual event, which runs select nights through Nov. 11, features three reimagined experiences this year along with many returning visitor favorites.
I return each year for a number of reasons. The building and grounds are worth the trip on their own, especially experiencing it at night. I’m not a big fan of gore and though there is some, they keep it fairly sanitized for squeamish people like me, and most of all, it’s a great group outing with plenty to do. Halloween NIghts contains five haunted houses, as well as historic tours, themed bars, live entertainment and more, and occupies all ten acres of Eastern State Penitentiary’s abandoned cell blocks and yards.
If you live in the Greater Philadelphia area, you need to go. Halloween Nights are consistently rated as the top Halloween attractions in the country. There’s nothing more annoying (or embarrassing) than having out-of-towners telling you about the fabulous thing right in your own backyard! This week, I had a chance to speak to one of the talented people helping put Halloween Nights together, Taylor Gerretz.
Let’s start with a little about you.
I’m from this area. I’ve lived in Port Richmond pretty much my entire life. To the best of my knowledge, the family always lived in the area. [In] the last two or three years, I moved to Fairmount, not far from the penitentiary.
And is the family big? Small?
I guess small. I have two older sisters from my mother’s side. We’re each seven years apart. My sister is seven years older than me and her sister is seven years older than her. On my father’s side, I have two sisters and a brother.
As a kid, what did you like to do? Were you always very theatrical?
No! I wasn’t at all. I actually had never done any type of theatrics. I was really into art growing up, mainly drawing. Well, I still am.
So you were the kid who thrived in art class.
Yes. Art class was my thing. I actually went to a high school specifically for drawing and art. They also taught other arts like theater and stuff, but it was never something that I was interested in or thought I’d be good at.
What kind of artwork did you do? Cartooning or fine arts?
As a kid, I drew a lot of cartoons — a lot of SpongeBob characters! I’d draw the cartoons that I liked and then as I got older, I got more into drawing people. It was very difficult but I liked the challenge of it. I like drawing what I see and then kind of just putting my own little twist on it. I always appreciated just basic pencil to paper.
Who was your favorite teacher?
I’d say Miss Brown. She was my art teacher in my high school and she really helped me develop my skill and I really appreciate her.
What did you do after high school?
So I did not attend college. I immediately went into the workforce. It was a difficult time financially for my family when I was growing up. As much as I wanted to further my education at that time, it was more important to start building a career and start making money, so right out of high school, I started working. My first job was a front desk position at a gym which over the course of seven years, I turned into a career.
Had you been athletic growing up?
No, not at all. Well, I did play soccer as a kid for a while on neighborhood teams and that was about the extent of my sports career. I was more in the sales and sales management end of things in the fitness industry.
Got you. What’s a family tradition you remember fondly?
Even though we all live in the same city, not too far from each other, we actually don’t spend much time together. So when holidays or birthdays or special occasions come up, we make it a point to try to all be there. My fondest memories are of us all connecting and even though we might not have seen some people in months or years, it feels like a day hasn’t gone past since you’ve seen them last.
Who’s the funniest in the family?
I don’t know if she’s the funniest, but my sister Ashley cracks me up the most. I think we have the same sense of humor and she gets me. She’s the one to go to for doing something spur of the moment and is always having a good time.
When did you start moving from the gym work to getting involved with the Eastern State Penitentiary and Halloween Nights?
In 2017, I interviewed with them for a position. I’d never actually been there for the Halloween festivities but a member of the gym where I was working had a job with ESP and told me I would love it there. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the job because of availability issues. Later, I went to the Halloween attractions and I had such a good time that in 2018, I was determined to work there and told myself I would do whatever I had to do to get hired. So I interviewed again, this time for the operational side of what was then, “Terror Behind the Walls.” I got the job and halfway through, I became what we call “Acting Titan.” Since 2019, I’ve been either an actor or manager or both for the haunted attractions.
What is a Titan?
It’s basically someone who can work the operational side of things and can also step in to do acting roles when needed. So you come in and fill in whatever position needs to be filled on any given night. You have to be a person who can do everything.
What was it about the place that made you so determined to work there?
I guess in my first year, it was something really new and exciting. I mean you’ve seen the place Suzi; it’s just gorgeous. The idea of working there just seemed like so much fun. And ever since I was a child, I loved the idea of dabbling in acting and doing theatrical stuff and so I took the chance on it and it really worked out. It is a lot of fun. I got a chance to express a side of myself that I didn’t think I had. But as someone who was always seen as “different,” my favorite part of working for ESP/HN is the feeling of being included. I’m almost 30 and I have never once felt completely comfortable in a work environment. I always felt like an outcast. But one of the reasons I come back to ESP/HN every year is because of how inclusive it is. You can look around and still not find two people who look the same. Everyone is so diverse and there is so much talent and kindness around you. It is truly an extraordinary place to work.
The first time you did the Halloween experience, was there anything that scared you?
Oh, yes. It’s funny. Now, I’m not only a manager. I’m also a haunt actor so I can say the lines, do the jump scares, and make the noises to frighten people and yet, I still get scared walking through my own attractions! My own actors scare me! I love haunted houses, horror movies, and being scared, but I’m the person who is screaming and running and terrified of everything!
You sound like you’d be fun to go with. Which attraction is the one you work on?
I’m the department manager of the attraction called Delirium. It’s the 3D attraction.
That’s a good one. What are some of the other attractions people can look forward to? And what’s new?
With Terror Behind the Walls, it was a strictly linear haunted attraction. With Halloween Nights, there’s so much more. It’s really a festival for everyone. If you want horror, you can opt to do that. If you want to go and learn about the penitentiary and the history of the building, you can do that. If you want to just go for music and fun, there are entertainers all over. There’s food and drinks and it’s ever changing. I’m always impressed each year. The accessibility aspect makes it an event that everyone can take part in. It’s hard to put into words how much is going on.
I enjoyed the dancing skeletons last year but one of my favorite parts is the speakeasy. So flipping back to you, what is your coming out tale?
It’s quite a story. Ever since I was young, I knew that something wasn’t right when I looked in the mirror. The person staring back at me wasn’t the person I felt that I was. Throughout the years, I struggled with finding my identity and went from identifying as lesbian, then bisexual to gender nonconforming. I will say that coming out as trans is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Society these days is not very kind to anyone who is different. I came out officially maybe 2-3 years ago and started living my life the way it was supposed to be lived. Honestly, once I did, it wasn’t as difficult as I feared it was going to be. I think the biggest challenge was wondering if my friends and family were going to accept me. I made it into a big deal, but my friends and family were like, “Yeah, OK. Thanks for telling us, finally. We know you’ll always be the same Taylor you’ve always been. It’s still the same friendship it always was.” It was a really big relief knowing that they love me for who I am and now it seems silly that I fought that battle in my head for so long when I really didn’t need to.
Not quite the same but it reminds me of when I’d meet people and they’d say that they weren’t going to say anything about their sexuality until their parents asked, and you‘d later talk to the parents who’d say, “Well, I didn’t want to ask anything until they said something to me.” People stuck in the closet for years when they didn’t have to be.
Yeah, it’s wasted time.
I remember interviewing Chaz Bono who said when you’re trans, you have to come out multiple times. What was the most difficult part for you?
The most difficult part for me? My mother was the one who raised me. My father wasn’t really in my life nor did I have any strong male figures in my life growing up. And the ones that I did see were not people that I would say were good men. So for me transitioning, the hardest part has been finding that definition for myself of what it means to be a man. Trying to be that man that I want to be and the man that I want to see in the world.
There’s a film by Jennifer Siebel Newsom who is a filmmaker (and married to California’s governor, though she calls herself the first partner rather than first lady). It’s called “The Mask You Live In” and it’s about the way men are forced to play certain roles and the harm it causes boys and men. You should check it out.
I will. Like I said, that’s the most difficult part for me. I’m almost 30 and for 90% of my life, I didn’t get to live my life as the person I am. And then society tells you that a man is supposed to be this and act a certain way and dress a certain way and do certain things. I’m tired of people telling me what I need to do, think, be. I’m trying to come to terms with what being a man actually is and for me it’s not all those things, so I’m figuring out how I want to live my life as a man.
I’m sure. So when you’re not at the penitentiary, what do you like to do for fun?
I work at the Pennsylvania SPCA as part of their life-saving team. I love animals and I live with three rescues — two dogs, Bella and Silver, a cat named Soot and my partner. I really enjoy biking and Fairmount is a beautiful area to ride in.
Too many hills!
It’s hard going up, but going down? Very nice!
How did you meet your partner?
We met at Eastern State!
Nice! What’s a song you’re embarrassed to admit you like?
Oh boy, my playlist has a little of everything. Musically, I’m all over the place, with a lot of Broadway showtunes. I wouldn’t say I’m embarrassed, but when I play the “Hercules” theme song, people are like, “Whaaaaat?”
Worst clothing disaster?
I don’t know. I’m actually colorblind so when it comes to dressing, I don’t think about it too much. I just put on whatever I want as long as it’s comfortable. I just try to dress for the weather! But if you like to get all dressed up, I don’t judge. Go ahead and do your thing.
Since you work in a spooky place, who would you bring back for a seance?
I’m a huge “Star Wars” fan. I have a sleeve of “Star Wars” tattoos on my arm and “Star Wars” stuff all over my apartment, so I have to go with Carrie Fisher.
I bet she’d be a riot. Do you play any instruments?
No. I always wanted to. I tried playing keyboard but I just don’t have the hands for it. I think my fingers aren’t wide enough. I have unfortunately small hands.
My very first job which I only did for a few months was as a telemarketer. I feel like whenever I tell people, they always give me that, “Oh, one of those” looks!
Do you like to cook and if so, what’s your best dish?
I love cooking. I don’t think I have a specific dish. I’m more the type of person who just looks in the fridge and says, “All right, what can I make with this?” And I love to make breakfasts, no matter what time of day it is. One in the morning or six at night, it doesn’t matter. It’s my specialty.
What advice would you give the you of 10 years ago?
Trust your instincts. Try not to overthink things, as hard as that is. Don’t care about what other people’s opinions are. At the end of the day, you don’t want to look back at your life and go over all the things you didn’t do or didn’t say just to please other people. Life is about making yourself happy too, not just everyone else.
For more information on Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary, visit easternstate.org/halloween/.