Peter Corbett: Tales of terror at Eastern State Penitentiary

Peter Corbett: Tales of terror at Eastern State Penitentiary

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I love Eastern State Penitentiary, not just at Halloween but all year. The staff does a lot of work educating people about prison reform and the history of incarceration in the United States and around the world. They work with artists and activists and contribute a lot to the community. Through this column, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many cool people who work there, usually around this time of year when ESP flips to Terror Behind the Walls. One of the top-rated haunted attractions in the country, it’s set in the massive, castle-like former prison where outlaws like Al Capone were incarcerated.

TBTW boasts six separate attractions, including the newly revamped infirmary and a highly interactive attraction overseen by this week’s profile, Peter Corbett.

PGN: When did you discover your interest in ghoulish things?

PC: I grew up next door to my cousin, and whenever our parents would go out, especially during the fall, another older cousin would babysit us. We loved making haunted houses. We would turn different rooms in the house into different attractions. We’d make eyes out of Play-Doh and put them in water, stick our hands in to touch them, and even though we made them and knew what they were made of, we’d still squeal, “Ewwww!” We’d put up cobwebs and other things to make it like a haunted house. We had phones in every room like an intercom, so we’d go into separate rooms and my cousin would call and tell us spooky stories. We’d wait until dark to make it scarier. It was really cool. 

PGN: So is the cousin who told you scary stories when she was supposed to be babysitting on the FBI watch list for terrorism?

PC: No! No! Her reign of terror is over. She’s now a physical therapist. She steered away from the macabre, and I embraced it. Actually, I think she just loved being creative.

PGN: Where did you grow up?

PC: In Connecticut, in a little town called Naugatuck. For 18 years, I lived there and then absolutely needed to get out. The suburbs just weren’t for me — it was just too much of the same: too boring. I moved to Philadelphia to go to Temple University, graduated in 2014 and I’m still here.

PGN: Was Naugatuck near any major cities?

PC: It was halfway between Hartford and New Haven, and not too far from New York, but my parents weren’t city people. They liked their bubble in the suburbs, so we never ventured far away from home.

PGN: So as a gay kid in a small town, how did you figure things out?

PC: Yeah, that was interesting. There were no other openly gay kids in my high school. And it was a private Catholic school too, so that was fun. We’d have religion classes and I remember reading the Bible from front to back on my own just to see what it was all about. Fortunately my parents weren’t overly religious, and they let me explore and do things. They were and are pretty liberal. I sought my solace in embracing the weird and scary things. I’ve been super-into horror and went through a punk and an EMO phase. All through high school, I was part of the alternative scene — it became the community I latched onto.

PGN: How did you end up at TBTW?

PC: A friend of mine was a makeup artist here, and she suggested I audition. I was so nervous. You have to act like guards and inmates and walk towards them like zombies. I dropped to the ground and crawled like I didn’t have a leg. I thought I’d blown it and was ecstatic when I got the part. That was five years ago.

PGN: It’s funny that this audition was scarier than one for a speaking part.

PC: I know! I guess it’s when you’re doing a regular audition, you know what you’re getting into and you just have to read a script and do a monologue. But for this, you don’t know what you’re getting into and then you have to act completely crazy. You have to just let go of any inhibitions and become a monster in front of people you don’t know. So it takes a kind of courage to really break out of your shell and become not just another character, but a whole new creature.

PGN: How many people audition each year?

PC: I don’t know, but the staff is about 300, so it’s a huge production. I would imagine a LOT of people come to audition. This is a big event. We have zombie SWAT teams dancing in the yard. We have a speakeasy where you can get drinks and hear lounge singers and visit some of the cells. You can be here for hours if you wanted to — there’s so much to do.

PGN: What is your role?

PC: I’m managing the new and improved infirmary. I have a team of about 16 actors and it’s really fun. I feel like I’m fulfilling the desire I had when I was a kid making haunted houses with my cousins. We’re scripting lines now and making sure everything is working properly. We figure out what works and which lines get a scare from people.

PGN: Huh, I never knew it was scripted. I thought it was mostly improvised.

PC: Yes, there is opportunity for improvising. We want our actors to think on their feet, but we have a basic script in place that fits into a larger theme.

PGN: What’s a heartwarming story?

PC: We work to make this open to everyone, including those who are differently abled. When we have deaf guests come through, we give them balloons to hold, which allows them to feel the vibration of the screams and the noise around them. It’s pretty cool. The haunt is wheelchair-accessible as well. There are only a few parts where we might have to wheel someone into a different access point, but it’s still the same exact experience.

PGN: So what do you do outside of scaring people?

PC: I love to travel. I have a travel blog called “Peter in Transit.” When I graduated, I worked for a year just putting away money to travel. I spent six months backpacking, starting in New Zealand and worked my way up through Southeast Asia, Mongolia, South Korea and Japan. I thought I was going to have a Julia Roberts “Eat, Pray, Love” epiphany, but I came back even more confused about what I wanted to do with my life. I worked for another year and saved up again, and this time explored Eastern Europe. My poor parents! They just don’t get it. They support me but are just like, “Do you really have to go to the Ukraine and Moldova?”

PGN: That sounds amazing; I’ll have to read your blog. Have you been here for any of the many TV and movie shoots done at ESP?

PC: A few of them. The best was “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” They filmed a piece about global warning and I got to be a part of it. It was shot in the infirmary and they wanted us to portray disease caused by the ice caps melting after global warming. We had boils all over our faces and wore our regular costumes and made scary noises — a typical day at the office for us. It was funny because her creative director said, “Wow, the disease people are really great!” You only saw me for a couple of seconds, but I screen-shot every frame and sent it to everyone.

PGN: Every have any paranormal experiences?

PC: Yes. Don’t tell my actors because I don’t want them to be afraid, but I finally had something happen here after four years. I was sitting in the infirmary with my manager last year —  we were in a back hallway with shelving next to us — and all of a sudden my water bottle flew off the shelf. There was no wind and the bottle was full, so it was heavy. We looked at each other and said, “Did you just … Did something just … ” and we both decided not to talk about it. Then another time she came up to me and said, “Is it you? Are you moving the tea lights?” She’d put several tea lights on a small shelf by the cells and someone kept putting them down on the floor. Problem was, we were the only two people there, and it wasn’t me.

PGN: Name three songs I’d find on your iTunes.

PC: “Give Me Body” by Beyoncé, the extended mix. It adds two minutes where she just talks and goes [demonstrating], “Now drop it to the floor,” and giving you dance instructions and by the end you’re exhausted, crying, “Beyoncé, I’m sorry, I just can’t do anymore” and she doesn’t stop. So definitely that, and “I’m the best” by 2NE1 because I love my K-pop girls. Last would be “Sweetener” by Ariana Grande. Love her.

PGN: Share a fun fact about ESP.

PC: TBTW is only open for 32 show nights, but it raises about 60 percent of the operating budget to keep this place up and running year-round. So when you come for the haunted exhibit, you’re actually supporting a great cause and preserving a historic landmark. So come get scared and contribute to an amazing nonprofit that does incredible work all year.

There will be a special Pride Night at Terror Behind the Walls will be Wednesday, October 10. This special ticket includes admission to all six haunted attractions, followed by an exclusive after-party in The Speakeasy at Al Capone's Cell (a $10 value), including one complimentary drink (Yards beer, wine, or Coca-Cola product). Cash bar available. No additional discounts or coupons apply. Tickets available exclusively online at EasternState.org/pride.

Check out TBTW at www.easternstate.org/halloween.

 


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