Pennhurst’s dark past sparks controversy after transformation of old institution into haunted house – the Waltonian
Located about 30 km from Eastern University, the remains of Pennhurst State School and Hospital are reminiscent of abuse and captivity.
Founded in 1908, Pennhurst State School and Hospital, originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Faint-Spirited and Epileptic, officially opened its doors and admitted residents. In addition to many other institutions in the United States, Pennhurst aimed to separate people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from the rest of society. For more than eight decades, a total of approximately 10,600 children and adults have lived the vast majority of their lives, if not all of their lives, in Pennhurst’s perpetual quarantine.
Although Pennhurst was established to treat people with seizure disorders and intellectual disabilities, the institution has experienced overcrowding as many people without these conditions have been admitted. Pennhurst also admitted people without parental figures, immigrants, people with mental illnesses, blind and deaf people, and people referred to as “delinquents.” Unclaimed by society, the individuals admitted to Pennhurst had no one to defend their well-being or their freedom. Upon entering Pennhurst, residents lost their right to leave and their ability to exercise most basic human rights. “Medical experimentation, cruel punishment and constant threats to physical and psychological well-being were part of institutional culture,” explained The Philadelphia Inquirer.
In 1968, Bill Baldini, a journalist, visited Chester County after receiving information about conditions at Pennhurst. Due to strict restrictions on who can enter Pennhurst, no journalist before Baldini had been given such open access to the institution. Baldini met emaciated residents who were tied to their beds, locked in cages and placed in solitary confinement. Immediately, the young reporter left the institution and returned with his film crew. “And we start shooting, and my team was mortified. I mean, I had a hard time keeping them at work because they were literally getting sick from what they were seeing, ”Baldini said.
“Suffer the Little Children,” the title from Mark’s Gospel, was a five-part series produced by Baldini and his team regarding Pennhurst. The film depicts the circumstances of neglect and abuse that provided insight into how government systems can develop based on the dehumanization of people. Although the documentary’s release brought several breakthroughs, such as building early community support, circumstances in Pennhurst continued to worsen.
On May 30, 1974, Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital has been filed on behalf of the former and current residents of Pennhurst against the institution, its superintendents and the state officials responsible for the operation of Pennhurst. Pennhurst was officially closed as an institution in 1987, leaving one building vacant and traumatized former residents.
In 2008, real estate investor Richard Chakejian teamed up with Randy Bates, who runs a haunted house business, to transform Pennhurst State School and Hospital into Pennhurst Asylum, a Halloween attraction. Thousands of guests enter the old institution, yearning to be frightened by actors disguised as bloodied patients and doctors. “PennHurst, the legendary haunted hospital complex, opened after 25 years and is accepting new patients! Says the Pennhurst Asylum Haunted House website.
Pennhurst’s transformation into a haunted house has sparked controversy across the country. “The attractions of the haunted asylum turn people with mental illness into grotesque cartoons and perpetuate the spurious link between mental disorder and violence,” the Philadelphia Inquirer said. Meanwhile, others have argued, “The audience that comes here knows the distinction and the difference between making fun of something and a Halloween event,” NPR explained.
The ethics of transforming a space of human suffering into an entertainment attraction has led to questions about how society views and treats people with disabilities. As discrimination against people with disabilities and mental illness unfairly persists, activists are asking visitors to haunted houses to think critically about what is being emulated in the attraction and the history of the location of the haunted houses.
Sources: The Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR, Pennhurst Asylum Haunted House, Antiquity Echoes, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia