The Pennhurst Tragedy – A Frighteningly Forgotten History

The air feels heavier, drearier as you drive down a dark road in Spring City. You are less than an hour out of Philadelphia, but civilization has left no mark on these woods. After you wind into a huge gravel parking lot, you step out into the cold autumn night. From there, you walk down a quiet pathway, dodging moss-covered overhangs and hearing the eerie song of an owl in the distance. You look into the windows of one of the buildings, cracked and stained, the interior drab and decaying. The campus is massive, steeped in history, and blackened by the cries of thousands of forgotten souls. The site on which you trek is the infamous ‘Pennhurst Asylum’, marketed as one of the most haunted in Pennsylvania. 

Pennhurst State School and Hospital, opened in 1908 and closed in 1987, was a state-sponsored hospital for children who were deemed mentally and physically disabled, or “feeble minded”, as worded by the hospital itself. This vague wording meant that the hospital catered to children with a wide variety of illnesses and disabilities, most of which scientists had not yet fully studied. As a result, Pennhurst was almost immediately struck by overcrowding, with an under-trained staff that could not effectively take care of its diverse patients. These shortcomings proved tragic, plaguing the hospital’s entire existence with horrifyingly dirty conditions and many deaths. 

These deaths are what have built the hospital’s reputation for being haunted since its closing. After it formally shut its doors in 1987, Pennhurst was left for decades to lie in ruins and fade away into history. That is, until it was bought by businessman Richard Chakejian in 2008. 

Chakejian bought the large plot of land with plans to renovate it and turn it into a profitable attraction that played into the site’s haunted reputation. Thus, ‘Pennhurst Asylum’ was born and quickly became a local hit, with tourists coming far and wide to see the gruesome horrors of the new haunted house. 

The attraction itself guides tourists through two of the buildings of Pennhurst that are still safe to enter, filled to the brim with actors in face paint and ghoulish costumes. Among them was a ghostly girl who hid in corners and grabbed the legs of passersby, a huge animatronic monster that roared at onlookers, and a mad scientist experimenting on a screaming victim. 

This idea of a haunted attraction is not outwardly offensive when taken at face value. In fact, having a haunted attraction on a site with such a haunted reputation is a smart business plan, attracting those among us who are curious about the paranormal. However, it must be remembered that Pennhurst is more than just a haunted house, and considering it to be nothing more than that dehumanizes those who suffered and died there. 

Pennhurst’s true history is much more frightening than any strobe light-filled, fake blood-stained haunted house. The patients of Pennhurst, who were called ‘children’ despite many being adults, were subject to unspeakable cruelty. In 1968, filmmaker Bill Baldini documented these horrors in a piece called Suffer the Little Children. The film spared no lurid detail, from patients being tied to their beds or locked in cages like animals to neglected children lying in their own fecal matter for days on end. 

This reality has forever tarnished the site of Pennhurst, marking it as a grave for many who lost their lives to an underfunded system that not only did not know how to take care of autistic or disabled children, but that saw them as unimportant and undeserving of any real care by the state. 

The horrors of Pennhurst were not without their silver linings, however. Many lawsuits regarding the horrible conditions of the hospital reached state and federal courts while the hospital was still operational, leading to landmark improvements in the rights of disabled Americans. 

Pennhurst symbolizes an important chapter of American history, not just as a landmark for the disability rights movement, but as a solemn reminder of just how far our society’s understanding of those with mental and physical disabilities has come. American society has gone from thousands of innocent souls losing their lives to an unjust system to one of much more effective education and care for the disabled. All of this begs the question, if you were someone who was treated like an animal and died at Pennhurst, would you really want the site of your death to become a roadside attraction? 

The great tragedy of Pennhurst is not only that so many died there, but that the injustice of the site is seldom remembered today. For instance, if you ask most people waiting in line to see the Pennhurst haunted house what really happened there, you’d probably only get a vague answer about an insane asylum where people died. Pennhurst Asylum as an organization is first and foremost a haunted attraction, with any efforts to memorialize the site’s victims left to the periphery. For the sake of the victims and survivors of Pennhurst, and anyone with a physical or mental disability today, this has to change. 

Those in charge of the ‘Pennhurst Asylum’ haunted attraction must do more to memorialize the victims of the hospital and educate the public about its history. Pennhurst’s current mode of operation therefore deserves condemnation. The organization must do more to respect the disabled community whose history is forever connected to its site. It should avoid any costumes or props that directly reference the patients’ suffering and prioritize respecting and memorializing victims above turning profits. Furthermore, those who are thinking of attending the Pennhurst haunted attraction this Halloween season should take the time to educate themselves on the site’s history and make their own call on if they feel comfortable going. There’s nothing wrong with going to Pennhurst to have a good time, but patrons should at least be aware of the site’s true history before doing so. The line between innocent fun and making fun of suffering is subjective and blurry, but it is clear as day that the current state of Pennhurst is not the memorial that its victims deserve.