Editor in Chief
Located in Spring City, Pennhurst State School and Hospital was originally named the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic when it opened its doors in November of 1908. It was an institution meant for mentally and physically disabled individuals that also housed orphans, immigrants, and criminals. Anyone with a disability during this time period was seen as an outcast and Pennhurst served as a solution.
The institution was originally built to house up to 500 patients with some room for additions. After four years of operation Pennhurst was already overcrowded and throughout its 79 years of operation it housed over ten thousand residents. Residents were classified into three categories when admitted; mental, physical, and dental. Mentally they were either classified as imbecile or insane, physically as eplieptic or healthy, and their teeth were classified as either good, poor, or treated.
Injuries were very common at Pennhurst, especially due to the lack of staff. In January, 1977 there were 833 minor and 25 major injuries reported. On Jan. 8, 1975 a patient was reported to have bit off three-quarters of a patient’s earlobe while the other resident was asleep. Not too long after this another patient was reported to have pushed a resident to the floor so hard, resulting in the other patient’s death.
In 1968, a five-part television news report called “Suffer The Little Children,” anchored by CBS correspondent, Bill Baldini exposed Pennhurst for its overcrowding and poor conditions. This documentary series ultimately led to the end of Pennhurst. In 1977 the lawsuit filed on May 30, 1974, Halderman v. Pennhurst state School and Hospital led to U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Broderick ruling that the conditions at Pennhurst violated patients’ constitutional rights.
In 1976, there were reported cases of staff abuse to the residents. One resident was raped by a staff person, while others were thrown several feet, hit with keys or shackle belts. In 1983, nine employees were convicted of charges including slapping or beating patients (some who were in wheelchairs) and even arranging for patients to assault each other.
In 1987, Pennhurst officially closed its doors due to lack of funding, overcrowding, and patient abuse. It was left to the vandals for 23 years until it was bought and turned into a haunted attraction in 2010 and renamed to what it’s more commonly known as, Pennhurst asylum.
Typically on a non COVID-19 year, Pennhurst Asylum is broken up into four attractions; the Morgue, Containment, the Asylum and Mayflower Hall, which allows visitors to see what rooms inside the state school used to look like along with preserved artifacts. Unfortunately this year only the three attractions were open to the public, while Mayflower Hall was a luxury only visitors of Pennhurts’s history tour could explore.
Covid measures were put into place as all the actors and visitors were required to wear masks and keep six feet from each other. The attractions were also set up so the public had to walk through all three back to back, while on a non pandemic year, customers can tour the attractions in whichever order they’d like and take a break by the bonfire or grab a snack.
Pennhurst Asylum is the first attraction that customers will walk through, where they will be forced to navigate through maximum security and visit some of Pennhurst’s most hostile patients. While most visitors at first glance probably assume these doctors or nurses are performing experiments gone wrong, look closer because it’s actually the patients disguised as employees of the asylum.
The Morgue is where you’ll learn about all the different ways to drain a body of its blood or simply dispose of a body. Customers will walk through tight, darkly-light corridors and make sure to double check if these bodies are indeed dead or alive.
Containment is the last stop of the attraction where customers get to walk through the 1,200 long tunnels of Pennhurst. Bear witness to a government facility using patients to experiment on in most inhumane conditions. Be careful to not become Pennhurst’s next patient, as the employees of this facility are always looking for new patients to experiment on.
On Sat. Nov. 24, I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes of Pennhurst Asylum and try out the acting side of things for myself. As a lover of anything horror related, I have always been curious about what it would be like to become a character for a night. I arrived onsite around 4:35 p.m. and was given long johns to change into. Then I was led to a room in the asylum attraction where I was told I would have to audition and create a scene for a potential customer. It wasn’t until I was given my spot for the night that I could really get into character and take advantage of my surroundings to get a good scream out of customers.
I was placed in a crevice of a hallway where the lights would continuously turn on and off, leading to a room with a doctor and a patient gone mad. I had to get used to the train whistle that would go off right before the customers would get to my scene, signaling me to pop out of my crevice and attempt to get them with a good jump scare. I channeled my inner Harley Quinn and used a high pitched voice to pop out at people and squeal “Did you come to play?!” and “You don’t want to go in there!” It was entertaining watching the reactions of groups unfold as I scared the pants off them in the beginning of the scene and then proceeded to follow them down the hallway and pop out at them again once the lights would turn back on. However, occasionally I did manage to get too into character and left that night with some bruising from pounding my hands on the sides of the walls to get an extra rise out of people.
Forewarning to anyone looking to try out this acting experience for themselves, you will experience people who go to these attractions to specifically mess with the actors. I had multiple instances of people calling me cute, asking if I was single, or even repeatedly shouting their number in my face to intimidate me. Simply brush it off and stay in character. The goal is to have fun and give people an adrenaline-rushing experience, not be Johny’s date to dinner.
Overall, this was a very fun experience that I would highly recommend to anyone looking to become a character for a night and give people a scare they’ll remember. Even if haunted attractions aren’t necessarily your thing, going behind the scenes of it helps turn the attraction itself into a less intimidating experience. On the other hand, maybe becoming part of the attraction will help you face your fears.