Updated: Jun 22
A few weeks ago, I attended the TASH 2020 Outstanding Leadership in Disability Law Virtual Symposium. As someone new to the world of disability law and inclusive education, I wanted to soak up as much information as possible.
During the symposium, one conversation briefly mentioned Pennhurst, a state school and hospital for people with disabilities located near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that closed in the 1980s. Interested in learning more, a quick Google search brought me to this:
I was uncomfortable, and honestly somewhat horrified, to see that the first page Google brought me to was for “Pennhurst Asylum: Pennsylvania’s Most Terrifying Haunted Attraction.”
That’s right. After closing its doors over 30 years ago, Pennhurst has since become a haunted house.
I looked at the page for a few moments and then quickly went back to continue my search for actual historical information on Pennhurst.
Pennhurst, originally named the “Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic,” was first opened in 1908. Although the institution, and others like it, claimed to provide safety, medical assistance, and education for people with disabilities who could not be properly cared for at home, it ended up being a base for segregation and eugenics.
From the beginning, Pennhurst violated human rights. It was overcrowded, had an ill-equipped staff, and lacked the proper resources to care for those living there, leaving most uneducated, underfed, unclothed, and without a bed.
In 1968, NBC10 reporter Bill Baldini filmed a five-part television exposé about Pennhurst called “Suffer The Little Children.” The series investigated the abusive and inhumane treatment of those who resided there, which included a story from a physician who said he administered an injection that would cause the most pain without permanent injury to a patient as a form of punishment.
“The archaic practices of segregation are still with us, and seemingly with the approval of society,” Baldini said in the investigative report. “The children, as they are all called, who are rotting in their cages, cribs, and beds can thank society for their dreadful plight… because of what we have failed to do on their behalf.”
Although the airing of the docuseries exposed Pennhurst to the public, it wasn’t until almost 20 years later, in 1987, that the state school and hospital were officially closed, much to the relief of those forced to grow up there.
And, in 2010, the location became “Pennhurst Haunted Asylum.”
Ever since first finding out about the haunted house, I haven’t been able to get Pennhurst off my mind.
It saddens and unsettles me that a place that was so abusive to so many people in the disability community has now been turned into a joke attraction to entertain people during the Halloween season.
As a lover of all things spooky, I can understand the appeal of a haunted house that quickens the heartbeat and is a diversion from the everyday.
But I simply cannot condone that this haunted house plays on the history of being an institution and disrespects the lived experiences of those who were and are truly haunted by the memories of being contained there. For some, those memories are only a short 33 years in the past.
Not to mention the insensitive use of the term (and the disturbing Halloween costumes and acts that go along with it) “asylum,” which sends the false message that those with disabilities, particularly people with developmental disabilities, are unfit to be part of society and should therefore be segregated.
Pennhurst’s painful past and the lives of its survivors should be honored through a memorial, not an amusement park.
And I am not the only one who feels this way. Since the haunted house first opened at Pennhurst, others have expressed their distaste for the Halloween attraction because “it trivializes the suffering of those who lived there” and forces the disability community “to reckon with a society that treats their suffering as a joke, and the site of their living hell as a destination for weekend fun.”
While Pennhurst and other vacated institutions might provide the backdrop for a horror attraction, the real horror is that we continuously allow and buy into this Halloween trope at the exploitation of people with disabilities.
Pennhurst was once called “The Shame of Pennsylvania,” and there is continued shame on those who capitalize on and profit from this offensive Halloween attraction.