We visited three summers ago, drawn by the history, the rumors, the talk of the unsettling things we’d find here. Clutching our cameras, we trudged up the narrow crumbling road, past a faded “No Trespassing” sign buried by overgrown brush. The thick woods on either side of the road encroached upon the broken asphalt. No sign of animals, no sound of birds. Just eerie silence.
Some two-dozen buildings—large, sinister, two-and three-story brick structures, most of them engulfed by branches and vines so that we could only make out the top floors and roofs—loomed ahead. Their innards were breathtaking and bone-chilling. Rusty wheelchairs and leg braces strewn about dimly lit rooms filled with rubble and cobwebs. A child’s doll sitting in a pool of water. Rows and rows of ancient metal bed frames and cots and cribs. Torn clothes and personal belongings and broken toys everywhere. Long, terrifying corridors that dissolved into black. Ribbons of paint in various shades of blue, yellow and green peeling from walls dappled with dark brown water stains and graffiti.
Aesthetically, it was a photographer’s dream. But it was more like a nightmare. The scenes before us were frozen in and ravaged by time, slowly morphing into something surreal. When it comes to places like this, there’s usually mystery involved. Who lived here? Where did they go? But there’s no mystery as to what happened here. This was Pennhurst.
Originally established as the “Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic,” the Pennhurst State School and Hospital—nestled in a wooded area of Spring City, about 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia—opened its doors in 1908. It was designed to house and provide custodial care to people with developmental disabilities: Intellectual disabilities (formerly termed “mental retardation”), cerebral palsy, epilepsy, what has come to be known as autism, and so on. It was a place where the disabled could be hidden away from a world that feared them.
From the start, Pennhurst was doomed to fail. Residents poured in from all over the region, and by 1910 administrators were already complaining about extreme overcrowding and severe underfunding from the state. By most accounts, Pennhurst was staffed, for the most part, by decent, compassionate people who did their best under difficult circumstances to care for the residents. But the lack of space and resources led to staff cuts, poor training and, eventually, rampant neglect and abuse. In 1968, WCAU-TV reporter Bill Baldini’s searing expose “Suffer the Little Children” brought the inhumane treatment happening at Pennhurst into shocked living rooms across Philadelphia.
Conditions improved in wake of the expose, but in 1977 a federal judge in the landmark Halderman v. Pennhurst case—a class-action lawsuit filed in 1974 on behalf of former resident Terri Lee Halderman, which alleged years of abuse in sickening detail—ruled that Pennhurst had inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on residents and further violated their constitutional rights. Pennhurst was ordered closed; following several appeals the state finally agreed in 1985 to shut down the institution once its residents could be moved to group homes or other smaller facilities. In 1987, the doors were locked and Pennhurst was left to rot.
In the two decades after Pennhurst was abandoned, the thousands of residents who finally escaped Pennhurst were replaced by countless thousands more every year trying to sneak onto the property: Urban explorers interested in documenting this creepy, otherworldly place in photos, words and video; Ghost hunters, who have long claimed of hearing anguished screams or whispers of “Get out” inside the buildings and tunnels below; Vandals; Looters; Scrappers; Curious locals; Trespassers risked arrest, but unless the cops caught you destroying the place, or with booze or drugs, you were usually given a warning and told to leave.
But this fall, tens of thousands of people are streaming onto the property every weekend quite legally. They’re plunking down $25 ($50 for a VIP pass) to get their Halloween scares at “Pennhurst Asylum,” a brand-new haunted house set inside the site’s former Administration Building. The haunt was created by Richard Chakejian—a local real-estate developer who has owned the Pennhurst property since purchasing it from the state in 2008—and his business partner, Randy Bates. And the show has stirred up a controversy surrounding this 110-acre parcel of land and buildings not seen since the days of “Suffer the Little Children.”
Critics say the Pennhurst Asylum exploits the most tragic elements of Pennhurst’s history for profit. That it mocks people with disabilities. That it desecrates a property they consider hallowed ground—site of a precedent-setting legal victory that put into motion the re-integration of the developmentally disabled into society. Worst of all, they contend, the haunted house undermines the long, hard-fought and continuing struggle of the disabled community to escape being looked at as “others,” “freaks,” or something less-than-human.
To his supporters, Chakejian is a hero. He’s taken an eyesore property and is simply doing something, anything, with it. His haunted house is generating extra business for shops and restaurants in Spring City, and has created more than 150 jobs—paramount concerns for this recession-scarred town. And he’s providing good, family fun during Halloween season. Whatever awful things went on at Pennhurst, they say, happened a long time ago.
This is a story of a town divided, of old wounds being opened by a new enterprise. But also at stake is the future of Pennhurst, for which there are many competing visions.
It’s two weeks before the Sept. 24 opening of the Pennhurst Asylum, and representatives of several disability-rights groups—along with about 200 protesters—have gathered for a news conference and rally to denounce the haunted house. Tom Earle, CEO of Liberty Resources, likens the idea of having a haunted attraction at Pennhurst to throwing a party at Dachau. “People died there. Women were raped. There’s people buried throughout the property at this facility. So it’s a travesty.”
Frank Orr, a Pennhurst resident from 1965 until 1976, approaches the podium in his wheelchair. He doesn’t say much, but what he does say elicits huge applause: “A lot of bad stuff happened there. Don’t do this stupid thing.”
“From everything I’ve ever learned about concentration camps and things of that nature—you know, people lying there naked and just so deprived—a lot of it was the same at Pennhurst,” Linda Dezenski, COO of Liberty Resources, says later. “What happened there was so horrific to many of us that the idea that you would even utilize that setting for any kind of family entertainment, it’s just … it’s unbelievable.”
Jean Searle also speaks at the rally. A 48-year-old activist who spent most of her first 22 years living in an institution due to an intellectual disability, Searle is also co-president of the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance (PM&PA), a broad network of disability advocates and activists, preservationists, legal and medical professionals, and historians that seek to transform Pennhurst into a “site of conscience.” Searle says that the conflict with Chakejian started earlier this year when she and other members of the PM&PA looked at the “History” section of the Asylum’s website and determined that he and Bates were planning to make a buck off Pennhurst’s disturbing past.
Reads the website, in part: “It has a history; a history riddled with accusations of torture, abuse, and neglect. A history of mental patients chained to the walls in dark tunnels, children left for years in cribs, sexual abuse by the staff and even murder … we have really strived to mix fact with fiction, folklore with fear, to come up with some of our unique room designs.”
And then, says Searle, she saw a posting on the Asylum’s official Facebook page that read, “If you want to be a scary psyco [sic] at this new haunted house, contact us!!!!” She was furious. So were disability-advocacy groups like the Arc of Pennsylvania, Easter Seals and the Public Interest Law Center. “I think what’s most offensive is referring to people who are disabled as ‘scary psychos,’” Searle says. “We’re normal just like everybody else and they should treat us like that, not as off-the-wall wackos.”
Aside from the horribly chewed-up condition of the road—which is doing a number on my car as I drive through Pennhurst to meet with Chakejian and Bates—a lot has changed since that last visit to the property. Trucks from Penn Organic, the recycling and mulching operation run on four of Pennhurst’s acres by Chakejian’s younger brother, Gene, rumble regularly through the grounds. Most of the brush has been cleared away. And where once there was only silence, there’s plenty of noise and activity at the Administration Building, where dozens of workers put the finishing touches on the haunted house for its grand opening in three days.
Chakejian (first under the name Pennhurst Associates, and later under a separate entity called Pennhurst Acquisitions) first put in a bid to acquire Pennhurst in 1998, and after a decade of negotiations with the state, he closed on the property in early 2008 for $2 million. Chakejian’s original plans for the property included a continuing care facility or a housing development, but by the time he finally took ownership, the real-estate market had crashed. “Let’s put it this way,” he says. “If I had purchased it in 2005, I would have held an auction for [residential builders] Toll, Cutler, all the usual suspects. It was a different time then. So we were faced with challenges: What do we do with the property, and how do we make it safe and secure and try to discourage would-be intruders?”
Directly above Sean Kelley’s desk in the old parole office of Eastern State Penitentiary, a man killed himself in especially bloody fashion. It’s something that Kelley, Eastern State’s longtime senior vice president and director of public programming, thinks about often, but especially at this time of year. This week, Eastern State kicks off the 20th anniversary iteration of its “Terror Behind the Walls” Halloween attraction at the prison, which reopened as a museum and historical site in the early ’90s.