“Mr. Chakejian really doesn’t understand why we’re upset, because he has said ‘This is not about Pennhurst, we’re just using the Pennhurst buildings.’” He continues: “But what’s fictional about people in patient gowns being chased down hallways by people in doctors’ and nurses’ garb? And other people dressed up to look like old people sitting in wheelchairs picking at their food?”
Chakejian says the patrons will decide. “We believe the true history, good or bad, can co-exist with the make-believe and the paranormal,” he asserts. “Most of our attendees will be pre-teens to folks in their young 20s. We believe that they’re coming here to be entertained on Halloween … these folks can distinguish between make-believe and real.”
Former Pennhurst nurse Ruth Himes rejects the complaints. “Any time you see a wheelchair, are you gonna automatically associate that with what happened at Pennhurst? It’s a fictional storyline of a hospital—there’s wheelchairs in hospitals. This is based on all the horror movies like Halloween. That’s in a hospital, with Jamie Lee Curtis. She was running through a hospital.”
Despite calls from numerous groups, including the PM&PA, to boycott the Pennhurst Asylum, business has been brisk. In a phone call, Chakejian—who initially hoped to draw 3,000 customers each weekend—says that more than 10,000 people passed through the haunt over the first two weekends.
But what will happen after the screams fade away from the Pennhurst Asylum on Nov. 7?
There are some who won’t accept anything short of making the site a permanent memorial to the suffering that occurred there, with zero commercial activity permitted on the property. Clearly, that doesn’t work for Chakejian, who says he’s in it for the long haul with both the haunted house and Penn Organic. The majority of Chakejian’s critics, however, are seeking a compromise.
There are options on the table.
The Philadelphia-based Community Design Collaborative has come up with a conceptual reusability and feasibility plan for Pennhurst. The CDC’s 80-page report—which the PM&PA is urging Chakejian to consider—recommends development scenarios such as a sustainable housing community or an education/think-tank center focusing on disability issues. But the plan itself states, “During this economic downturn, there is likely little current demand for most potential development programs.” Not the kind of thing a developer looking for an immediate return on his investment necessarily wants to hear.
“The architects and engineers [from the CDC] have told me personally it would cost between $350 million and $600 million [to fully rehab the property],” says Chakejian. “They’ve also told me that a market does not exist that can support that. A lot of this is based upon idealism. And listen, idealism and passion creates great things. But there’s a third component here—you have to put forth a plan that’s fiscally responsible. The last thing you want to do is start an idealistic project and not finish it and just have a white elephant forever.”
Another solution put forth is to model Pennhurst after Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, which features a historical walking tour, a museum, art installations and an immensely popular annual haunted attraction, “Terror Behind the Walls,” that Conroy says respects the history of the location and avoids degrading storylines. Get rid of the controversial, demeaning elements of the Pennhurst Asylum, he suggests, and Pennhurst could become a destination attraction acceptable to almost everybody. “As my friend Bill Baldini has said, ‘If you can get 50,000 people to come through that property every year looking for ghosts, but they learn about a civil-rights movement that they never knew about, you’re a winner.’”
Many of Chakejian’s future plans for Pennhurst— walking tours, paranormal tours, a larger museum, a memorial of some kind— seem to fall in line with that ESP model. But he continues to insist that the haunted house as it stands now does nothing to demean the disabled community or the former residents of Pennhurst. And, he warns, “It’s going to be very difficult for me to work with the PM&PA going forward because I think they’ve gone well out of their way to process a lot of misinformation and are continuing to do that. That doesn’t mean that a lot of what we want to do isn’t symbiotic with what they suggest. And I’m not an unreasonable person. But you can only work with people you can trust.”
Meanwhile, many of those opposed to the Pennhurst Asylum insist they’re not going away.
“This is one of the most precious civil-rights properties in America,” Conroy says. “What’s really needed for this country is a memorial and museum for the disability-rights movement, and it should begin here because it was the epicenter. I’m not giving up on that idea because the people who lived and died here deserve a place of remembrance with dignity.”
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.