Chakejian and his security team tackled the second challenge first, arresting any trespassers they could catch. And then—recognizing he could capitalize on the allure of Pennhurst and people’s insatiable desire to come to the grounds—he came up with the haunted house idea last year as a way to charge them for the privilege. Crews spent several months ridding the Administration Building of asbestos, lead paint, mold and debris, and structural engineers were brought in to ensure the building was sound. And then Chakejian handed this “vanilla shell” over to Randy Bates.
Scaring is Bates’ business, and business is good. His Bates Motel, located in Glen Mills, is one of the most popular, and profitable, haunted attractions in the country. He’s also president of the national Haunted House Association. Bates and a team of designers began work on the Pennhurst haunted house in the spring, generating a script, crafting elaborate sets using props harvested from around the property—medical devices, light fixtures, furniture, wheelchairs, parts from the morgue—and installing necessary safety systems. The total costs for creating the Pennhurst Asylum, Bates says, have approached half a million dollars.
But by summer the controversy erupted, and both men claim it blindsided them. “Most of the criticisms are based on misinformation, specifically that we are demonizing and mocking the mentally handicapped and the mentally ill,” Chakejian says. “That is simply not true. It never was true.”
Both Chakejian and Bates insist they’ve made a significant, good-faith effort to divorce the Pennhurst Asylum from any notion that they’re making fun of disabled people or exploiting Pennhurst’s history. Chakejian—who notes that no one, not preservationists, disability groups or anyone else, so much as put a bid on the property, which had been on the market since 1991 with no takers—says he has spoken to former residents and employees of Pennhurst who, he insists, have given him their blessing. Both men say they consulted with Dr. James Conroy—a Yale and Temple grad, research scientist and co-president of the PM&PA who’s studied Pennhurst and other disability issues for nearly 40 years—and accepted “100 percent of his suggestions and recommendations” to ensure there was nothing that mocked the disabled.
They’ve also created a museum—three rooms that Asylum patrons must pass through in order to get into the haunted house—that mostly depicts the more positive aspects of Pennhurst’s history (residents learning trades, doing arts and crafts, playing sports) through archival photos and artifacts, ostensibly to differentiate those images from the horror show contained inside the haunt (still, “Suffer the Little Children” is shown in the third room of the museum). And, Bates adds, he concocted a backstory for the haunt about “Eastern European psycho-surgical genius Dr. Heinrich Chakajian coming to Pennhurst to conduct medical experiments on murderers, rapists, and sociopaths”—which appears in the “Legend” section of the Pennhurst Asylum website—to further separate fact from fiction.
“The actors are basically monsters, Frankenstein-type monsters,” Bates says. “Criminals who have been experimented on. It has nothing to do with the disabled.”
Yet, says Bates, all of this hasn’t satisfied the critics. And he’s firing back, claiming that it’s urban explorers and other trespassers who’ve spread misinformation and fueled the controversy.
“You go through some of the buildings and there’s mattresses there with little candles around them, so they’re having sex parties here” he says. Referring to evidence of drinking and drug use on the property, he adds: “In my opinion this was really a hangout for teenagers and adults to do these kinds of things, deviant activities … I firmly believe that that is the backbone of the resistance against the haunt. People are so upset that they lost their little playground that they’re doing whatever they can to get it back.”
Bates specifically points to El Peecho Productions (elpeecho.com)—a long-running website that its founder, Chris Peecho, says is a place for people to learn and talk about all things Pennhurst, but which Bates sees as nothing more than a gathering of thugs. “It’s basically the entire group of people that have been breaking into these places for the last 20 years, tagging it with spray paint, breaking everything up. They’re the ones who started saying, ‘Oh they’re going to be demeaning to the property, they’re going to be demeaning to the mentally handicapped,’ everything else.”
“They think I’m the Antichrist,” snorts Peecho, scoffing at Bates’ accusations and insisting that Bates and Chakejian are trying to scapegoat him for their own “clear exploitation” of Pennhurst. “To suggest that I had some smear campaign going, no—I said nothing to get the ball rolling on this. I didn’t have to. It pissed a lot of people off really fast. I was even a little surprised by it. I didn’t think that normal Joe Blow who had no interaction with Pennhurst this time last year would become so offended over it, but it shows you how rooted Pennhurst is in this community and the feelings that just the mere name stirs up.”
Peecho, a 38-year-old father of three who grew up in Phoenixville and moved to Spring City 16 years ago after getting married, has been obsessed with Pennhurst for 20 years. He’s spent countless hours exploring the abandoned buildings, visiting libraries and local historical societies to learn everything he could about Pennhurst, and speaking with former employees and residents. In 1996, he started El Peecho Productions to share the documents he’s uncovered and interviews he’s conducted, and establish an online community for others fascinated by Pennhurst. Today, many consider him one of the most erudite Pennhurst historians around.
Peecho sees nothing wrong with urban explorers—“modern archeologists,” he calls them; he believes they do a noble service by keeping Pennhurst and its legacy alive. And while he doesn’t deny that a few “knuckleheads” have bragged on his message board about trashing the property (sometimes posting photos), Peecho adamantly insists he neither condones nor encourages such behavior.
“There’s even a posting on my message board about how I feel about vandalism,” he says. “I have always been against vandalism and I’ve never vandalized any building in my life. It’s disrespectful to the person who owns the building, and in the case of Pennhurst it’s disrespectful to the people who lived there.”
It’s opening day at the Pennhurst Asylum. Screams, wails and clanging noises emanate from the Administration Building. Patrons are brought into the haunt in small groups. In the museum, Ruth Himes—who worked as a nurse at Pennhurst from 1981 until 1983—is stationed to answer anyone’s questions about the true history of Pennhurst.
What awaits? For the next 15 or 20 minutes, evil doctors and nurses cackle and shout at you as you travel from room to room in the darkness. Actors in monster makeup and ratty clothes jump out at you from their hiding spots. A girl in a Hannibal Lecter mask and straitjacket scurries around a padded room. In the “cafeteria,” wheelchair-bound mannequins in bloody hospital gowns stare at plates of food. In the “maternity ward,” a deformed nurse clutches a monster-baby in her arms. In the “dentist’s office,” an actor simulates yanking teeth from the gaping, blood-drenched mouth of a mannequin sitting in an old dentist’s chair. In the “electroshock room,” an actor with stitches across his face leaps off his table at you. Then it’s down into a long, strobe-lit tunnel inhabited by more monsters that chase you toward a door that leads you back out into the night air, near the ticket booth.
When asked if they thought the haunted house poked fun at disabled people, a few kids said yes. Several more said no. Others called it a “re-enactment”—one 15-year-old girl said it was like a “cool history lesson”: “You actually learned something about what they went through.”
Conroy finds it tragic that even one person would view the contents of the Pennhurst Asylum as a re-enactment. “I felt a responsibility to minimize the offensiveness but it was impossible to eliminate it, and I knew it. But I had to try.” Conroy provides a letter he sent to Randy Bates on July 16—after learning what the haunted house was to contain—in which he offered two examples of “fixes” Bates could implement to “avoid making the visitors fearful of the people who once lived there.” Conroy stated in the letter that “there’s more, lots more” and requested a meeting with Bates and Chakejian. Conroy says such a meeting never happened, and that Bates and Chakejian have greatly overstated their cooperation with him.
“The letter is the totality of my advice to them. I think [Chakejian] and Mr. Bates conveniently forget that I asked to get together and go into much further detail about the haunted house and how to head off this tsunami of opposition, and I never heard back. My advice in the letter was merely a couple of examples—it did not go far enough.”
Conroy—citing the dentist’s chair and other scenes in the haunt—says the Asylum unquestionably exploits and distorts true events, and conflates the disabled with monsters. “What’s going on now is absolutely offensive and it does recall what really happened at Pennhurst, as much as the owners say they tried not to do that. It calls back the painful memories of what happened on that ground.”
Greg Pirmann, a fellow PM&PA member and a former Pennhurst unit manager and administrator from 1969 until 1986—he was part of the institution’s sweeping post-expose reforms—backs Conroy’s claim about the dentist’s chair. “It’s historical fact that at one time in the past, when you had nothing else to do to stop one of 200 people shoved in a room from biting one of the other 200 people, you pulled all of their teeth.”
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.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide