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“You’d never be dumb enough to go into an abandoned asylum,” Adam said as the movie credits rolled. “You would say ‘no thanks’ and run the other way.”
I shrugged. We had just finished watching the Grave Encounters, a cult classic horror film about a team of paranormal investigators who get trapped in an abandoned mental asylum. In true Adam form, he was trying to logically counter my comment that being trapped in an abandoned asylum would be something close to my worst nightmare.
That was January 2015. Fast forward to November 2019 and Adam’s words were replaying loudly through my head as I stepped through the doorway of Pennhurst Asylum’s Mayflower building. Looking the long hallway, I couldn’t help but wonder if his words were a funny, ironic memory or a slightly more sinister alarm.
I had never heard of Pennhurst Asylum until I moved to Pennsylvania and the kid who sat behind me in homeroom dropped a file folder on my desk that he had (supposedly) swiped from the abandoned Pennhurst campus, located about an hour and half from where we were sitting.
In an effort to protect the innocent, I will spare any identifying details, but let’s just say that I wasn’t surprised that my homeroom mate had the gumption for some form of breaking and entering (or, at the very least, trespassing), stealing, and also preparing to take on whatever spirits may or may not have hung around that property.
(Author’s Note – This incident happened many years ago. I have no idea what sort of security existed or how seriously they took trespassing at the time. I also can’t offer you any concrete proof that the file was legit, except to say that it looked real and I believed it at the time.)
My first time actually on the Pennhurst campus was in 2010 – the year that the some of the buildings were transformed into a new haunted Halloween attraction. At the time, it didn’t strike me as controversial or disrespectful to turn an actual place of horrors and pain into a a seasonal playground. I didn’t really know much about the true horror of the place and, honestly, it never crossed my mind to ask.
Part of my ignorance may be explained (although not excused) by the ubiquity and acceptance of Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls, which is a long-running Halloween experience at the famed, historic, Philadelphia complex. While I’m not interested in comparing their histories, I do think it is worth noting that the Penitentiary has seemingly never come under widespread cultural scrutiny, while Pennhurst is brought up every Halloween.
(Interested in reading more about the Pennhurst controversy? Here’s an NPR piece about the opening from 2010, an op-ed from 2017and one from 2019, both about the history of Pennhurst and a Halloween attraction monetizing and minimizing the very real traumatic experiences there.)
The seasonal spooky transformation has continued every year since my initial visit in 2010, with daytime, photography, and paranormal tours now rounding out the offerings throughout the year. Although I now agree that visiting the site dressed as a haunted house is not right, I signed up for a photography class as an attempt to explore the site in a more respectful way.
Which, of course, begs the question – is a photography tour more responsible and respectful? And the answer is, honestly, I don’t know. Do I think it is better to see the buildings in their true, crumbling form than covered up by Halloween decorations? Yes. Do I also think that its ‘spooky’ (aka horrific) history casts a shadow that inevitably becomes less about facing the truth and more about our own perception? Also yes.
I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t scared walking through the buildings alone. (Thankfully I was rarely alone because the photography group was so large.) That fear is partially a product of my own inner scaredy-cat (guilty as charged), but also partially a product of the environment, one that is undoubtedly somewhat manufactured. Coffins from the Halloween production just happened to be left out. A dusty Bible sat open in the chapel. A deteriorating wheelchair in the dark tunnel. Beds. Mattresses. Stretchers. Some internet sleuthing suggests that these may be actual artifacts, but with the amount of mischief wreaked on this site, I find it hard to believe that anything original would survive intact.
Whether or not these are real, I’ll be honest in saying that all of these things totally freaked me out (Except for the Halloween coffins – they looked way too new.) I couldn’t even walk the entirely of the tunnel. (Undoubtedly thanks to Adam and too many Grave Encounters viewings over the years.) And while this gave me the ‘Pennhurst experience’, it also didn’t teach me anything about the site. I could tell you that the collection of dolls in the basement were obviously placed there, but I couldn’t tell you anything about the actual children who lived and died there.
I’m not sure what it means to see a curated version of Pennhurst’s history, especially one that is mostly devoid of any context. But I do know that is a better representation than the one I originally saw on Halloween all those years ago. There is also a separate initiative working to create a museum and memorial on the Pennhurst grounds, which, if it comes to fruition, will offer an alternative learning opportunity.
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Copyright 2021 Dylaninthedetails
Hi, I'm Dylan, a photographer in the Philadelphia Metro Area. I love iced coffee, red wine, and am always up for binging Gilmore Girls or Parks and Rec..