Pennhurst Haunted House: America’s Scariest Haunted Attraction
Pennhurst is the scariest place I have ever seen. Period. I have traveled all over the country visiting haunted places and attractions and nothing compares to this incredible, dilapidated campus. Last October, I was approached by the owners of Pennhurst Associates, and asked if I would like to be a partner in their haunted attraction. At first I was skeptical because everyone thinks this industry is easy, with a “get rich quick” attitude, and we all know how much work is involved and how hard it is to be successful. I was really skeptical…until I visited Pennhurst. The day I drove into this huge complex of brick structures, I was hooked. I knew this place had the potential to be the greatest haunted attraction ever. With a ton of money, corporate sponsors, the right build crew, and a great plan, Pennhurst Asylum could come to life and entertain the hard core haunters. Not only does this place have an incredible ambiance, a built in cult following, and a treasure trove of unique props, 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. All this happened behind the walls of Pennhurst State School, Spring City, Pennsylvania.
Pennhurst was constructed and opened in 1908 as a state school for the mentally and physically disabled. Pennhurst's property was vast, covering 120 acres. Created to house over 10,000 patients at a point in time, Pennhurst was one of the largest institutions of its kind in Pennsylvania. Half of Pennhurst's residents were committed by court order and the other half were brought by a parent or other guardian. It was devoted strictly to the care, treatment and education of the disabled. Originally named Pennhurst Home for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic, it finally was just called Pennhurst State School. Pennhurst employed a large number of staff to help assist in maintaining the facility. This staff included a board of trustees, medical staff, dental staff, and specialists in psychology, social services, accounting, and various fields of education. The grounds of Pennhurst included a 300-bed hospital, which had a full nursing staff and two surgeons on call at all times. Others at Pennhurst included members of the clergy and farming experts who grew most of Pennhurst's food . Pennhurst was an essentially self-sufficient community, its 1,400-acre site containing a firehouse, general store, barber shop, movie theatre, auditorium and even a greenhouse. The buildings of Pennhurst were named after towns in Pennsylvania such as Chester and Devon. The original buildings were designed by architect Phillip H. Johnson. All of Pennhurst's electricity was generated by an on-site power plant. A cemetery lay on the property, as well as baseball and recreational fields for the residents. Many of Pennhurst's buildings were strictly for storage; however, the majority were dormitory and hospital-style living quarters for the residents. Many of the buildings had security screens that were accessed on the inside, to prevent patients from escaping, or jumping to their deaths. Most of the stairwells had security fences to keep patients from jumping over the railings. Many of the buildings are linked by an underground tunnel system designed for transportation of handicapped patients to and from the dormitory, recreational buildings and dietary.
Pennhurst was often accused of dehuminazitation and was said to have provided no help to the mentally challenged. The institution had a long history of staff difficulties and negative public image, for example, a 1968 report by NBC called "Suffer the Little Children". Pennhurst State School was closed in 1986 following several allegations of abuse. These allegations led to the first lawsuit of its kind in the United States, Pennhurst State School and Hospital vs. Halderman, which asserted that the mentally retarded have a constitutional right to living quarters and an education. Terry Lee Halderman had been a resident of the school, and upon release she filed suit in the district court on behalf of herself and all other residents of Pennhurst. The complaint alleged that conditions at Pennhurst were unsanitary, inhumane and dangerous, that these living conditions violated the fourteenth amendment, and that Pennhurst used cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments. After a 32-day trial and an immense investigation, prosecutors concluded that the conditions at Pennhurst were not only dangerous, with physical and mental abuse of its patients, but also inadequate for the care and habilitation for the mentally retarded. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania also concluded that the physical, mental, and intellectual skills of most patients had deteriorated while in Pennhurst.
In 1986, Pennhurst was ordered closed, and began a program of de-institutionalism that lastedseveral years. Once the buildings were closed, they began to rapidly deteriorate from lack of heating, moisture invasion and vandalism. Thousands of people began to illegally tour the property spray painting everything in sight and breaking all the glass in the place. Theft was rampant and the destruction of the property was in full swing. Patients were thrown out and a large homeless contingent developed in the area.
Pennhurst fell into complete ruin as the complex was shut down. Buildings were abandoned as they were, with patient’s clothes and belonging strewn about. Furniture, cabinets and medical equipment were left to decay as if someone had just got up and walked out the front door. This is the place that will eventually resurrect into one of the most studied properties in the ghost hunter media, and will become an amazing haunted attraction.
As I research the history of this place, I begin to realize the potential of Pennhurst as an intriguing location for a haunted attraction. This place is really haunted. Several reputable Ghost Hunter groups have documented audible recordings, temperature changes, and unexplained movement of objects in the buildings of Pennhurst. This is the kind of environment I want to build the next generation of haunted house; a proven haunted location.
My team, headed by John Brady, Shawn Sieger, Jim Souflous, Todd Beringer, Rob Sieger and others search the complex for valuable props. We wander deep into the tunnels that stitch the complex. We move into the basements of maintenance buildings, storage areas, dormitories and dietary in search of unique items that will set this haunt apart from all other. We find a huge electro-mechanical device that has to be the control for the electrotherapy department. It is so old that it used electrical tube circuits developed in the 30’s. Insulators and other unrecognizable devices are strewn about the room. This is a huge find. As we cruise through the old abandoned hospital, we harvest giant 48” surgical lights that are suspended from the rotting ceilings. They are mounted on tracks that allow the lights to be moved to focus on the unsuspecting patients. These will be perfect in the rooms for our haunt. We find medical cabinets, drawers, storage lockers, operating tables are everywhere. This is a veritable treasure trove of props for our attraction. As we move through the dark corridors, with flashlights moving side to side, I can’t keep the feelings of growing anticipation from my mind. I know there is something out there but can’t put my finger on it. I come around the corner and enter a small room to the right, and there it is; the morgue. I recognize it because it has two drawer slides and a refrigeration unit on top. This is what we came here to find. This will be one of the most unique features of our attraction; a real morgue scene. Stainless steel tables with large drains, stainless steel cabinets, lab equipment and a real, 1930’s autopsy table! I am blown away by this scene. I can picture the thousands of customers coming through our attraction knowing that everything in here is REAL. My arms have gooseflesh!
Back at the Administration building, construction is moving forward. All the asbestos has been abated, the floors have been repaired, roof repaired, windows replaced, and structural inspections have been completed. The building is safe for use as an amusement building. Now the hard work of turning this into one of the most complex haunted houses is under way. A full electrical upgrade needs to be completed. Smart lighting, imbedded audio systems and fiber optical controls will be installed. Pneumatic infrastructure will be run throughout the building so props can be installed in any room. A lot of work must be completed in a few short months in preparation for the 2010 season.
We want this attraction to be a full experience of Pennhurst, but we need to work the audience up slowly so they won’t chicken out right away. This place is so creepy, that we need to get the ticket sales completed before they see the complex. A state of the art POS system will be installed by Interactive Ticketing, and can handle the thousands of expected customers. This system will track every ticket sold, and with the aid of digital scanners that are integrated with the internet, and keep track of each customer. Once the customer has bought their ticket, they will be guided to the walkway that surrounds the complex. This walkway will act as a huge queue line to the main entrance of the haunt, but will take them on a tour around several other buildings before entering the Administration building. As the customers walk the 800’ long walkway, they will experience the vastness of Pennhurst. With over 10 buildings in view, most in bad condition, they will be able to witness the downfall of this once beautiful campus. The once beautiful courtyards are now overgrown and the children’s playground equipment lay rotting all around. As the people approach the Admin building, they will be diverted to the side and then around to the front and into the main entrance. A large stone portico greets the crowd as they are ushered into the attraction. A unique feature of Pennhurst will be the museum. Many local residents have a strong feeling that the memories of the atrocities that occurred here should be preserved in some way so that they will not re-occur in the future. With this in mind, we felt that the construction of a Pennhurst Museum was in order. We have reconstructed four rooms on the first floor that will act as an indoor queue line and, at the same time, teach the public about the history of this magnificent place. With high tech videos, historical photos and artifacts from the past, the customers will be able to go back in time and witness the rise and fall of Pennhurst, as it happened. As they move slowly through the museum, they will notice that the rooms are beginning to decay. By the time they enter the great corridor the building has fallen into disrepair. This is when they will enter the scariest haunted house imaginable.
With an asylum theme in mind, and real, antique hospital equipment on hand, we began to build our attraction. We painted the entire interior with a special barrier sealant that encapsulates any lead paint and is also 100% flameproof. Rotted flooring has been replaced, and roof leaks have been plugged. We install MDF board as a wainscote and paint it to look like the marble that was part of the original building, but stolen long ago. We want an old time feeling to envelope the customers; a feeling of going back in time. The first room you enter is the intake office, complete with a psychiatrist giving you the Rorschach test, otherwise known as the ink blot test. As the Dr. engages the crowd, slides flip by on a large screen. After the intake, you enter the de-lousing showers, where shower heads spew out a combination of fog, air and CO2, giving it a cold feel. Other rooms include the dietary unit with copious use of existing cafeteria items like tray holders, rolling carts, plastic ware, cups, plates, tables and ovens. Pneumatic and actor scares abound in this haunt as there are a large number of great setups and hiding spots throughout the building. Moving upstairs, we have a large room with the ceiling removed. It shows the expansive architecture of the building, and the roofline looms over 35’ above your head. The focus in this room is the old, female actor in the corner, who is sitting in a vintage wheelchair. She is spot lighted with down lighting that also shows beds, furniture and other belongings. As she distracts the crowd, a switch is flipped and flood lights reveal the height of the ceiling, filled with another animatronic surprise.
Another part of the building is an area that has suffered a moderate fire. Door frames and headers are charred, and the smell of burnt wood is still perceptible. The area that was burned housed two sound proof cells; small rooms where patients could be locked away and their screams could be totally muffled. The floors, walls and ceilings are 6” thick with heavy insulation stuffed between the studs. The interiors are lined with sound proof tiles, and the exterior is sheathed in another layer of sound proofing. Even the doors are 8” thick and insulated. As you walk into these rooms, you can feel the air get heavy, the sounds deaden and you can imagine how the patients felt being locked up in the pitch dark with no one hearing your screams.
As you can imagine, the really cool rooms are left for last. With tons of great, original props, we build out sets that appear to be real operating rooms. One room is set up to be themed as a lobotomy operating room. Steel tables, medical cabinets and surgical equipment are everywhere. Actors bring off the scare and make this scene believable. The next room is our autopsy chamber. This room is decorated with the original equipment we found in the old hospital. The cabinets mounted to the walls are stainless steel, and look brand new, even after 50 or more years. The large sink structure, with an industrial size in-sinkerator, and long overflow drain, is up against the far wall. On the right is the original two drawer morgue unit, moved here from the hospital basement, and restored to its original form. The drawers roll out as easily as they did when first installed, and the refrigeration unit above the drawers adds to the realism of the scene. To top it off, an antique autopsy table stands in the center of the room. I bought the table at a funeral home auction 15 years ago and it has now found a new home. Overhead is a huge surgical style lamp, measuring over 40” across, and fitted with a friction gear that allows one to direct the light in any direction.
Another great room design we are using is the shock therapy room. This room has tile walls and floor, large overhead lights (harvested from the depths of building c) and the original electroconvulsive shock therapy machine retrieved from the hospital. Most modern ECT machines deliver a brief-pulse current, which is thought to cause fewer cognitive effects than the sine-wave currents which were originally used in ECT. Our machine is of the sine wave type, and caused unconsciousness and convulsions for 15 to 30 seconds. It is a large stainless steel console with dials and meters, and long electrode leads still attached. Our shock table is hinged in the center, and can tilt down for easy loading and unloading of the patient. The table has a latch where the actor can drop the foot of the table and attack the audience. This coupled with bang sticks, strobe lights, fog machines and a blistering 400 watt soundtrack make this one of the premier rooms at Pennhurst. In all, Pennhurst Asylum will have 18 complete rooms, not including the 4 room used in the museum. All of these rooms are highly detailed to be realistic in every way.
We have really strived to mix fact with fiction, folklore with fear, to come up with some of our unique room designs. There have been accounts of an old dentist chair that was located in the deep recesses of Mayflower, one of the more notorious dorms at Pennhurst. This chair is a little different than the ones you and I are used too; it has restraining straps attached to the arms, legs and headrest. This chair was reportedly used to remove the teeth of patients that were prone to biting the staff here. Imagine yourself being strapped into this device and having all your teeth ripped out without any kind of medication. This is just one more example of how unique this location is.
The most intriguing part of Pennhurst is their tunnel complex. All of the buildings on the campus are connected by above ground walkways with tunnels under them. These tunnels are 10 feet high, 8 feet wide and thousands of feet long. Concrete floors, tile walls and concrete ceilings create an incredible echo effect at certain intersections. In fact, I have looked behind myself several times to see if there is someone following me a few feet back. The echoes are so distinct you can hear whispers from hundreds of feet away.
As the guests are scared out of the last room in the Asylum, they find themselves in a large foyer with paintings and photographs on the walls. This is the queue line for the tunnels. Once through the lines, the guests are ushered down a long set of stairs and into the basement. Once there, with a temperature drop of at least 20 degrees, they are let through the double doors that lead to the exit…900 feet away. Scenes and actors appear at intersections along the way. Glass jars with cages around them contain the only lighting down here, and they are all connected to commercial lighting controls that are programmed to flicker, dim and occasionally go completely dark. We also added several subsonic bass tubes that cannot be heard, only felt. This will induce an uneasy feeling in all who enter the tunnels. Special chicken exits have been designed into the tunnel system and I’m sure will be used many times. This will be the scariest part of this attraction. The best part of the tunnel system is that it will contain our guests on their way back to the main entrance. People coming into the show along the walkways above will hear the screams emanating from the tunnels below them. They will hear the reactions to our show before they even enter the walkways leading to our haunt. What better way to elevate the anticipation and fear level than to hear, first hand, how scary this place is. If this place is scary to seasoned haunters, imagine how the general public will feel.
Another unique feature of Pennhurst is that it is really haunted. Featured on the Travel Channel, the Ghost Adventures crew have recorded many strange voices, noises and unexplained movement and documented this in their shows. The Pennhurst Ghost Tours, open to professional and amateur ghost hunters, has been a huge success, with recordings, photos and accounts of physical contact throughout the Pennhurst complex. So, if you want to get scared, come to Pennhurst Asylum. You may even witness the supernatural… whether you want to or not.
All Photos by C. Brielmaier - RoguesHollow.com
Pennhurst Asylum will open September 24th, 2010 and run weekends through November 7th
Visit www.pennhurstasylum.com for more information
Pennhurst Asylum has been designed and constructed by Bates Motel Productions, LLC
Randy Bates has been operating professional haunts since 1991, most located in southeastern Pennsylvania. The Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride has been one of the most successful attractions in the country and attracts customers from almost every state. With his wife Anne, and six grown children, Randy runs several business from their farm in Gradyville, PA