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Haunted house at mental hospital stirs debate

Friday, September 24th, 2010

A new haunted house opens its doors tomorrow evening to visitors — and objections from the mental health and historical communities. Pennhurst Mental Hospital in Chester County Pennsylvania will host thrillseekers hunting ghosts. In the not-too-distant past it also housed patients who suffered real pain, and are still alive.

Photo: Pennhurst Mental Hospital (Flickr/sarahmarie715)

The website for the Pennhurst Asylum bills the haunted hospital as a “world class Haunted Attraction guaranteed to drive you crazy.”

But to some, it’s a slap in the face to those who suffered abuses there. The institution closed in the 1980s after numerous complaints of residents being beaten, drugged or neglected. James Jordan is the executive director the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Jordan: Using this location, even though the intent is positive, helps to reinforce stigma and it brings back some very painful and difficult memories for people who were there or had family members who were there.

Konopelski: We have to understand that we in the haunt industry are here to entertain people.

Patrick Konopelski is the president of the International Association of Haunted Attractions. He runs Shocktoberfest in Reading, which features frights such as a biohazard hay ride and a toxic asylum. He admits the subjects are politically incorrect. But historic haunts, such as Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and Pennhurst have made a point to use their Halloween appeal to educate visitors.

Konopelski: What they have successfully done is taken a property that was deteriorating and turned it into a successful museum and haunted attraction and with that revenue they continue to invest and upgrade the property.

Seth Bruggeman doesn’t buy it.

Bruggeman: That may be the case in some regard but I can’t imagine that too many people who come to the haunted house come back the next day to go on the historic tour because they’re that much more interested.

Bruggeman teaches history and American studies at Temple University. He understands the appeal to bring in revenue, but he says highlighting the haunted legacy of historic sites distorts their true significance.


  • Samantha Harris says:

    i belong there:) hehehee.

  • Kerry Grens says:

    Eastern State Penitentiary, which hosts the popular Terror Behind the Walls haunted event, provided WHYY with these statistics regarding whether people who come for the fright stay for the history:

    95.3% – intend to visit Eastern State Penitentiary for a daytime historic tour
    4.3% – do not intent to visit Eastern State Penitentiary for a daytime historic tour
    0.4% – might visit Eastern State Penitentiary for a daytime historic tour (undecided)

    62.7% – First visit to Eastern State/Terror Behind the Walls
    19.3% – Have attended Terror Behind the Walls before, but have never taken daytime historic tour
    12% – Have taken a daytime historic tour in the past but this is first visit to Terror Behind the Walls
    6% – Have taken a daytime historic tour in the past and have attended Terror Behind the Walls before

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