A deep sense of foreboding. A sinister rustling of the breeze through the trees.
Countless empty windows, behind which anything may be watching you.
These are what greet you as you uneasily make your way onto the grounds of the now-defunct Pennhurst State School (originally called the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic).
Rotting buildings dominate the landscape. A ruined, abandoned playground calls to mind the troubled youngsters who may have played here, long gone.
Opened in November of 1908, Pennhurst was once heralded as a progressive treatment center for the more troubled members of our society. Completely self-sufficient, the institution boasted its own power plant, farm for growing food, and medical staff.
Over the decades, allegations of mismanagement and cruelty to the patients doomed the facility and it eventually closed permanently in 1987. It quickly fell into disrepair and became an overgrown wilderness, its buildings decaying rapidly into shadows of their former selves.
Now, new life breathes at Pennhurst. Five years ago, Bates Motel Productions, LLC, saw an opportunity for a one-of-a-kind Halloween haunt on these grounds. A partnership was formed and great sums of money was spent on renovation and safety, recruitment of actors, makeup artists, and managers, brought in state-of-the-art props, equipment and decorations, and thePennhurst Asylum was born. Now, it rivals Bates Motel as perhaps the most intense frightfest in the country, and it draws thousands of eager adrenaline junkies on each of the seven weekends per year that it opens its horrifying doors. Only open for a few more days, until November 2, it continues to scare the unsure.
On a gloomy Saturday morning, our tour guide is Pennhurst Asylum Operations Manager Michael Majewski, Jr, who graciously offered to give us a tour of the grounds—except, of course, the operational haunt itself. For that, he says, we’ll have to come back during business hours and experience the terror for ourselves.
The slogan of the place is “The Fear is Real,” and we can believe it as we make our way first to the hospital building. We can’t go in many of the buildings, because they’re simply uninhabitable.
But as we walk around the 634-acre facility, it’s easy to see why its owners saw such an opportunity for a haunted attraction. Pervading the place is a sense of restlessness, as if the spirits here still wander, searching for someone, anyone, to save them from eternal damnation.
We walk the path through the morgue drop-off center, and our unease deepens.
We ask Michael if the place is really haunted. “There are plenty of people who claim they’ve seen and heard the supernatural and paranormal.” We have no trouble believing that.
One building to which we are allowed access is called Mayflower. The owners and curator Ruth Himes have worked hard to accumulate original components from the facility and turn one of the many labyrinthine rooms into a museum exhibit, showing what an actual room at Pennhurst may have looked like. Also included are many photos from the original facility, as well as medical and therapeutic equipment. When the haunt is open, this building serves as a “Ghost Hunt,” where patrons see if there are any REAL ghosts still at Pennhurst.
As for the haunted attraction itself, there are four components: Pennhurst Asylum housed in the main administration building,the Dungeon of Lost Souls and the Tunnel of Terror, in which the extensive warren of tunnels underneath the facility are used to frighten you out of your wits, and the aforementioned Ghost Hunt. We were able to catch a short glimpse of the Tunnels—and it was enough to make our hearts skip a beat.
In a few days, we’ll be returning to Pennhurst to take in the haunted attractions, so stay tuned for our review. For today, our broad-daylight tour was enough to fill us with a deep sense of unease. It’s safe to say that Pennhurst is the perfect place for the most terrifying haunted attraction on the East Coast, if not the world.
Photographs and Article By Stephen Trimble and Christine Tarlecki