I’m going to ask that if you frequent Halloween attractions, specifically in PA, or if you know people who do, or if you care about the exploitation of and the suffering of mentally and physically disabled people, that you please take a minute to read and spread this post. It’s a long one, but I hope you agree it’s important.
I’m going to talk about Pennhurst.
Pennhurst State School and Hospital, originally called Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic when it was founded in 1908, was an institution for the mentally and physically disabled until it was shut down in 1987. In 1903, Pennsylvania state legislature authorized the creation of Pennhurst in order to deal with the growing number of “feeble-minded and epileptic” diagnosed people, with the intention of creating a place that could adequately meet their needs.
At the time, society had vastly different ideas about mental and physical disability. In addition to illnesses people today would assume would warrant admittance, people at Pennhurst were admitted as permanent patients for some of the following reasons:
- defective sight and/or hearing
- mute and semi-mute
- imperfect speech
- deformity of face, head, limbs and/or feet
- "offensive habits"
Pennhurst became a way for families to rid themselves of unwanted children. These children often never saw the families that had admitted them again, as having children with disabilities had a much different stigma at the time.
Within 4 years of opening, Pennhurst became vastly overcrowded. There was also a growing pressure for them to admit immigrants, orphans, and criminals from communities that wanted to sweep such individuals under the rug. This created an institution that was vastly understaffed, and could not adequately care for or control the behaviors of the occupants.
The results of this were nothing short of horrendous. People were often kept in the same bed for their entire lives, decades on end, frequently resulting in having their limbs amputated from bed sores.
Funding could not keep up with the number of occupants, resulting in malnourishment.
More high-functioning individuals were moved to lower-functioning wards until their minds decompensated as a form of punishment, and to make them easier to deal with.
There are well documented instances of caregivers slapping and beating patients, as well as arranging for patients to assault one another. Rape and assault amongst patients was commonplace and unaddressed.
These were just some of the many attrocities committed within Pennhurst’s walls. In 1968, Suffer The Little Children: A Peek into the History of Eugenics and Child Abuse by the State - Pennsylvania Pennhurst detailed the above and much, much more. The 35 minute expose by Bill Baldini was aired by NBC10. This was a CRITICAL moment in history for America, changing the way the nation viewed people with disabilities and sparking outcry for their rights. I highly recommend watching it, as it was a very important part of the battle to get handicapped people the rights they deserved, which has been somewhat forgotten in the present day.
It wasn’t until 1977 that these allegations of abuse led to the FIRST lawsuit of it’s kind, federal class action Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital, which asserted that the developmentally disabled in the care of the state have a constitutional right to proper care and education. Yes, that’s right. This was the FIRST lawsuit of it’s kind, and it did not happen until 1977. District courts ruled that the rights of some patients had been violated, but in the end, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment based on the Eleventh Amendment, citing federal courts have no jurisdiction over state officials complying with their laws.
After a slow but sturdy decline into defamation, often referred to as “the shame of America” by news outlets, Pennhurst ultimately closed in 1987. Discharged patients became a large portion of Philadelphia and Southern Pennsylvania’s homeless population, as well as patients from Byberry and Norristown State, two similar institutions that shut down around this time.
Pennhurst remained closed until 2010, when Randy Bates collaborated with the property owner to open a halloween attraction, “Pennhurst Asylum”. SEVERE trigger warning for the website.
Here is a trailer for the haunted house, which also comes with a severe trigger warning. The opening depicts a woman being taken by force by facility caregivers, being tied down, and operated on. The trailer goes on to depict caricatures of disabled people and their caregivers/abusers.
Here are just some pictures of what can be seen within the attraction:
[bloodied mannequins in wheelchairs]
[doctor operating on the brain of a patient]
[someone in a disfigured mask popping out to scare a guest]
Pennnhurst hires actors to portray offensive caricatures of mentally and physically handicapped people and their abusers in order to profit off of the people able and privileged enough to attend.
I am positive there are even worse examples within the actual attraction, but I don’t believe they allow cameras on site.
This is seriously fucked up. The owners of the Pennhurst attraction are actively ignoring it’s entire history to have a place for the clueless masses to go and oggle at able actors playing ~spooky~ offensive caricatures of mentally ill people. They are actively ignoring the vast stigma already held against the mentally and physically disabled and profiting directly off of reinforcing it. They are ignoring their very real suffering on the very grounds where it happened. This is dancing on the graves and suffering of the disabled for a quick buck and a cheap thrill.
There are many families in southern Pennsylvania that are still hurt by this. My best friend’s great grandmother had a twin who was separated from her during infancy and placed into Pennhurst because he was deaf. She did not even know he existed until she was in her 20s. His legs had to be amputated due to bedsores. He died a few months after his release, at 78 years old. This is one of many, many examples of why Pennhurst is still a very painful reality for families in the area.
I ask you to please not attend Pennhurst, or any Halloween attractions that take place somewhere actual suffering has occurred. I ask you to please tell your friends not to give these people their money or their endorsement. Please, please spread the word about this, especially if you live near/in Southern PA or the surrounding states.
[As a side note, I would like to say that I tried to handle this topic with as much grace as possible, but I am not without faults. If there is anything I could have worded better, anything that you feel should have been included, I implore you to share! I want to grow in my understanding of these issues, and I want people to be as educated as possible about it. Thanks!]