Pennhurst offers tricks, not treats, for portrayal of mentally ill, ethics of its enterprise

By Lauren Wachspress || Contributing Writer

October has arrived, and with it comes the opening of Halloween-themed haunted houses sure to make you scream in horror. Infamous for neglect and abuse during its time, Pennhurst State School and Hospital of Spring City, PA now has a new purpose. The old asylum became a seasonal haunted attraction starting in 2010. The website for the haunted attraction includes an excerpt on its history, deeming it: “a history riddled with accusations of torture, abuse and neglect.”

The legend page adds a new dimension, creating a fictionalized world that sets a foundation for the attraction. An invented Eastern European psychosurgical genius has come to conduct his unethical experiments on the murders and sociopaths at Pennhurst. After dying in a fire, the ghost of the doctor, as well as nurses and patients, are “haunting” the complex, waiting for new arrivals.Visitors may walk through the former hospital’s halls and see the constructed horrors for themselves.

The asylum’s attractions don’t end there. According to Pennhurst’s rather gorey website, those who enter, if they dare, can also test the odds — and presumably their stomachs — at Pennhurst’s The Tunnel Terror,  a full 900 feet hall below the original school “upgraded” with catacombs and cheap thrills, a self-guided “Ghost Hunt” through the Mayflower Building, rumored to be the most haunted on the premise, and, last but not least, The Dungeon of Lost Souls, a “labyrinth” of frigid old cells and “human experiments gone horribly wrong.” In spite of that tasteful line-up, the website does not yet feature specials for Mother’s Day.

Following the asylum’s rebranding as a haunted attraction in 2010, there was much controversy over ethical concerns.

Is it right to profit off of the disturbing past of this once very real asylum? Are the actors and actresses fostering a harmful perception of the mentally disabled and mentally ill?

The owners and those involved with the project were quick to respond to the controversy. The clever backstory created a pool of victims consisting of sociopaths, rapists, and murders.

They claimed this prevented any insinuations of mockery towards mental handicap or mental illness. The criminals are the people being experimented on, not the disabled.

The attraction hosts doctors and nurses experimenting on another collection of society’s misfits. Unfortunately, the owner’s justification seems to condone the torture of sociopaths and other criminals.

Others have claimed there is a history lesson in itself to be experienced during the haunted attraction. Is going through the motions of the outrageous staged torture some odd way to empathize with those who were once abused in similar ways in those same rooms? The acting is undeniably reminiscent of the asylum’s disturbing history.

Maybe the uproar at first seems like a reaction of ultra-sensitivity. Perhaps Pennhurst Asylum is simply meant to be a fun Halloween attraction based on shallow perceptions of illness, often stereotyped in horror movies. Yet, in a world without institutions, where many the mentally disabled are imprisoned, it can be hard to differentiate between criminals and the mentally disabled.

Senior Lauren Wachspress is a contributing writer. Her email is lwachsp@fandm.edu.

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