It happens every October. Instagram and Facebook posts about Pennhurst Asylum — the self-proclaimed “most terrifying haunted attraction!” in Pennsylvania — suddenly become unavoidable. We — two people who work with individuals who have developmental disabilities — become nauseous. Then, after seeing one too many posts from friends and former classmates having a good old time at Pennhurst, one of us feels compelled to publish a Facebook missive reminding folks that, before they fork over cash to the ghouls who run the former asylum ($78 for “VIP front of the line” tickets), they ought to consider what they’ll be supporting if they do.
We find Pennhurst particularly nauseating because it makes a mockery of the nightmarish experiences of people who are just like the ones we work with every day. And no one seems to care. When we see these posts on social media, we can think only of our consumers — in our profession, the word “patient” is no longer used, as we don’t consider these individuals as having a problem that needs treating; we are merely providing a service or care — and the more than 2,000 people like them who were caged inside Pennhurst’s walls, many of them doomed to a fate worse than death. The asylum only closed in 1987. It’s sickening that it should be able to make a profit off the past sufferings of people with disabilities. It should be shut down, or, at the very least, people should be shamed out of visiting.
The “crazy people” depicted in Pennhurst’s attractions reflect real human beings who were often cruelly institutionalized for their developmental and physical limitations. Let’s go back to the mid-1900s. Parents who had children with physical and developmental disabilities were told to drop them off at facilities such as Pennhurst to give them the best possible outcome in life. Little did they know, these individuals were not in the caring hands they had been promised. Their children were overmedicated, neglected, abused, and treated worse than animals. One mother who pulled her child out as soon as she realized the truth about Pennhurst stated that she “wouldn’t leave a dog in conditions like that.” In 1968, Bill Baldini, an investigative news reporter, aired the “suffer the little children” documentary. It was the first raw glimpse at what lay beyond the institution’s walls.
The public was horrified by life inside — humans lived in filth, pumped with medication and bound to their own beds due to the staffing shortage. In the documentary, Pennhurst’s Dr. Jesse Fear — an apt name — admitted that he used punishment as a treatment for patients. Staff confessed to tying an abled-bodied woman down to a wheelchair. Reports even tell of individuals who died amid the awful living conditions, abuse, and abandonment from society. Due to the documentary, people who worked in human services were called to action and worked to get people into better living conditions when Pennhurst was finally shuttered.
During the difficult transition from life in darkness to stepping out into the sun, Kathie Beck (who at the time worked in a residential home and is the mother to Allison, one coauthor of this article) experienced bringing people from Pennhurst into a residential home setting. One of the saddest things she recalled: “When people were taken out, two things they would always ask for was coffee and soap.” While many of us take for granted these two average items in our everyday self-absorbed lives, they were a luxury for people living at Pennhurst.
Today, some of the same people who survived those horrors are active members in the Greater Philadelphia community. Through programs such as ours, these people are working, volunteering, and making big moves toward their own advocacy and equal opportunities. They also get to sit in their cars and listen to Pennhurst advertised on the radio as a fun-filled spooky attraction. And all the social media posts from Pennhurst serve to make the survivors’ traumatic experience into a thrilling night out.
Pennhurst survivors are our neighbors, friends, and family members. Yet each Halloween season, they are being forced to reckon with a society that treats their suffering as a joke, and the site of their living hell as a destination for weekend fun. Why are individuals with disabilities so continually overlooked in our society? These individuals need advocates to stand up and amplify their voices. Next time you think about purchasing a ticket to be spooked at Pennhurst, think about them.