The earliest psychiatric hospitals date back to 15th-century Spain, where they were conceived and constructed to give poor, homeless individuals with mental illness a safe place to live and, it was hoped, recover.
The next two centuries saw the degradation of asylums essentially into dungeons where mentally ill people were confined, living in chains and squalor, and periodically made into public spectacle.
By 1800, places like London's Bethlem Royal Hospital - or Bedlam - became famous for opening its doors to the public for viewing of its inmates, providing a source of income for the institution. The public went for any number of reasons, but the basic idea was that a visit to watch the "lunatics" provided an entertaining experience that shocked the senses.
Today, the idea of portraying institutionalized mentally ill people as an entertaining spectacle should strike us as utterly degrading and morally repugnant. So why do we still allow it to happen?
Pennhurst State Hospital was opened in 1907 to provide care to individuals with mental illness. It closed in 1987 after decades of mismanagement and horrifying scandals. Purchased in 2010 by a group of investors, led by Richard Chakejian, it is now the Pennhurst Haunted Asylum and, for a fifth year, will be a popular destination for visitors looking for a scare this Halloween season.
Website photos of the attraction are deeply disturbing, not because they are scary per se, but because they blatantly exploit and perpetuate the stigma surrounding serious mental illness. We've not visited, but the entire experience seems predicated on the false belief that individuals with mental illness are horribly violent, terrifying, or psychopathic. The website features macabre images of patients receiving electroconvulsive therapy - a modern version of which is used to effectively treat refractory conditions - and pictures of patients in mechanical restraints, a last-resort intervention that today is considered a treatment failure.
As disability scholar and bioethicist Emily Smith Beitiks writes, Pennhurst Asylum is a "twisted incarnation of Disneyland" that ultimately papers over the facility's past, causing harm to those who endured periods of psychiatric commitment there. For profit, the operators conveniently "forget that there likely are people genuinely haunted by Pennhurst."
Sensationalizing and capitalizing on a shameful past, Pennhurst Haunted Asylum is no innocent Halloween attraction. It is an engine of stigma. It perpetuates latent fears and encourages social distancing of individuals with mental illness. It portrays mental-health care providers as evildoers and sadists. And it may ultimately prevent people who are ill from receiving the behavioral health care they need.
By the 19th century, Quaker social activists, among others, recognized the immorality of places like Bedlam and sought to create safe and private spaces of healing and recovery for those with mental-health conditions. They were people like Philadelphian Thomas Scattergood, who founded Friends Hospital based on the now-obvious idea that individuals with serious mental illness are people with inherent dignity and are deserving of beneficent, moral treatment.
Pennhurst Asylum is a symbol of the exact opposite set of values. It is a stain on our community and should be closed.