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'Haunted house' exploits real horror

Pennhurst shouldn't become a Halloween attraction.

For most of the last century, people with disabilities were considered "defectives" and forced into state institutions such as the notorious Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Spring City, Chester County, where neglect and abuse ran rampant. That began to change in 1977, when a judge ruling on a lawsuit against Pennhurst led by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia held that the forced institutionalization of people with disabilities was unconstitutional. That led to the facility's shuttering in 1987.

While the number of people confined to institutions has dramatically declined since then, a plan to turn Pennhurst into a Halloween attraction suggests the stigma of disability has not been erased. Richard Chakejian, the current owner of the Pennhurst property, and Randy Bates, owner of the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride in Glen Mills, are planning to reopen it as the "Pennhurst Asylum," a haunted-house attraction, in the weeks leading up to Halloween. The attraction would exploit misplaced fears of disabled people, which brought about the sort of institutionalization that once occurred at Pennhurst.

The website for the attraction contains a mixture of fact and fiction that clouds the painful realities of Pennhurst. Chakejian claims this fictionalization avoids disrespecting the site's history, but it actually feeds prejudices that still harm people with disabilities.

The Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance had been in discussions with Chakejian to find an appropriate use for the property, envisioning a museum, research center, and conference facility. But Chakejian chose a use that tramples on the memory of those who lived and died at Pennhurst. Even though the site is now private property, Chakejian should use it in a way that respects the dignity of a class of people still struggling to achieve full civil rights and inclusion.

Imagine a thrill ride at Ground Zero called "Escape from the Twin Towers." Similarly, this haunted house threatens to exploit the tragedy at Pennhurst for cheap thrills. Chakejian and East Vincent Township officials need to hear from the public that this exploitation is unacceptable.