Thrills or exploitation? Pennhurst Asylum open for haunting season

Toshi Salvino applies makeup before she and other actors start trying to scare up fun at Pennhurst Asylum. (BRADLEY C. BOWER / For The Inquirer)

Todd Beringer ignores the wails and screams drifting out from behind the crumbling buildings.

"Help me," moans a woman's voice.

But Beringer is used to it: This isolated spot on a rural Chester County road is home to Pennhurst Asylum, the haunted attraction built on the grounds of the former Pennhurst State Hospital. The wails are just a recording, and inside, actors are putting on masks and makeup for the night.

In the five years since Pennhurst Asylum opened, the haunted house has been recognized by national judges of Halloween thrills. But it was also the subject of protests when it opened in 2010: Creating a haunted asylum on a site where real-life horrors were committed against physically and mentally disabled people was appalling to some.

Beringer, however, is more concerned with giving customers a scare for their money.

"We set out to make a world-class haunt," said Beringer, the operations manager. "It was an instant phenomenon."

Pennhurst State Hospital housed people with disabilities for eight decades - and closed after a landmark Supreme Court case showed the abuse its patients suffered and ruled the conditions there unconstitutional. The hospital shut down in 1987 and the grounds were abandoned for years.

By 2010, the property was owned by Richard Chakejian, who asked Randy Bates and a team including Beringer to develop the site as a haunted attraction. Bates had developed the Bates Motel & Haunted Hayride in Glen Mills. Now the property is owned by Timothy Smith, who is partners with Bates and Beringer in the attraction.

Today's "hospital-themed" spectacle capitalizes on the real-life horrors that took place on the Spring City grounds. Artifacts from the original institution are used as props throughout. Many visitors look for brushes with the supernatural. In a dormitory that has not been altered since the hospital closed, customers can hunt for ghosts.

Though local opponents tried to stop the house from opening in 2010, the use of the hospital's history in the haunt has not deterred plenty of visitors. The place pulls in $1 million in gross profits a year, Beringer said, a number that has grown since the first season. Success depends on the weather, but he is hoping to have 50,000 visitors this year. The haunted attraction is open Thursday to Sunday through Nov. 1.

Beringer credits the Pennhurst backstory and its sprawling grounds - "the greatest canvas in the world" on which to build a haunt - with bringing so many so quickly in 2010. Since, he said, they have made changes every year and have added two main attractions to the original two.

"The first year was built on Pennhurst's reputation," he said. "The last four years, including this year, were built on our own reputation as the best haunt in the country."

Critics, however, have said that the haunt profits from the atrocities that took place at Pennhurst. Opponents wanted to prevent the project from opening, arguing that the public hadn't had an opportunity to challenge the plan, but a judge allowed the haunt to go ahead, The Inquirer reported in 2010. A preservation group still works to memorialize the site and its history.

The attraction is "not just doing a harm to the history, it's doing a harm to disabled people right now, who already face so much stigma," said Emily Smith Beitiks, associate director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University, who has studied and written about Pennhurst.

The Supreme Court case was a victory for the residents trapped there and "brought all sorts of attention to the many ways we were not doing justice to the people who needed help, needed care," Beitiks said.

Now, she said, the haunted asylum has commercialized the suffering that took place on the grounds.

The attraction "really makes invisible a history that we still have to know because it still haunts us today - haunts us in the real sense. There are still abuses [of disabled people] happening," Beitiks said.

But Beringer said many people now know about Pennhurst's history thanks to the haunt.

"We're not doing anything . . . making fun of, making light of any of that stuff. We're not doing anything here to exploit the past in that way," Beringer said.

jmcdaniel@philly.com

610-313-8205@McDanielJustine