Is this how people see me? What happened when I visited Pennhurst's Haunted Asylum | Liz Spikol

POTKONSKI HOLL-19102017-0001
Adult patients at the Pennhurst State School and hospital spent their days and nights in cribs. The school superintendent, Dr. Leopold A. Potkonski, left, and State Rep. Edwin G. Holl, chairman of the Montgomery County delegation, toured the ward Nov. 16, 1965.

When the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic was founded in 1908 in Spring City, Chester County, it was ostensibly for people with seizure disorders and intellectual disabilities. But almost from the start, it suffered from overcrowding due to the influx of people without those conditions: the mentally ill, the blind, immigrants, so-called juvenile delinquents, even orphans. These were adults and children whose lives deviated from expected norms. Rootless and unclaimed by society, they were locked away.

As attitudes evolved, so too did the institution’s admissions policies. But as late as 1968, when reporter Bill Baldini did a six-part exposé on Pennhurst Hospital’s conditions, there were still “patients” who had no physical or mental disability. Baldini interviewed one young boy who’d been blindfolded and placed in seclusion as a punishment for bad behavior. He was in Pennhurst because his parents were considered unfit, and there was nowhere else for him to go.

As Baldini documented, the conditions were awful for the 2,800 residents crammed into an institution whose official capacity was 1,500. His series captured residents curled into balls on cold floors, wearing nothing but thin hospital gowns. Adults and children were strapped into cribs and shackled by their wrists and ankles. Patients were straightjacketed and blindfolded. Baldini compared Pennhurst to the zoo, but noted that the animals had it better.

In 1972, the Pottstown Mercury published a scathing investigative report, its front-page headline blaring “The Shame of Pennsylvania.” A 1974 class-action suit filed on behalf of patients was decided in their favor, with the judge noting multiple constitutional violations. But appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, while patients continued to suffer.

When Pennhurst finally closed in 1987, it was a landmark achievement in the battle for deinstitutionalization.

Yet here we are today, and the fear of difference that led to the institutionalization of so many of Pennhurst’s residents still pervades our culture. This is literally personified in many of the actors who work at Pennhurst Asylum, a haunted house attraction on the old Chester County campus.

As visitors pass through the hallways of abandoned, dilapidated buildings — now filled with smoke, strobe lights, and bloody hospital-themed displays — actors wearing hospital garb, medical uniforms, or straitjackets do their best to scare the visitors, who have been cast as new asylum patients. The actors display cinematic variations of “crazy” — some leer and stare with bulging eyes; some talk to themselves in rapid-fire manic patter; still others approach and ask “crazy” questions, like, “How did you get out of the TV screen?” People rock in corners or skip around the room as though trapped in childhood; they rearrange pill bottles and declare you “a sick person” with “a beautiful mind.” In one attraction, visitors are told to prepare for surgery — lobotomies, specifically, the ultimate psychiatric horror.

As a person who’s confronted mental-health challenges for much of my adult life, walking through a gauntlet of people who are supposed to be me at my worst was more heartbreaking than scary. I kept thinking, as the actors emerged from shadows and grabbed the guests, Is this how people see me? How is that possible? And yet it is. There is a whole Halloween industry built around the idea that “crazy people” are terrifying.

Why is this kind of attraction still considered acceptable? Would we have a haunted attraction with people “acting” like Alzheimer’s patients? How about Pennhurst Haunted Chemo Ward or the Tunnel of Stillborn Infants? We wouldn’t do it; the mere idea offends us. Nor does Pennhurst have actors portraying people with Down’s syndrome or intellectual disabilities, though one online reviewer objected to an actor portraying “severe autism,” as he put it.

Plenty of people argue that it’s all in good fun — it’s just entertainment. But it’s a kind of good fun that shouldn’t be embraced in 2017. Haunted asylum attractions make people with mental illness into grotesque caricatures and perpetuate the spurious linkage between mental disorders and violence. They also indulge our worst absolutist tendencies to draw hard lines between what’s normal and what’s not — an ephemeral line, given that millions of Americans are affected by mental-health conditions every year. We have agreed, as a society, that certain offenses go too far. It’s time to acknowledge that Pennhurst and its ilk do so, too.

Liz Spikol is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. Contact her via lspikol@gmail.com.