SPRING CITY — Looking for a frightening haunted attraction with a chilling past?
Pennhurst has opened its gates for its fourth-annual Halloween season. Open to all ages, the haunted house type events are held Thursdays through Sundays until Nov. 4.
Held on the campus of the abandoned Pennhurst State School in Spring City, the location is spooky. Dozens of ominously dark and dilapidated buildings provide the locale and backdrop for a Halloween haunted house. The campus sits on roughly 100 acres and there are 25 buildings. The buildings are interconnected by over 1000 feet of underground tunnels, which also serve as a setting for the haunted house activities.
“If there is a place that’s haunted, it’s here,” said operations manager and part owner Todd Beringer.
Beringer estimates more than 30,000 people visited the Pennhurst attraction last year.
“We’re hoping for more this year,” he said.
Pennhurst was a state hospital that opened in 1902 for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. It was shut down in 1987 after a lengthy class action court case, which ruled the conditions at the facility violated patients’ constitutional rights.
This year, there are four different main attractions. It is considered a “high action haunted attraction” which includes haunted house participants touching visitors.
The “Pennhurst Asylum” is an elaborate haunted house walk through, featuring a hospital theme. It takes place on two floors of the old administration building, which dates from 1908. State of the art special effects and interactive actors dressed up as zombies and other creepy characters, crawl and jump around every corner of the attraction. Actual artifacts left at the school are incorporated and used as props.
The “Tunnel Terror” attraction is held in a large portion of the basement tunnels. Visitors wander down a 900-foot long, underground pathway, while various creatures lurk and lunge at whoever they find appealing. Audio and visual special effects add to the excitement. Many props from the school are also used.
“The tunnels are creepy,” Beringer said. “Almost every building on this property is connected by these tunnels. You have over 1000 feet of tunnels that we let people walk through and we put scares in there, so it’s more of a traditional type haunted house too.”
The “Dungeon of Lost Souls” takes place the basement of one of the large, old buildings. People walk through a maze of gore and ghouls who are portrayed in several dungeon cells. CGI special effects are featured, as well as more live actors and scary props.
Beringer explained, “It’s more of a traditional type haunt. We took the basement of a building and set it up in a traditional style haunt. It’s a unique haunt.”
The “Ghost Hunt” attraction is perhaps the most frightening of all. Held in the Mayflower building, which is reportedly haunted, it was at one time an actual housing dorm for patients. Visitors use a flashlight to explore two floors of the building. The building has been left as it was. Many old hospital beds and furniture can be seen in the dark rooms, left behind from decades ago.
Beringer said, “The first year we had a lot of people who said hey, we’d really like to see how this place was originally, how it was left. So we basically took Mayflower as it was left. There’s nothing that’s in there that’s extra. It is what it is.”
Kimberton native Jennifer Reeder, who now lives in Philadelphia, comes out to Pennhurst every year. She recently went through each of the attractions.
Reeder said, “It’s definitely the best haunted house I’ve ever been to. I love how it seems out in the middle of nowhere and all the abandoned, overgrown buildings, really add to the spookiness factor.”
“The Ghost Hunt was my favorite,” she said. “It wasn’t staged, it’s the actual building and how it was for real.”
Other events and activities include a large bonfire in the central courtyard area, as well as food and clothing vendors. There are also carnival type entertainers including fire-breathers and a contortionist.
This year there are several live radio broadcasts from Pennhurst, including Wired 96.5 FM and Q 102 FM.
The public can also visit a museum set up in three rooms of the administration building. Visitors are invited to take their time and peruse old photographs and information hanging on display from the early days of Pennhurst. Artifacts found on campus are also featured. Donna Spieles, a former Pennhurst employee in the 1970s and 1980s, works as one of the museum guides, and can provide a first-hand account of life at Pennhurst.
Spieles said Pennhurst was never an asylum, but a facility for people with intellectual disabilities.
Spieles hopes to see one of the other buildings converted to be the museum one day.
“I’d like to see the museum get put somewhere else so that people can see more of it and understand more of it,” she said. “The superintendent’s house...actually turn that into a museum that could be open year-round. It would be nice.”
Beringer said, “We have plans to expand on the museum. We are trying to preserve some of the heritage here and what was done here.”
Funds from the haunted house go toward preservation efforts around the campus.
“Our goal is to preserve these buildings. Anything that has been restored here, we pay for it,” said Beringer. “We’ve restored four of them.”
The attraction has grown since it originally opened four years ago, and changes to the events are made each season.
Beringer said, “We’ve upgraded since last year. The first year we only had the asylum and the tunnels, it was one haunt put together in a short time...it was decent. What we’ve done now is, we’ve redone the tunnels, we’ve added Mayflower and we’ve added the dungeon.”
He continued, “This year we went through and upgraded everything. We made a lot of changes to upgrade, so people enjoy it and (see) something different.”
Beringer credits the actors as one of the main reasons why the haunt is one of the best ones around today.
“A lot of the people who act here were the kids who used to come here when they were younger, urban exploring,” he said. “They take ownership with the place. They feel like Pennhurst is partially theirs because they grew up here, and we encourage that. That’s why they’re so good. They love their job. They love this place. That’s why it is one of the best haunts you’ve ever been to. They are the most important things here.”
Since the opening of the haunted attractions four years ago, Pennhurst has gained national attention and is considered to be one of the most haunted attractions in the United States. It has been featured on several ghost investigation shows including “Ghost Adventures” on the Travel Channel and “Ghost Hunters” on the SyFy network. During the off season, the Mayflower building offers tours at night. Hundreds of different amateur ghost hunting teams have come through.
Despite standing empty and abandoned for 25 years, the opening of Pennhurst as a haunted attraction initially stirred up controversy among locals who felt it was disrespectful to former occupants.
Beringer said, “We never intended to do that. The stuff that we have here is stuff that is used in every haunted house around the country. We’re not making fun of disabled people, not at all. That was never our intention.”
He said, “We contribute to the veterans around here. We employ a lot of the reserve guys. The stuff that’s in our museum would be rotting somewhere. No one would have an opportunity to see it. Now 30,000 plus people coming though here each year have an opportunity to learn about Pennhurst, which they didn’t have before. More people know about what happened here now, the truth about what happened here now, than ever knew before. We are doing as much as anybody to preserve the memory and the tradition and the history of this place.”
Pennhurst continues to stand as an important historical landmark, a stark commentary on institutional life of years past. As the haunted house continues to gain popularity on a national level, the truth about its past is finally able to reach and educate the public on a larger scale.