‘Pennhurst Asylum' returns for 5th season

The Pennhurst administration building. Photo by Virginia Lindak

Those looking for an epic fright at a haunted location look no further than Spring City - Pennhurst has opened its gates for its 5th annual Halloween season.

Offering a variety of attractions for all ages, the gory festivities are held on the abandoned campus of Pennhurst State School.

Originally a state hospital for people with intellectual and physical disabilities, Pennhurst first opened in 1902 as Pennhurst Home for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic. The self-sufficient community, complete with an onsite hospital, medical staff, firehouse, general store and cemetery, began with the good intentions of helping the disabled. Before long, however, the school became overcrowded and funding was cut, leaving residents to fall victim to abuse, neglect and overall inhumane conditions, as reported throughout the decades.

As the ghoulish Halloween attractions usher in thousands of people each year for entertainment purposes, visitors also gain insight on the dark truth of Pennhurst’s past. Proceeds from the attractions go toward preservation efforts on campus.

“When we first opened, there was a lot of controversy about us, that we were making fun of the people that were here which was never the case,” said operations manager Todd Beringer. “We made the awareness and the history of this place more notable and people are learning about it. It’s something that people need to learn about and not forget. More people know about what happened here now, than ever knew before. Now that it’s made headlines, the history of the place goes out, as well as what we’re doing now, which is just an amusement.”

Beringer continued, “The state didn’t do one thing once they closed this place… …They just shut it down, they didn’t preserve any of it. If it wasn’t for Tim Smith, who owns the property, this place wouldn’t be here. It’d be crumbing to the ground. Not one of these buildings would be salvageable.”

Despite the horrific past, the campus serves well to host a Halloween themed attraction. Currently set on 100 acres, the 25 abandoned buildings, some of which are still entirely overgrown by trees and brush, are interconnected by a 1000 foot underground tunnel system, which is the setting for one of the main attractions.

Beringer said a lot of work has been done upgrading different facets of the attractions this year. He said what makes Pennhurst unique is that it is haunted, along with the old style architecture of the buildings.

“It’s the same attractions, but we’ve upgraded them. We upgraded some scenes, just kind of tweaked everything to make it perfect. Probably around 35,000 people came through last year. The attraction of this place is the vibe here. It’s just creepy in general, let alone just scaring people. I really think that if we just let people walk through these buildings on their own, they’d get more scared them we can do,” he said.

There are four central attractions to choose from this year.

The “Pennhurst Asylum,” “Dungeon of Lost Souls” and “Tunnel Terror” are three traditional haunts which feature CGI special effects, along dozens of actors dressed up as grotesque characters, intent on terrifying visitors until they scream. These events are all considered “high action” and the actors will interact and touch those walking through.

Said Beringer, “A lot of the actors are people who grew up down here and they take a lot of ownership in (Pennhurst). They take their jobs very seriously, that’s why our actors are so good here. They really love it, they love doing what they do and we encourage them to be artistic and to do what they want.”

Perhaps most frightening is the “Ghost Hunt” attraction which is held in the Mayflower building, a former dormitory which is purportedly haunted. It is a self guided tour, and visitors may bring flashlights to explore two floors of the building and peruse the old rooms, many of which still have old mattresses and hospital beds from when it was abandoned 26 years ago.

New to the list of activities offered this year is Zombie Laser Tag, where participants can shoot at actors dressed up as zombies during a 10 minute game session.

There is also a 3D picture photobooth which is new, where people can stand in front of a green screen and select a background image, including scenes from around the Pennhurst campus.

Set up in two rooms of the Administration building is the Museum, which showcases artifacts found on campus. Ruth Himes, who worked at Pennhurst in the 1980s, serves as a tour guide, and answers questions about life at Pennhurst during the time she worked there. Himes said it was good to have the museum for the public so people can differentiate between what Pennhurst State Hospital was to what Pennhurst Asylum (the Halloween attraction) is.

“If you look at the website, they have the history, and that’s about Pennhurst, and they have the legend (which is part of the attraction). People confuse that and actually think that’s what happened here at Pennhurst. So we try to dispel some of the negativity,” said Himes.

Beringer said they are hoping to expand the museum next year, to create more space for artifacts they have found around campus.

Noted Beringer, “People want to know the history and we provide that with the museum. We’re going to try and preserve some more of the buildings and then move the museum and create a bigger space for it. The people who work in the museum have tons of stuff they want to put up.”

Beringer said they have made an effort to alleviate traffic for residents who live on Pennhurst road, by directing people to use the Church road entrance to the campus.

“We’re part of the community now. We provide a lot of revenue for East Vincent Township. There’s a five percent tax off everything we sell that goes to the township. If we can all work together, it’ll all work out great,” said Beringer

Since closing in 1986, dark rumors of hauntings and ghost sightings have swirled around the abandoned, spooky campus. Many visitors have captured unexplained orbs, human figures and gray mists in photographs, as well as creepy audio recordings.

“If anywhere is haunted, this place is,” said Beringer.

“I’ve seen too much evidence to suggest otherwise. People take pictures with stuff that comes out on them that you can’t believe, it’s just amazing. Pictures of (apparitions), little girls standing in windows, all kinds of things.”

Mike Trader has worked for three Halloween seasons and has witnessed several unexplained instances at Pennhurst. Trader said the Mayflower building, where the self-guided Ghost Hunt attraction is held, is indeed quite haunted.

“Last year when we came out to open the building at the very beginning of night, at the end of the first hallway, clear as day, I watched a figure walk across the hallway. It wasn’t just myself, there was another person who saw it as well. So he went around the back and I went straight down the hallway…you can’t even get out of the room at the end. (It) looked just like a person.”

Trader said visitors to the Mayflower building often report seeing apparitions as well.

“The three years that I’ve been here, there’s been different customers (of) different ages that all have given me a description of a little girl that they have seen in the back of the building. The description has always been of this little girl,” remarked Trader.

Another Pennhurst employee Kevin Connolly, said odd things happening in the Mayflower building is a daily occurrence.

“It’s on a daily basis. There’s a janitor ghost down there in the basement, they call him King. There’s a nurse Kathy on the second floor. In this building sometimes, I’m in there by myself and up on the third floor you just stop, within five seconds you start hearing stuff; footsteps up the stairs, doors slamming, stuff dragging on the floor…and there’s no one in there, it’s locked,” Connolly said.

Quaker building, another former dormitory, is also notoriously haunted. Numerous apparitions have been witnessed in the building. Multiple sightings of a figure dressed in white standing in a second story corner window, overlooking the quad, have been reported.

“Multiple people have seen her at once, we go in there and look, nobody is there,” Trader said.

“They put the worst of the worst patients in Quaker, the most violent ones. There’s been times when I’ve been standing on the catwalk outside of that building, dead quiet and very peaceful, then will just hear doors slamming so hard inside. It’s also completely locked and no one can get in there. You could say it was the wind, but that was definitely intentionally slamming,” said Connolly.

Pennhurst has been featured on several paranormal investigation shows including Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters. The Mayflower building is available year round to be rented out by paranormal groups wishing to investigate all four floors of the building. Groups have come from all over the country to try and capture evidence of a ghostly

nature.

Each year, the truth about Pennhurst continues to gain national attention, educating new generations on its previous terrors and ensuring that the dark chapters of its horrid past, along with its ghostly echoing residents, won’t soon be forgotten.

More information is available online at PennhurstAsylum.com