Fun and haunted legacies continue to grow at Pennhurst

Firebreather Jim Cope entertains the crowd in front of the Pennhurst administration building before they enter the Haunted Asylum attraction.
Firebreather Jim Cope entertains the crowd in front of the Pennhurst administration building before they enter the Haunted Asylum attraction. Virginia Lindak — For The Phoenix
Thrill seekers line up to experience the “Pennhurst Asylum” attraction in the Administration building on the former state hospital’s property in Spring City.
Thrill seekers line up to experience the “Pennhurst Asylum” attraction in the Administration building on the former state hospital’s property in Spring City. Virginia Lindak — For The Phoenix

Spring City >> Fans of the macabre seeking a frightful adventure need search no further than Spring City — Pennhurst Asylum has opened its gates for its 5th annual Halloween season.

Open to all ages and featuring a multitude of gore-filled fun activities, the attractions run through Nov. 2.

Located on the more than 100-acre campus of the abandoned Pennhurst State School and Hospital, the haunted house attractions have breathed new life into the decaying, spookily overgrown buildings. Tens of thousands of visitors voyage to Pennhurst each fall to enjoy the scary surroundings and partake in the four attractions offered.

Grotesque creatures stumble through the hallways of the “Pennhurst Asylum.” Evil clowns lurk in the underground “Tunnel Terror.” Maniacal zombies chase you through the “Dungeon of Lost Souls.” Perhaps most creepy of all are the ghosts that are said to freely intermingle with the living in Mayflower Building during the “Ghost Hunt.”

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Operations manager Todd Berginger said they have made some upgrades to the “Asylum” this year and added a few rooms. “Tunnel Terror” has also added a few new twists. Also new this season are coffin rides, dollar scares and a funeral-themed photo op for visitors.

“There is something for everyone here. If you want to be scared or you want to search for a ghost…not a lot of places can offer that. That’s a unique thing here,” Beringer said. “It’s the best haunt in the country as ranked by HauntWorld [magazine]. We’re number one. Somebody told me USA Today ranked us number one as well,” Beringer said.

Originally opened in the early 1900s as a state hospital for people with both intellectual and physical disabilities, Pennhurst saw conditions wane horribly over the decades, reaching an inhumane level for residents. Pennhurst was shut down in 1987 after a lengthy class action court case, which found conditions at the facility violated patients’ constitutional rights.

Proceeds raised each season go toward preservation efforts around the formerly dilapidated campus. To date, five buildings have been restored. The museum, which showcases old black and white photographs of life at Pennhurst, as well as artifacts found in the buildings, also has been upgraded.

Noted Beringer, “We moved the museum to the Mayflower building, redid and added more to it. We spent twenty-some thousand dollars redoing the museum. A lot of people wouldn’t even know what Pennhurst was if we didn’t keep this open and put the museum together. If we weren’t doing this, there would be nothing going on here and the buildings that could be saved wouldn’t have gotten saved. They’d be gone. We’ve saved five buildings.”

Pennhurst’s dark past has left another chilling legacy: the numerous ghost sightings that have been reported since its closing 27 years ago. Employees of the haunted attractions frequently see apparitions and shadow figures, feel taps on their shoulders, hear disembodied voices and capture orbs on their cameras. An employee in the merchandise booth reported a folded stack of sweatshirts falling from a shelf and landing in a heap on the ground as if it had been pushed.

Mike Trader, who works in the notoriously haunted Mayflower building, says ghostly things happen every year. He has witnessed sensor alarms going off by themselves on the floors that are closed to the public, light fixtures swinging by themselves in the basement, and a figure walk across a hall when the building was empty. This year, he said a steel screen-like window cover on a second floor window slammed open and shut on its own.

“We were here that night, the window was down and it was shut. Then all of a sudden [the window cover] slammed against the wall. The window was closed... We left and we make sure everything is secure when we leave. We came in the next day and it was open and the window was up. If you try to put that window up, it’s not easy,” said Trader who noted no one had been in the building and there had been an alarm on through the night.

Nick Carlson of Pennhurst Paranormal, a group which hosts investigations on campus throughout the year, said he has had numerous run-ins with ghosts. He says he has heard a little girl who identified herself to him as Emily giggling in the Limerick building, and has captured an apparition on camera in the Quaker building.

“I’ve investigated every building on this property. The most haunted building by far is Mayflower,” said Carlson. “I’ve been scratched, punched. I got pushed up the stairs. I had a crow bar thrown at me in the basement of Quaker. A 20-pound crowbar defied gravity; it was up off the ground and thrown.”

He also described a large wooden storage closet in the basement moving by itself.

“The whole thing started shaking, it looked like someone was grabbing onto it and shaking it,” he said. “We saw this happen.”

Eric Martin, another Pennhurst employee, said one night he and a friend both saw the same ghost in the old, overgrown playground.

“After it closed one night, I saw a shadow figure run from the corner of the catwalk over to the sliding board, about three feet tall,” he remarked.

As the haunted house attractions continue to entertain Halloween thrill seekers each Fall season, the story of Pennhurst and its unfortunate past is also able to be told. Perhaps one day, even the ghosts of Pennhurst will finally be able to rest.

More information is available at PennhurstAsylum.com.