By Marc Reed
When I first discovered Pennhurst it was the dramatic decay that interested me, but the more I learned the more its fascinating story began to unfold. This was before the TV ghost shows came, before it was sold by the state and made into a commercial haunted house. Back then it really was a lost and forgotten place: isolated and abandoned for twenty years in the woods of Pennsylvania. Although scrappers, vandals and the elements had taken their toll, there was still enough left to help tell its incredible tale. I made this short film to relate part of the sad history of Pennhurst.
Pennhurst State School and Hospital dates back to a time when Americans considered mental and physical disabilities hereditary diseases. People who suffered from epilepsy, autism, down’s syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, schizophrenia, etc. were lumped into the category of ‘feeble minded’ and, for the good of society, shipped far away to large, remote institutions to be warehoused until they grew old and died. In late 19th Century America, much of the prevailing theory regarding regarding the treatment of ‘feebleminded persons’ came from noted psychologist Dr. Henry Herbert Goddard. Dr. Goddard was a prominent advocate of the American Eugenics Movement, which argued that mentally and physically disabled persons were polluting the gene pool of the country.
Goddard:“Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal. There is no question that the irresponsible feeble-minded person, especially the feeble-minded woman of child bearing age, at large, is a menace from whom the community has a right to demand protection.”
And so in America, and in many other countries, people began placing the mentally and physically handicapped in institutions such as Pennhurst. Although Pennhurst would ‘parole’ residents who were deemed fit for society, the majority of residents spent their entire lives locked away there. As a matter of fact, by the time of Bill Baldini’s famous NBC10- exposé in 1968, only 7% of Pennhurst’s 2,800 residents were enrolled in parole programs.
As society began to understand more about the nature of developmental disabilities, people began to take a closer look at the way the afflicted were being treated in institutions like Pennhurst – and were justly horrified. National reform began in the 1960s. Pennhurst is a place of historical significance not only because of its negative past – but also because it’s where America’s mentally handicapped finally found their voice and changed their own destiny. In 1977, Halderman v. Pennhurst went all the way to the US supreme court and resulted in de-institutionalization for the mentally handicapped on a national scale. Because of this, Pennhurst has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, and has spawned a rigorous preservation movement. A new era of community-based living for developmentally disabled persons was born nationwide.
By the time I discovered Pennhurst it had been sitting abandoned and overgrown in the woods of Pennsylvania for twenty years. I had never seen such a profoundly sad place, and my experience there is hard to describe. Admittedly, the only way I could access this place – and the others – was to trespass. I would typically arrive pre-dawn to capture the long, golden sunbeams of early morning. Alone in the darkness I found halls strewn with wheelchairs, rooms full of adult-size cribs – some outfitted with leather restraints. Puzzles, toys and books were scattered on the floor. Everything was covered in two decades of funk.
I chose the title Abuse and Neglect for two reasons. Firstly, because of the abuse and neglect suffered by Pennhurst’s former residents. Secondly, because of the abuse and neglect suffered by the Pennhurst campus itself following the institution’s closure.
Unlike my previous subjects, I discovered Pennhurst online. Any abandoned location has to endure a certain amount of thievery and vandalism, but once it gets posted on the internet, the amount of ensuing destruction increases by orders of magnitude. During my months at Pennhurst I would often find a scene I shot on a previous visit suddenly reduced to rubble. Once-pristine rooms were getting ransacked and burned. The walls were becoming ever more graffiti covered. Tragically, this beautiful and historic location was falling apart fast.
Around the time I finished Abuse and Neglect, Pennsylvania sold the property to a real estate developer. Unfortunately for him, the mortgage crisis of 2008 stunted the real estate market and stymied his plans for development. To stem the tide of vandalism, the developer increased security – yet continued to observe ceaseless waves of trespassers. Pennhurst had become such an online sensation that many people considered the several hundred dollar trespassing ticket a worthy price to experience Pennhurst’s mystique. It soon became clear what the developer had bought was a tourist attraction. In October 2010 The Pennhurst Haunted Asylum opened its doors.
One one hand. the Haunted Asylum halted Pennhurst’s entropic demise. On the other, it exploits not only the former residents of Pennhurst, but all people living with disability. Since exploiting the plight of disabled people for profit is distasteful to everybody, the owners decided to change Pennhurst’s history from being a State School and Hospital for disabled children to being an asylum for the criminally insane. Boardwalk quality haunted house actors and props depict scary lunatics lurking around every corner. The property was also opened to ghost-hunting television programs using the asylum story for maximum fright. More and more, Pennhurst’s amazing true story is is becoming buried. I like to think my little film is helping keep it alive.
In preparation for my visits I would read from Roland Johnson’s account of Pennhurst: Lost In a Desert World. His words filled my head during my many quiet hours alone in the old, abandoned institution.
Tell me why you think you’re here
“They did some tests, psychological evaleration and stuff like that. The doctor keep axing questions. It was so much overwhelming… I was just crying, with tears. I cried that, ‘My mommy’s gone; my daddy’s gone’.
“I would say I’m a person that was lost and lonely and just in a desert world. And no one to talk to. Just out there in a big institution all by myself. All lonely. That’s how I’d ‘scribe it. I thought I would be there forever.
“I had a friend. He used to get me scared. He used to say, ‘If you don’t watch yourself here, they will write a little note and send you to a bad ward, and they will keep you on the ward and put you in the sweat box, put you in shackles and restraint jackets. . .’ and all this kind of stuff. I said, ‘No, it’s not true.’ He said, ‘Yep, that’s what they’ll do. If you don’t listen, that’s what they’ll do.’
He was right
” I got scared at around the nighttime. All this stuff happened late at night. Lot of people was sleeping. And they’d be boys with these grown people and they would be waking up other people, their friends, getting them out of bed. I thought that they was going to do that to me. And they did and I couldn’t do nothing about it.”
Marc Reed is a painter, photographer, film maker, animator, web designer and developer, illustrator, casual trespasser, home improvement afficionado, wine maker, hiker, paddler and father – not necessarily in that order. See more of Marc Reed’s films, paintings, photography, and musings here.