Now, plans to turn the site into a haunted house attraction are causing a "fright" among families of former patients and local residents.
A hearing will be held Friday morning in a lawsuit aimed at stopping Friday night's scheduled opening of the haunted house.
Promoters of the attraction say its simply a way to celebrate Halloween. But opponents say it disrespects the memories of former Pennhurst patients & would have a negative impact on the community. It's an issue that has split the Spring City, Chester County area.
"It's not good family fun. It's totally inappropriate," one neighbor told Action News.
Another said, "It's going to bring revenue into our area and we don't have anything here."
At issue is the 110-acre Pennhurst property, where a judge ruled in 1977 that residents had been abused, neglected, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Pennhurst was closed 10 years later.
The lawsuit, filed by Saul Rivkin, who lives in the neighborhood near Pennhurst, contends the attraction will draw too much traffic, and raise the risk of vandalism and crime from Halloween revelers coming to the site.
Richard Chakejian, owner of the Pennhurst property, says the attraction does not exploit what happened at Pennhurst. "Absolutely not. It's a Halloween event, with make-believe. Family fun to scare people," he said.
Chakejian has developed the haunt with Randy Bates, owner of the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride in Glen Mills. "The haunted house has nothing to do with the history of Pennhurst whatsoever," he said.
Action News went on a tour of the attraction and walked through several rooms showing pictures of Pennhurst students, staffers, and activities. All showed boys and girls in crisp clean clothes, in classrooms and other school activities. That's a different picture than what came out during the court case and during investigative reports leading up to the court-ordered closing.
In 1949, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter wrote, "From it (Pennhurst) there is virtually no discharge except for the handful lucky enough to escape. And those who spend their lives there are kept in line with the sweatbox, the solitary confinement cell and the sawed-off pool cue." 20 years later, after a visit there, a state lawmaker said, "You have to see it and smell it."
After walking through the picture rooms, and into a hallway with a door on the side, a visitor gets their first shock - a woman rushing to the barred window, screaming, "Let me out, let me out." As she does, the door handle jiggles back and forth to no avail. An ominous figure approaches her from behind, and slams her head on the glass. The startling scene is actually played out on a video screen.
The haunted house attraction is called the "Pennhurst Asylum."
It will include a mock "morgue" and "crematorium," along with lobotomy and shock therapy rooms. In the crematorium, fake skulls are piled in a kiln, while a laundry bin filed with fake body parts sits nearby. The haunted scene will be open on weekends, from September 24 to November 7th.
Bates hopes it will draw 2,500 to 3,000 people a night. A regular ticket costs $25, with $50 VIP tickets for those who want to skip the lines. Bates and Chakejian say up to 80 workers will be employed there, many of them from the ranks of the long-term unemployed. The two have invested an estimated $450,000 in preparing the site.
"The only reason they they can sell a ticket is because they are capitalizing on the suffering of real people," says attorney David Ferleger. Ferleger brought the 1974 case of Haldeman vs. Pennhurst, which resulted in the landmark ruling that shut down the facility and other institutions for the mentally challenged. He is shocked at the mockery of patient memories.
Advocates for the mentally challenged have rallied against it.
Rivkin's lawsuit contends East Vincent township officials should have required permits for the event. A memo from township zoning officer to township manager Mary Flagg show the Halloween attraction was to be a one-time event.
However, Bates told Action News he considers this year the beginning of a long run. "We want to build on this first year, and keep growing," he said. He pointed toward a sec ond building, saying he and Chakejian plan repairs, perhaps to use the building for storing props. ---