Pennhurst Asylum is “alive” and well, under direction of a new management team that is laying the foundation for growth and expansion of one the most infamous haunted attractions in the country. After many of the rumors of the attractions’ impending demise, we were ecstatic to see that Pennhurst was once again opening its doors for the 2016 haunt season.
Due to a late in the season management change, most of the show is unchanged from last season, and much credit needs to go to the former managers, Bates Motel Productions. However, this is a not a knock on the quality or level of genuine fear created by each attraction, as Pennhurst is an intense, aggressive experience that is a must visit every season. On our 2016 season visit, we had the pleasure of going “behind the scenes” at the Pennhurst Asylum. Pennhurst’s haunt manager introduced us to various department managers and staff members who gave us a unique insight regarding the enormous production, and challenges underlying the use of the decrepit, decaying grounds of the former Pennhurst State School.
During our visit, we also explored some of the infamous “paranormal” site of the campus, including the third floor and basement of the Mayflower Building. We visited with the museum staff, and learned much of the “forgotten” history of the actual campus which sometimes has been lost due to media sensationalism promoted by various paranormal documentaries and television shows.
Our entire visit was a captivating look into the high energy world of the Pennhurst Asylum. It is important to note that every single staff member had great reverence and respect for the property itself and understood the history underlying the properties infamous perceived history. The new team managing Pennhurst and property managers are focused on providing a mature world-class show while focusing on the future. Major plans are in place to revamp and add attractions for the 2017 haunt season, including the possibility of an “outdoor” attraction and opening of a new building. Sadly, many of the buildings are in an advanced state of decay and are not structurally sound. Careful consideration is placed into each structural design decision, to preserve as much of the campus as possible, while creating an interactive, unforgettable haunted attraction.
Pennhurst Asylum continues to be one of the most impressive major mainstream haunted attractions that places guests into what can be best described as an insane, horror movie come to life. What drives Pennhurst is the quality of acting and dedication to creating insane characters that inject new life into this ominous property. This year’s show is best described as an amped up version of the 2015 event, with a darker tone, more aggressive scare acting and emphasis on creating shock/surprise scares at every turn. Pennhurst Asylum pushes the limits sanity, offering a mature haunted attraction that incorporates a twisted sense of dark humor, outright brutality and serious scenes of gore and decay. The 2016 show features many of the same set designs, scenes and characterization of prior seasons. However, we found that there was a greater emphasis on physicality between actors, and with guests of the asylum. Talented scare actors use each scene to generate fear, with effective set designs serving as the perfect backdrop for a horrifying experience. Despite large crowds, this season Pennhurst placed a greater emphasis on providing guests a more intimate, personal experience in smaller groups. Smaller groups, allowed for us to experience a more immersive show, as we often felt a complete sense of isolation, desperation and constant panic as we were forced to face an onslaught of demented characters within the walls of the Pennhurst Asylum.
A VIP ticket will cost $75.00 (plus tax and service fees), and it is worth the purchase because the lines at the attraction can get extremely long. The attraction is physical, aggressive and at times off-color, a warning for those who are easily offended. We encountered twisted scenes of a “live birth”, had to smell a “diaper” from a large man-baby, given “shots” by doctors, grabbed/tickled/pushed by various “patients”, and had countless entertaining encounters with the insane scare actors in each scene. The design of each scene is of the highest quality, using impressive animatronics, movie quality structural designs, violent imagery and sensory triggers to create an unsettling, disturbing experience. While the set designs and themes are generally similar to last year’s show they still are disturbing, and effective at generating genuine reactions of fear. Pennhurst Asylum is a mature, relentless nightmare featuring non-stop action and insanity around every turn. The interactive, aggressive nature of this attraction provides for a unique experience that may change depending on your own fears.
Pennhurst Asylum has an efficient system in place allowing characters to enter into their costumes, receive makeup/masks etc. in a rather cramped space located in the Administrative building. The talented creative team behind the special FX/makeup department creates Hollywood style characters that are customized for each attraction. The organization of these departments ensures quality and maximizes efficiency in managing over one hundred scare actors, each with unique characterizations, and creative designs. Characterization and an emphasis on quality “scare acting” is a major component of the attractions continued success.
Extensive training on safety, character development and aggressive acting strategies is implemented in the attractions design. Talented department managers create extensively nightmarish characters that “believe” in what they are doing. A commitment to quality acting and a passion for creating an immersive horror experience drives this attraction’s continued success. The passion and dedication aimed at providing a true horror movie experience is impressive to say the least, and the management team guiding each department is focused on providing a world-class, immersive horror show. From a gifted structural design team to a passionate actor development department, Pennhurst is moving in a direction that is aimed at continued growth and expansion. Every single staff member works tirelessly in a high pressure, high energy environment to use the decrepit structures of the institution to create a horrific experience. Pennhurst Asylum has a team of experienced build managers, designers, costume creators and makeup team working throughout the night to keep the haunt operational. The logistics of managing such a large property makes their jobs difficult, yet they do so with great passion and pride.
Pennhurst Asylum located on the grounds of the infamous Pennhurst State School and Hospital and closed in 1987, due to legal decisions centered on allocation of resources for individuals with special needs, human rights/self-determination, allegations of mistreatment and inadequate living conditions. The massive hospital campus, functioned as a self-contained community, in some aspects and is often the subject of various paranormal television shows and documentaries. In visiting the “Pennhurst Museum”, we spoke with a former employee who shared many stories of Pennhurst’s past, which may not fit the narrative that this campus was a living nightmare. It is important to look at the stigma and treatment of those with disabilities in the context of history.
Education, medical and rehabilitation programs are far more advanced in today’s society, and many of today’s modern special needs programs were not available to individuals in the 60’s,70’s and 80’s. Pennhurst was moving in a direction towards helping develop individuals with self-reliance and provided a multitude of services for its community members such as occupational therapy programs that are provided today. The campus was under-funded, and many of the issues brought to the forefront during the legal proceedings highlighted the lack of proper resources allocated to this state school. Many of the horror stories, and myths perpetuated by paranormal television shows are not grounded in fact. We were told how many believe bodies were burned at Pennhurst, people went unfed due to a small dining hall and that Pennhurst had its own monetary system. Myths such as these are not true and are not supported by facts. For example, while patients received “Pennhurst Dollars”, these were given as a positive incentive or reward system for residents to purchase extra items, and while the dining hall is small, we were shown the trays/transport system that was used to provide food to the various dormitories on the campus. By today’s standards, the treatment of individuals at this campus and other state schools would be clearly defined as inhumane, generations ago these individuals were shamed and considered wards of the state, rather than accepted members of society.
As changes in attitudes and perceptions evolved, Pennhurst staff during its later stages began to implement many modern rehabilitative, educational and developmental programs comparable to services provided today. Many staff members worked tirelessly to provide the best lives possible for these individuals in less than ideal working conditions, and in speaking with museum staff the conditions highlighted in documentaries filmed in the 60’s and 70’s were not the norm by the time the institution closed. The “Pennhurst Museum” is a fascinating look at the daily lives of the former residents, featuring a collection of pictures and artifacts that tell a story of the campus that doesn’t always fit the perception generated by media representations.
Pennhurst Asylum is split into four unique attractions, three core attractions which are a part of the haunt and the fourth, a self-guided tour through what is reported to be one of the most “haunted” buildings on the campus. The attractions are completed in succession, and while waiting, various actors roam the campus and interact with guests. There is no haunted attraction that utilizes its environment to generate fear more than Pennhurst. Pennhurst’s decrepit architecture is hauntingly beautiful, and the urban decay sets the tone for a gritty, realistic experience featuring surreal set designs, twisted imagery and some of the most hands-on disturbing actors found in any haunted attraction. The graffiti which adorns each room, the putrid smells of the abandoned buildings set the perfect tone for a haunted attraction experience second to none. While the show has not undergone major changes from last season due to a shortened development time/management change, the enhanced scare acting and better line management/separation made for a far more terrifying experience.
Pennhurst Asylum (Administration Building)
“Pennhurst Asylum Administration Building” is the first attraction which features detailed rooms, interactive actors and some of the oddest/disturbing scenes we have ever witnessed in a haunted attraction. Bloody, violent imagery is highlighted throughout the surgical rooms found throughout this attraction, and mature themes permeate each hallway. We witnessed the “birth” of what appeared to be a demonic child, were chased by various actors giggling in strait jackets, were “zapped” and “tickled” by the inmates, asked to become participants in several of the doctor’s various experiments, and forced to play “cards” with creepy scare actors who “snapped” into a violent rage. The actors in this attraction are intense. From the creepy priest conducting an exorcist on a patient, to a demented dentist ripping teeth from a patient, the actors and their theatrical scenes are downright unsettling. The set designs are gruesome, they depict scenes of medical and psychological torture and the talented actors use guest responses to modify the show. These actors do not relent in their efforts to generate a response, from taunting guests to take their “medicine” to giving guests “needles” the interactive nature of this attraction is fantastic.
As we made our way through the attraction, we walked through twisted funhouse like rooms, walked on the edge of a cliff, and once again encountered a large man-baby who placed his dirty diapers in our faces. Veteran visitors to Pennhurst will likely recall many of these season from prior years, but we never experienced each scene in a smaller group. Without endless guests trying to get into each room, scare actors are provided time to shine, and provide an immersive horror experience. The creative and interactive set designs make exploring each horrific room an entertaining, surprise filled experience. The relentless actors will make you believe you are in a nightmare. The quality of acting coupled with unparalleled set design makes this attraction stand out amongst other mainstream haunted attractions. Sensory confusion, animatronics and elaborate set designs distract guests and keep each room exciting. The attraction also has a strong climax/finale scene featuring a brutal escape scene from a woman’s prison ward that left us exhausted. This season we found the line pacing effective at keeping backups within the attraction. Each small group was able to experience each scene without running into another line, and actors could perform at their highest energy levels.
Dungeon of Lost Souls
“Dungeon of Lost Souls” starts off as a journey through the laboratory of a demented, mad doctor who encouraged us to drink what he called “urine”, take our medicine, and used dark humor to start off the attraction in a memorable manner. made some hilarious off-color jokes. “Dungeon of Lost Souls” is an intense experience, using sensory triggers to induce fear. Large props and animatronics hid scare actors within each eerie, gritty set piece. Insane actors aggressively attacked us around each corner, relentlessly trying to scare and pop out of the most unexpected locations. “Dungeon of Lost Souls” is legitimately scary and disturbing. scare actors each scene disorientates, confuse and scare guests.
“Dungeon of Lost Souls” is an all-out assault on one’s senses, featuring talented scare actors, disturbing imagery, blinding lights, high tech set designs and disgusting smells which constantly augment fear. We felt alone and isolate during this attraction, which made the entire experience far scarier since we felt at the mercy of the asylum’s vicious inmates and diabolical, nightmarish design.
The Tunnel Terror
“Tunnel Terror” is a terrifying, claustrophobic experience that uses set designs to create psychological and sensory based fear. “Tunnel of Terror” is a journey through the abandoned tunnel system connecting each structure at Pennhurst. The attraction incorporates blinding slow and fast white strobe lights, fog and darkness to maximize a sense of being lost, at times trapped and once again at the mercy of the actors. Effective use of light, disorientating sound and darkness hides the insane clowns, inmates and biologically modified mutants who reside within the horrific tunnel system. Actors chased after us, smashed walkers/baseball bats against walls, grabbed at our sides and laughed as we made our way through the memorable attraction.
“Tunnel Terror” incorporates a seemingly endless maze of ominous catacombs as scare actors grab from every direction. Blinding lighting effects, periods of darkness, booming sounds and a sense of constant paranoia create an unforgettable experience in the tunnel system. We found the catacombs walk-through to be especially difficult to navigate this season as use of red lights, fog and intermittent darkness makes it almost impossible to know what to expect.
Ghost Hunt and Pennhurst State School Museum
The fourth attraction is a self-guided tour through the Mayflower building found on the campus. “Ghost Hunt” tour allows for guests to take pictures using cell phones, or walk through the first two floors using a flashlight. The structural decay of the environment itself plays a powerful role in the attraction’s ability to cultivate fear and this was a good way to see more of the area and be able to explore the closed off portions of the campus. On our visit we visited the third floor and basement of the Mayflower building. These areas closed to the public due to safety concerns are two of the creepier areas ever visited by our review team. The basement itself has an odd, dark feel to it, and despite not experience any paranormal occurrences during our visit, the experience was rather unsettling as staff members told of us their encounters with unseen entities.
The Final Word
Pennhurst Asylum continues to be one of the very best haunted attractions you can visit each year. The campus itself is absolutely terrifying, a monument to urban decay, and a creepy atmosphere for a haunted attraction. The realism of the environment adds to the scare factor, and talented actors, staff members and management teams bring life into the long abandoned campus. Pennhurst Asylum is built for fear and we are excited about the attractions future. Plans are in place to expand the attraction for the 2017 season and beyond. Plans include an outdoor attraction, opening of new buildings, augmented preservation efforts, a “escape games” experience which challenges visitors to escape various rooms within a campus building, expanded paranormal investigations, photography tours and massive enhancements to all existing attractions. The new management team, and talented staff members are focused on expanding access to the campus, and building an even larger scale haunted attraction that is more interactive, immersive and terrifying.We also believe it is important for guests to spend time learning the “history” behind the attraction. An appreciation and respect for the dignity of the former residents adds to the historical significance and impact this attraction has on one’s psyche.