Pennhurst Asylum (Pennhurst), Spring City, PA, is designed quite simply to create unapologetic fear. For such a mainstream, popular haunted attraction, it is refreshing to see an overall design that does not stray away from its thematic goal of terrorizing each guest. From an already ominous, must-see property, each of the three attractions has perfected the art of utilizing adult themes Hollywood style special effects to create diverse styles of fear, from physical to deeply psychological horror. Perhaps no other attraction overall creates such an intense level of apprehension yet balances out the performance with moments of levity and creativity like Pennhurst, where the “Fear” is at times very “Real.”
Pennhurst, from a design standpoint, could comfortably rest upon the reality of its environment but does not rely on its history as a creative crutch. Every single room, hallway, and corner is creatively detailed with some of the most exquisite set designs in the industry. Despite creative liberties taken with parts of the property, none of the scenes feel “out of place. A particular flow certainly exists within the original context of each defined attraction. From a life-like “frozen” morgue to a terrifying hallway in which actors played a creepy game of “knock-knock” every scene is perfectly planned and executed to generate genuine reactions.
Pennhurst Asylum has always boasted some of the delightfully twisted, sickest actors ever to grace a haunted attraction, and even during a global pandemic, performances are first-class. Actors are aggressive, and some slightly off-color, but work their asses off to engage each customer and play out their ghoulish scenes almost entirely. Pennhurst employs a more “mature” adult-themed approach to scares, featuring a cast of the insane “characters” that feed off reactions, use physicality in performances, dark humor, and will work tirelessly to create memorable moments. From evil nurses “forcing” medication into demonically possessed patients to massive scare-actors slamming helpless “doctors” into walls, there is a distinct level of aggression in each scene, which builds constant tension and fear yet a continuous emphasis on safety, keeping a reasonable distance between guests and performers.
Despite large crowds and popularity, the actors and staff help pace each group, separate guests, and performers interact with guests without touching or coming near. Several mad doctors blocked our passageways, janitors tried to “force” us to complete horrific jobs, and other medical “professionals” gleefully displayed their victims in scenes that are by far some of the most impressive features in any haunted attraction. Pennhurst Asylum’s show this season is unforgettable, the interactions we had with the insane “scare-actors” and the overall genuinely terrifying set design has left an impact on how we view “mainstream” haunted attractions. Alterations to the “show” were minimal; for example, besides more effective pacing, the tunnel system was less dark. We noticed a few fewer performers but overall, Pennhurst Asylum maintained its first-class, fear-focused show that has made it legendary in the industry.
Extensive Safety Protocols and Procedures
Pennhurst Asylum is a hulking world-class haunted attraction that operates within the confines of the infamous former Pennhurst State School that is one of the most terrifying structural locations for any haunted attraction. The property itself is quickly returning to the Earth, as demolition of unsafe buildings has begun, and the challenges associated with operating any type of business, never mind an interactive entertainment venue during a world-wide pandemic, are perhaps insurmountable.
However, despite the immense difficulties associated with the complexities of the property itself, and also a massive crowd, the management and staff at Pennhurst Asylum implemented a large-scale COVID-19 Mitigation and Safety program that was beyond impressive in terms of planning and execution. Before even entering the actual grounds of the attraction, guests were quickly and professionally checked by a massive team of security staff that checked temperatures, made sure each guest was scanned using a metal detector, and that masks were worn by every single guest. Careful planning was put into changes made in lines to ensure “social distancing,” and timing inside each attraction was vastly improved over previous seasons to allow small groups to experience a higher quality, less rushed show. Staff and management also utilize a “fog” based cleaning solution which prevents the spread of infectious disease, and every actor is temperature checked prior to the show and instructed to “social distance” from other employees.
While significant safety protocols have been implemented, the attraction is as entertainingly terrifying, and insane as ever! Performances of the actors, the insanity and disturbing nature of each character, and all the spooky fun featured in this terrifying attraction remained intact, and what was perhaps most impressive was a clear commitment and extreme efforts to ensure a safe, sanitary show during one of the most challenging seasons on record.
Pennhurst Asylum features three attractions, each purposed to have a different “theme,” but overall, the flow of the haunt is relatively seamless with each attraction leading into the next.
Pennhurst Asylum’s design is thematically diverse yet interconnected. A little backstory exists, which explains the more fantastical elements (containment unit, sci-fi themed rooms, etc.); however, where the attraction truly excels in design is its simple yet effective ability to hide the unseen. The rotting grounds of the former Pennhurst State School are creepy enough, and the urban decay, graffiti, and smells of the rotting building are the perfect backdrop for a horror-filled experience. Pennhurst’s design team augments this innate “fear factor” by effectively using different lighting effects from slow strobe lights to deep shades of red, juxtaposed with heavy use of theatrical fog to create at times a feeling of being lost in “hell” and perhaps in a real-life nightmare!
Pennhurst Asylum (Administration Building)
Pennhurst Asylum (Old Administration Building) is an aggressive, nonstop chaotic entry into an insane nightmare. Significant changes have been undertaken over the past several seasons to not only lengthen the first portion of the haunt but to darken the atmosphere. Gone is any semblance of a “storyline,” and in its place is constant aggression, filled with moments of dark humor and genuine insanity. Pennhurst Asylum presents a show that makes a statement; this is an in your face attraction that this is not a “friendly” haunted house.
The attraction retains much of the previous scene designs featured over the past several seasons, and each scene is exceptionally detailed, featuring rooms of violence and settings that are almost too gruesome to view. No two rooms are alike, and at times Pennhurst Asylum feels more like a demented funhouse rather than an abandoned hospital facility. Inside the attraction, special effects, animatronics, and audio-visual tricks keep the talented scare-performers hidden. 1950’s era music bellow throughout the halls of this horrific facility, as patients scale their bunks, pop out of showers and bathroom stalls, nurses force patients to take their “medicine,” and doctors that use violent “shock treatment” to cure their patients. A visual and psychological nightmare, this attraction aims to push guests to their limits.
Hollywood-quality special effects, lighting, and sound create surreal nightmares that leave a lasting impact on one’s psyche. Animatronics and props distract from the actors who will taunt, will make you feel uncomfortable, and try to do everything to disturb this season without touching. Intense scare acting and a rapid pace are portrayed throughout the entire journey, with a finale that is both physically and psychologically exhausting. While there are not many defined “characters” in the haunt, these actors make you believe they are insane. There is passion in their performances and create chaos throughout the attraction. We are still disturbed over the massive diaper-wearing “patient” who implored us to clean his belly-button…
“The Morgue,” which opened two seasons ago, is one of the most theatrical, creative attractions at Pennhurst, with some of the most impressive set designs you will likely ever see in a haunted attraction. Once again, the attraction balances “reality” with “fiction” using old, abandoned hospital remnants with the latest in “scare-technology” from frozen bodies to bodies preserved in odd-tubes, the presentation, and development of the attraction is first-class.
“The Morgue” plays on one’s senses, from frozen bodies, to “incineration” the fear of death is played up upon during this attraction. Doctors and freaks perform unnecessary mutilations on “patients,” and others threaten unsuspecting guests to make sure they take their “medications.” Sound and visual special effects accentuate the experience, for example, rooms submerged in “steam,” coupled with blinding lights, slow strobe lights, and blaring sound effects hide the crazy actors, and at times, it is impossible to differentiate between what is “real” and not “real” in this action-packed attraction!
The former “Tunnel Terror” attraction has been re-christened as” Containment,” and has evolved into perhaps the most terrifying of the three “core attractions” featured at Pennhurst Asylum. Major scenes of the original attraction known as “Tunnel Terror” exist, such as the extensive “catacombs” and extended hallways illuminated by slow strobe lights creating a constant sense of paranoia. Scientific mutations and almost “post-apocalyptic” scenes have been added to the extensive “tunnel system,” which matches perfectly with a theme of “trapping” lost souls within the confines of the Pennhurst property. By building in brief storyline moments and allowing “scare-actors” to interact with guests, the sci-fi themed futuristic “cryogenic research” facility makes complete sense within the context of a larger storyline.
Guests now must escape this technologically advanced series of chambers that transform the asylum into a futuristic facility that spares no expense in its creative design with massive props and detailed set pieces that convert the tunnels into fallout-inspired shelters. “Containment” balances the “new” with the “traditional” at Pennhurst, utilizing the already sinister tunnel-system to create moments of apprehension and fear. Being lost in complete darkness, guided by a slow strobe light and taunting actors, is quite the terrifying experience and embraced throughout this attraction. We did notice that in some areas, the lighting effects were not as confusing as previous seasons, allowing guests to find their way more quickly through the tunnel areas, but this was likely a safety decision related to keeping groups distant. Overall, this remains one of our favorite attractions at Pennhurst, innovative, larger than life, and always terrifying.
The Final Word
Pennhurst Asylum is a must-see haunted attraction and the opportunity to visit one of the most infamous, reportedly haunted locations on Earth. Over the past several years, the long-abandoned Pennhurst State School has a new life as a site for paranormal research and a long-running haunted attraction. Furthermore, the property has been featured on a variety of popular paranormal television shows, such as “Ghost Hunters” and “Ghost Adventures.” Vile smells and a sense of fear permeate the air as one cautiously explores the chilling remains of the Pennhurst State School. As these buildings become victims of time, it is likely that they will succumb to the ravages of being exposed to the elements. It would behoove you to visit this property while you can to explore this iconic property.
Pennhurst’s three core attractions each have diverse themes but have an overall general structural and thematic design that ensures sensible flow and creates an absolute continuity in the presentation. The scene and set design itself are enhanced by the overall “atmosphere” of the haunted attraction as perhaps no other haunt in the country can lay claim to the “reality” associated with environmental design featured at Pennhurst. Somehow the creative and developmental teams have successfully been able to balance “fantasy” with “reality” at Pennhurst, transforming the portions of the property used to embrace diverse themes while maintaining a core underlying “reality” focus that creates a sense of tension throughout the show. No other mainstream haunted attraction has genuinely welcomed its commitment to creating genuine “fear” like Pennhurst, and while there are moments of levity, this is a “scare-first” driven show.
For those who have visited Pennhurst Asylum regularly, many of the attractions will, at first glance, feel familiar. Still, little changes and additions to each create an almost entirely new, intense experience. Extensive changes were made to the “Morgue” attraction over the past few seasons, and upgrades to “Containment” added a new sense of energy to each attraction. Pennhurst Asylum is not a haunt for those who cannot handle a taste of the extreme and bizarre, as each attraction is pure chaos. Pennhurst Asylum is pure fear, no such attraction has embraced its environment, and combines theatrical scare-acting with disturbing imagery to create an intense experience that has left us once again speechless!
We also would like to commend the management and staff of the attraction for developing and implementing a stringent safety operations protocol that, in itself, is a massive and impressive undertaking.