If you love to be scared, Pennhurst Haunted Asylum in Spring City, Pennsylvania is the perfect attraction for you. The haunted attraction opened to the public in 2010 and offers its seasonal haunted house with unique frights from September through November 3. The rest of the year, they offer paranormal investigations where groups can tour the hallowed grounds and see if they find any messages from the beyond.
The grounds were once the home of the Pennhurst State School and Hospital, which treated people with mental and physical disabilities and was later exposed for its neglectful treatment of them. The school and hospital closed in 1987, and now house the attractions. Spirit Halloween even shot our Graveyard Shift video introducing this year’s Spirit Halloween animatronics at Pennhurst Haunted Asylum, because it offers the perfect spooky background.
In an interview, Operations Manager Jim Werner said that the idea to open the space as an attraction came about when the owners were looking for a way to utilize the property. Incorporating the already imposing location out in the woods along with the architecture of the original building into a haunted attraction made perfect sense, and it’s been bringing in fans since it opened.
People flock to Pennhurst year after year because it’s known as a mega attraction, offering a horror and amusement destination. With its Hollywood-level sets featuring settings that change each year, plus the use of special effects like fog and strobe lights, along with trained actors, Pennhurst aims to make sure that even the most hardened souls experience true terror during their visit. Pennhurst has plenty of devotees who come back year after year for the chance to be frightened in totally new ways since the sets are revised each season. “Being scared in a haunted attraction, even if the sets are always the same, the experience itself will always be different because the actors engage differently every time,” said Werner. Pennhurst recommends visitors be 12 years old or older, with the average visitor ranging in age from 16 to 40. Most attend in groups of two or six.
The three attractions, which guests can go through at their own pace, include a 1930s-era asylum, featuring everything from doctors and nurses to creatures in a simulated setting, a 1950s-era full-service mortuary (morgue), which Werner describes as “a body processing plant where guests are exposed to every type of post-life process like embalming, body disposal, and containment, and a built-in Pennhurst’s subterranean tunnel system, which is a “pre-Cold War government experiment and lab where creatures are being sewn together and nuclear reactors are melting down.”
Guests can expect to encounter around 100 actors during the course of exploring the haunted attractions. Actors receive training specific to the character they’re playing so they can truly embody it, whether they’re starring as an otherworldly creature, a medical professional, or in a “supervillainesque” patient role. A significant part of their acting staff is repeat staff that are familiar with the types of performances required. They’re trained in skills like improv, physical movement, and character development so that, according to Werner, they’re so realistic that they “sell the entire experience. You walk in and you can’t tell this person is an actor anymore. You feel like they’re actually there, and you’re there” in each specific setting. Their acting skills are combined with top-tier special effects such as strobe lights, fog, and even fire effects (asthmatics should bring their inhalers).
Asked to recall one of the most terrifying of Pennhurst’s haunted attractions, Werner highlighted an operating room nurse whose performance “was one of the most effective scares I’ve ever seen in any attraction ever. They were using the timing and lighting of the room and very stark imagery to honestly terrify people. It was fantastic.”
Werner said that “Due to the very real history of the site, we try very hard to make everything an utter farce. It needs to be as far removed from reality as possible. Most of our creatures and monsters and characters would be much more at home in a comic book or a movie.”
Participants should know that this is not a passive experience where you sit back and watch a show, but rather a walking experience where you get to discover the horrors up close; the actors may even touch you.
For those who’ve never been, Werner makes it clear that you should be prepared to be afraid—very afraid. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” he warns, so if you’re an adventurous sort who loves the unknown and that thrill of fear licking up your spine, you’ll want to check it out. “The attraction can be extremely overwhelming both physically the way the sets are built, and because our actors are trained to act and that can be somewhat stunning for a customer who may not be ready for such an experience. We’re not a friendly pumpkin patch; it’s an extreme and immersive horror experience, so be warned.”
Warner said the haunted asylum attraction, which is open on Fridays through Sundays in September and October, is most crowded on Saturdays, so those wanting a sparser crowd should attend on a Friday or Sunday.
During the rest of the year when the attractions are closed, people can take part in a paranormal investigation at Pennhurst covering an area of tens of thousands of square feet indoors, along with acres of outdoor areas. When guests arrive, they’re placed in small groups and paired with a trained paranormal investigator, as well as given tools such as rem pods and EMF meters so they can track down their beyond-the-grave findings.
Werner says that guests have reported thousands of paranormal responses, from photos of full-body apparitions to entire conversations recorded, where things are answering questions as they’re being asked. “We’ve had people’s stuff thrown, we’ve had people get scratched and things knocked over, camera batteries dying. You name it, and we’ve probably had it. It’s a very reportedly active paranormal site,” said Werner. In other words, you never know what you’ll discover! Participants don’t need to bring anything with them; Pennhurst supplies all the needed paranormal equipment. Cameras are allowed on the paranormal tours, but cell phones and cameras are prohibited in the haunted attractions.
Asked why the area is so ripe for these findings, Werner said, “The Pennhurst State School originally was used for the housing of special needs children and over the years there was quite a bit of institutional neglect that took place there, a lot of suffering, and we believe that that suffering is the main conduit of why the paranormal is so extreme on site.” As for why the paranormal investigations are so popular, Werner said, “I believe everyone has a drive to explore the unknown. The human spirit makes us want to ask the question ‘why?’. I believe that coming to Pennhurst and experiencing an investigation allows them to do that in a safe environment.”
In terms of COVID-19 protections during the pandemic, Werner says the Pennhurst site is 100% compliant with all Department of Health and CDC recommendations for businesses. If at any time a mask mandate were to be reestablished, they would immediately follow that standard. Apart from that, Pennhurst developed its own Covid-19 standards that cover employees and guests, including mandatory reporting to the local health department.
Werner emphasized that anyone can be entertained by Pennhurst, whether you’re a devotee of all things horror and scary or this is your first time. “I believe it was Edgar Allen Poe who said scaring people is just as fun as being scared. Watching other people get scared is entertaining, it’s a bonding experience,” he says. “It’s a type of feeling of oh man, we made it. You get this adrenaline rush. Coming with a group of friends or family, experiencing these frights and these highs and lows, it entertains, they’re going to have fun, they’re going to laugh, they’re going to jump, they’re going to scream. It really is a great night out.” Visit Pennhurst’s site for details and bookings.