This past spring, the defunct Willard Psychiatric Center (previously known as the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane) in Ovid, New York, opened its doors for tours — one day only, with no advance sale tickets. I immediately made plans to make the two-hour drive — after all, for the past few years, I’ve been working on a project that touches on institutionalized Union veterans, and many of my subjects lived, and died, at Willard. The opportunity to see the asylum was rare: the grounds still house a correctional facility, so security on the campus is tight, and most of the buildings sit locked and empty. I was eager for the opportunity see where so many of my old soldiers lived out their lives, and to visit their graves.
I left bright and early from Buffalo and arrived in Ovid with plenty of time before the tour. But instead of getting my ticket, I found myself at a dead stop, just before the asylum grounds, in a line of hundreds of cars. There is nothing else in Ovid (no offense, Ovidians), so it was pretty clear that the traffic was for the tour. Within a few minutes, state troopers arrived to direct traffic, and it became clear that no one was getting in to see the asylum — there were just too many people. I waited in line for half an hour before a trooper turned me around and sent me, grumpy and disappointed, back to Buffalo.
I spent the rest of my drive pondering what on earth had caused hundreds and hundreds of people to show up on a Saturday morning to go on a tour of an old mental institution. I discovered later that nearly 4000 people tried to get tours, up from less than 500 the year before. Visitors had swarmed the grounds, causing property damage and sneaking into areas of the campus that were closed to tours. Were there really thousands of folks so excited about New York State history or local landmarks that they would flood a tiny village to take a building tour?
When I got home, some research revealed what attracted so many to the tour: the paranormal. The Travel Channel’s Destination Fear had run a short segment on the asylum, featuring two employees of the correctional facility campus describing vaguely creepy events, such as the suspicion that the ghost of a red-haired nurse-turned-patient wandered the halls. When the tour of the asylum was announced, news had apparently traveled through local ghost-hunting circles. Most of the folks who had lined up by the thousands to tour the old asylum weren’t interested at all in the history of asylums — they were hoping to see a ghost.
Asylums and institutions have long been a source of fear and curiosity. Asylums, along with other institutions such as soldiers’ homes and prisons, were common tourist attractions in the 19th century, mostly for their beautiful grounds and architecture but also for able-bodied visitors to catch a glimpse of the patients. More recently, asylums entered into pop culture as a setting for scary movies and television shows, including the successful American Horror Story: Asylum. A new development includes using the asylum as a form of haunted house attraction during the Halloween season. Buffalo’s own Fright World features an “Eerie State Asylum” attraction this year, which challenges guests to “escape from the lunatics” and survive the attack of “demented doctors and patients.”
A particularly controversial haunted house, Pennhurst Asylum, opened in 2010, when Philadelphia’s Pennhurst Hospital — formerly the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic — was purchased by real estate developer Richard Chakejian. Pennhurst had a checkered past. In its early years, the institution was a part of the effort to segregate developmentally disabled people and prevent them from reproducing, particularly “feeble-minded” women and girls, who they believed were “more of a menace to society than a feeble-minded boy” because they were capable of having numerous “defective” children. In 1968, a local NBC station ran an exposé series entitled “Suffer the Little Children,” which sought to make public the maltreatment at the hospital. Bill Baldini, creator of the series, discovered that the institutionalized children were being neglected and received little to no treatment or support, but were rather housed and restrained — worse, Baldini argued, than animals in a zoo. (As of 2012, the operators of the Pennhurst Asylum Haunted House were playing Baldini’s exposé for visitors while they waited in line for tours, along with a fictional movie that told an alternate history of the institution.1)
In 1974, a landmark law suit was filed against the institution’s administration, in which U.S. District Court Judge Raymond J. Broderick ruled that Pennhurst was overcrowded and poorly staffed, that patients were neglected and illegally controlled with mechanical and chemical restraints, and that institution staff violated patients’ Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth amendment rights. The hospital administration continually appealed the decision until its closure in 1987. Now, this institution, known for its inexcusable treatment of developmentally disabled children, operates as Pennhurst Asylum, a haunted house open Thursdays through Sundays in the fall, scaring visitors with the specter of the institutionalized and mental ill.
There’s no doubt that life in Pennhurst, as in other institutions and asylums, could be horrific. Take for instance a story from Dennis Haggerty, an member of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC), the advocacy group which eventually brought the first right-to-education law suit in the nation. Haggerty recalled the story of John Stark Williams, a boy institutionalized at Pennhurst. John’s mother wasn’t able to visit her son because she couldn’t afford the trip to Philadelphia. When she finally arrived at the hospital with help from PARC, she waited for hours to see her son before being informed that John was dead. According to the hospital administration, John had died after slipping in the shower, and when no one claimed his body, his body was given to a medical researchers. No one had claimed the body because no one from Pennhurst informed his mother that John was dead.2
It wasn’t just Pennhurst. The mentally ill and developmentally disabled were also subjected to medical experimentation. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot recounted the story of Henrietta’s daughter, Elsie Lacks, who was institutionalized from a very young age for epilepsy in the 1950s.3 The institution where Elsie lived, Crownsville Hospital (originally the Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland), was chronically overcrowded and underfunded, and was notorious for its appalling conditions. Elsie was likely used — without her consent — in a study conducted there on epileptics testing the effectiveness of pneumoencephalography, a painful procedure that attempted to replace cerebrospinal fluid with air in order to produce better x-ray images of the brain. Elsie died in Crownsville in 1955. Mentally ill and developmentally disabled patients in many institutions were also maltreated through the use of mechanical and chemical restraints, ranging from the infamous “Utica crib” in the 19th century to electric shock therapy and heavy psychotropic drugs in the 20th century. In a more passive sense, patients were mistreated through sheer neglect and stigmatization, as the focus of asylums shifted from therapeutics to warehousing in an attempt to keep the “feeble-minded” and insane out of the public eye. For those who have been institutionalized, there is a very real haunting – not by ghosts, but by trauma.
I like a ghost story as much as anyone, but the patients who lived in institutions like Willard and Pennhurst weren’t spooky spirits — they were human beings with complex lives. I don’t find the stories of John or Elsie or the patients of Willard exciting or thrilling — I find them repulsive. As Emily Smith Beitiks has deftly noted, “while the field of disability studies still struggles to gain access to resources in universities and disability activists still have Americas with Disabilities Act compliance denied on the grounds of expense, this commercial playground of fetishized disability thrives.”4 Haunted attractions that use asylums as settings rely on reductive and offensive portrayals of the mentally ill as horrifying, dangerous, and evil people that must be kept within an asylum for the protection of the public. They exploit the ways that the real patients of mental institutions were treated for cheap thrills — “patients” are often depicted in restraints or undergoing medical procedures and experiments. Indeed, part of the “creep” factor is the general disrepair of the institution, invoking the very real neglect patients experienced. The thousands of “paranormal investigators” who hoped for a tour of the Willard Asylum were looking for the real-life version of what Pennhurst Asylum has created: an eerie setting filled with the ghosts of scary, dangerous lunatics. In the process, they disrespected the grounds of Willard and likely influenced New York State to think twice about opening the grounds for tours in future years, making it even harder for historians to gain access to the asylum.
This Halloween, do me a favor: think twice before you buy a ticket and stand in line to visit a “haunted asylum” attraction. Consider picking up a book about the history of those women and men deemed mentally ill instead.
Grob, Gerald. The Mad Among Us: The History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill (New York: The Free Press, 1994).
Miron, Janet. Prisons, Asylums, and the Public: Institutional Visiting in the Nineteenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.
Noll, Steven and James W. Trent, Jr., Mental Retardation in America: A Historical Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2004.
Sisti, Dominic and Andrea Segal. “Halloween Attraction Dishonors Mentally Ill Who Lived at Hospital.”
Whitaker, Robert. Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
The Willard Suitcase Exhibit.
- Emily Smith Beitiks, “The Ghosts of Institutionalization at Pennhurst’s Haunted Asylum,” The Hastings Center Report 42 (January-February 2012), 23. Return to text.
- Dennis Haggerty, “God damn it, there isn’t any time. The time should be right now,” in Fred Pelka, ed., What We Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 134-136. Return to text.
- Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010), 268-279. Return to text.
- Beitiks, “The Ghosts of Institutionalization at Pennhurst’s Haunted Asylum,” 23. Return to text.