Historical essay
Ghosts are Scary, Disabled People are Not: The Troubling Rise of the Haunted Asylum

Ghosts are Scary, Disabled People are Not: The Troubling Rise of the Haunted Asylum

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.”

Advertisement for the "Pennhurst Asylum" haunted house.
Advertisement for the “Pennhurst Asylum” haunted house.

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

Inmate-workers in an unnamed institution. Many institutions sought self-sufficiency by putting institutionalized people to work cooking, cleaning, and even farming. (Disability History Exhibit, Alaska Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education)
Inmate-workers in an unnamed institution. Many institutions sought self-sufficiency by putting institutionalized people to work cooking, cleaning, and even farming. (Disability History Exhibit, Alaska Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education)

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.

Further Reading

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.


  1. Emily Smith Beitiks, “The Ghosts of Institutionalization at Pennhurst’s Haunted Asylum,” The Hastings Center Report 42 (January-February 2012), 23. Return to text.
  2. 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.
  3. Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010), 268-279. Return to text.
  4. Beitiks, “The Ghosts of Institutionalization at Pennhurst’s Haunted Asylum,” 23. Return to text.

Sarah Handley-Cousins is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University at Buffalo. She is author of Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (UGA, 2019) and a producer of Dig: A History Podcast.

26 thoughts on “Ghosts are Scary, Disabled People are Not: The Troubling Rise of the Haunted Asylum

    • Author gravatar

      Thanks for this piece and for citing my Pennhurst work! Here’s a blog I wrote on the more general theme of Halloween as well: https://longmoreinstitute.wordpress.com/2015/10/12/dos-and-donts-for-a-freaky-but-disability-positive-halloween/

    • Author gravatar

      Very good and informative article. The conditions for the mentally ill and diabled have been improving although not as fast as one would hpe due to funding issues and as usual much misinformation about them.

    • Author gravatar

      The real scary people of asylums were the ones in charge, the ones people still think of as ‘normal’.

    • Author gravatar

      The ones who should be afraid are those who allowed this to happen, if they are still alive.

    • Author gravatar

      Good article! I want to notice that “American Horror Story: Asylum” (although the series as a whole can be blamed for the things you said) shows how reason or the discourses of reason can be destructive, alienating people, suffocating them and their pain. Words, theories and institutions are the horror in this season. I’ve wrote about that in a probably better way, but in Portuguese, and I ask you to forgive if I can’t express myself as well in English.

      • Author gravatar

        Funny, I thought the opposite. I think American Horror Story:Asylum opened my eyes to the terrible tortures these patients endured at the hands of those in charge and makes me sad and empathetic for what they suffered through. They also portrayed issues like how back then lesbianism and such was considered abnormal and people would throw them in the asylum for such. I think they actually covered a lot of issues to highlight these aspects.

      • Author gravatar

        Interesting idea Duanne. I’ve been thinking lately about how discourses of reason can be oppressive. Thanks for sharing.

    • Author gravatar

      This means so much to me as a disabled and mentally ill adult. Thank you so much.

    • Author gravatar

      I toured Penn Hurst in 1967, as a chid-care trainee thru Devereux for a 1 yr program for care of emotion and disturbed children. I was just turned 18 and the youngest in the class of 10.Truly an eye opener for me. I remember the smell- the cribbed and a small class room where we met an argoyle male child. I am now almost 67 and I can still feel that day. JSpotts

    • Author gravatar

      Who are you to say we aren’t scary? A few good curses can obtain a week’s food. Let’s hear it for us limping crazies! No more sanitizing. Free drugs would be useful.

    • Author gravatar

      VERY long …So sorry. I’m a girl with ASD, prior history of anorexia and remission of bipolar but now treated for ADHD and panic/ptsd/anxiety etc:

      I disagree with a lot of this. The problem? You say that things are fetishised. That implies some extreme focus and inappropriate DELIGHT (I know you don’t mean it in it’s true form AKA sexual delight) from a tiny detail of some grander more complex thing. But….the asylums didn’t have one r two patients, they had many over crowding common, procedures applied to almost all not few.
      As for halloween haunted houses or asylums or hayrides….sorry, but they are hammy and meant to be exaggerations. There for the cheap thrill as you say but not at the expense of the patient’s memory. Instead the way the patients may be depicted is a reflection on how SOCIETY has seen patients and just how wrong it was.The whole lunatic killer….that’s more an issue I can see but nowadays people may surely see that but ask them if they believe a crazy person would do it and they would likely think of crazy as in psychopathic given the high spike in serial killers and the phenomenon o f such. It’s easier to think disease or an imbalance could do that than the terror of someone really not “ill” but just not born with the “normal” thing called empathy (which is odd that so many of advocates I meet argue about diversity etc. and yet have a staunch dislike of psychopaths and sociopaths not wanting to be associated with them. Not saying I want to either but yeah…)
      Asylums make up the history of humanity. Many may go and not have a mental health issue but then again? SO many were thrown into asylums and DIDN’T have any…others may have had ancestors, family members even in such places….

      The point of these scary places never has come across as making fun of the patients. It’s a thing that is so feared BECAUSE of what it all implies…the fears reaching back across centuries. How one can lose themselves when reality loses its coherence…when treatment is the thing that drives you crazy…when the manipulation makes you question so much…etc. Asylums physical aspect actually is a very sary thing because we tend to link it to the very rot at the heart of those who used to practice horrors there.

      If anything, the asylum trope has made people delve deeper and many like me with multiple health issues in the past and many a stay mental health facilities. I personally owe my life to one for feeding me via NG tube as I would have had my ED kill me. And Yes, the psychiatric institution has some dark history. But only in this past centuries has medicine gotten less abusive itself (tuberculosis hospital? The way corpses were obtained from graves for medical students to learn and that is the only way they got to learn things that led to th e surgery of today….)
      EVERYTHING in the world has had patches of shame. It’d be never ending if we boycotted everything that has done this or that. I suggest adding some demographic stats on views on mental health from early this century to now, how have asylums and their tours, film presentations, horror attractions influenced views? Because I believe they’ve actually gotten many people to care more for those who have suffered. And it’s easy to think that so much time has gone by since psychiatry started being taken as a serious institution. It’s in it’s ealry stages. Physics has been here longer and we still are baffled by so many things. The human psyche is just as complex as the paradox of Relativity and quantum mechanics apparently BOTH applying and yet contradicting. Humans are in charge and GOD we are flawed. Overall? It’s in a better place than it was 10 years ago It’s in a better place than 20 or 50 years ago by leaps and bounds.

      I feel there were good intentions behind this but I feel it made a weak argument. It’s more raging against a system that we KNOW was flawed, we all do. The world knows. We know it has miles to go. But boycotting this? Saying that is dishonoring the ones who were hurt or killed? I think it’s grasping at straws or at worst trying o find yet another thing to beat up psychiatry for failures. Sins of the father? Enough really. The Holocaust was horrible but we do not keep beating up the German population saying they did this or that horrible thing. THEY KNOW!

      I honestly believe NOT having these options, just having a book option? THAT would dihonour them. Why? Not everyne likes or can read actually. Many books are for much older people and the kids who start learning about the stuff that took place via these places and then films….they get an early intro and can over years develop their views instead of keeping it away, hidden or some not-to-be-touched site It’d make people question WHAT they had to hide then. Were they actually that bad? Maybe they weren’t. Or they’d think the lunatic killer is more than just the cheap trope they’ve seen and instead a very real thing and stigmas worsen. Ever think of that?

      • Author gravatar

        Maria, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I think you have a point to say that perhaps some of these phenomena (like haunted houses and television shows) have gotten people interested in the true history of asylums and the treatment of institutionalized people – I think some of the points made above, for instance, about the possible merits of American Horror Story: Asylum, speak to that. But I don’t think the way to go about reaching the public with this history is through “haunted asylums,” though I agree that we need more than just books. What I’d ideally like to see is more old asylums to become museums, that can use the actual physical asylums buildings to document the history of psychiatry, institutionalization, and mental illness in the US. An interesting example of how this could work is Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which has an incredible museum that deals both with the history and present state of incarceration in the United States – and also hosts a haunted house. The haunted house at Eastern State incorporates the history of the building, includes interpretive exhibits, and encourages visitors to visit the prison during the day to tour the remaining exhibits.

    • Author gravatar

      I agree with Sarah Cousins, and cringe when I hear of thrill seekers, prowling the grounds, entering buildings. I spent 36 years working in psychiatric hospitals, so saw thousands of patients, most of whom were there to get well or, at least, better, diagnoses galore. The employees were on the scene to help and usually did so. Typically, facilities such as Willard had good eras as well as hard times, i.e., 1938-1946, a war on, little money, and over crowding. Yes, for edification, they could read books speaking to treatments and environment, and if hard times appeal, I suggest “Shame of the States,” by Albert Deutsch, published circa 1948.

    • Author gravatar

      Ok 1. Pennhurst isn’t even owned by Richard anymore 2. The Haunt at pennhurst brings in a lot of money to put back into the buildings to save them. It’s incredibly expensive to abate the buildings to get rid of mold, asbestos, etc, among many other things 3. You forgot to mention pennhurst has a small historical museum set up now, allows photography tours, and is currently working on historical tours

      You’re lucky someone is actually saving the place instead of being knocked down. People need to quit complaining about everything and actually know the facts first.

      • Author gravatar

        Thanks for your thoughts, Tom. Not having visited Pennhurst, the only evidence I was able to find of a museum was in the “history” section of the haunted attraction’s website, which seemed to indicate that it was not yet open. I am aware that the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance is in the process of creating a museum and interpretive center on the Pennhurst grounds – is that what you’re referring to? I’m glad that it will offer historical tours. But I will not stop “complaining,” and nor will many others, while these haunted attractions continue to perpetuate the stigmatization of mental illness and disability.

    • Author gravatar

      This information is very very helpful. I am a struggling college student and I’m trying to find out as much as I can on the mental health and the state hospitals especially Northampton and it’s history. The government is trying to get rid of what’s left of it. My question is why? Make it into a shrine or museum of how it use to operate back when it was fully functional im not saying have it in all its glory that would cost a lot and so much of it is gone now. They have museums for certain important people like Indians why can’t they make a museum of one of the last buildings standing in Northampton that is left from the Northampton state hospital, and the history behind it. I for one would pay to see it and would visit Northampton more just for this historical attraction.

    • Author gravatar

      Thanks for this. I’ve written on this subject of the ‘paranormal industry’ trying to appropriate,sensationalise and exploit the history of institutions like this before. They seem to have a problem appreciating these were real people – http://boggoroad.blogspot.com.au/2014/11/the-historical-suffering-of-mentally.html

    • Author gravatar

      Does it matter who creates the house or exhibition? I find a lot of pop culture portrayals of asylums especially in modern times disturbing but interesting (Gotham – Arkham Asylum). But these stories are told by mainstream non-diagnosed people and media rather than survivors.

      Mad Pride may provide a narrative of empowerment where we could say, “Hey watch out we are Mad, Proud and you should be afraid of taking advantage of us again”. Taking control of stories of asylums could also provide economic opportunities for social enterprises.

      I appreciated this article a lot. I found out about it through my Mad People’s History course at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. Here Mad is used as a term of empowerment to identify people who reject marginalization and oppression of people with mental health diagnoses and people who challenge sanism.

    • Author gravatar

      I just wanted to add thank you for writing this article! I would also be so frustrated at not being able to get into those grounds for research over paranormal investigators and the like! Asylums exist in this heavily stigmatized way for us, on one hand society wants them around but never to have to be in them, then doesn’t want them because even the most carefully run could so easily turn to exploitation (absolute power corrupting absolutely) but then has failed to come up with better options. I worked in mental health for several years, on a unit that still does ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) for patients whose other therapy options have been exhausted. The closest local state hospital to where I had worked had gone from 1500 beds to 300. This is not a sole function of a significant number of diagnoses and levels of incapacity no longer being a legitimate reason to commit someone (homosexuality, anyone? or feeling disaffected by sexism?) but so many other factors that have basically tried to press institutions out of existence. And then where do they go? And who is going to fight for them when people really need them if the only image we (collectively) have of them is American Horror Story or Haunted Tour Place?

    • Author gravatar

      Yeah instead of visiting a haunted asylum, I am going to read a book about the history mentally ill people.

      That was sarcasm.

      The whole thing that makes an asylum “scary” in the first place IS THE KNOWLEDGE of the horrors that went on there. That’s what makes it seem likely to be “haunted” in the first place. That’s WHY they’re used as haunted houses.


    • Author gravatar

      Bedlam, in London, was a tourist attraction well before 19th-century gardening tours. It has been in continual operation for 600 years, but the fashion for visiting it seems to have begun in the early 17th century. The raving lunatics, kept chained, were of special interest. On a busy day, visitors far outnumbered the inmates.


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