Last October PsychOdyssey popped into a local Dunkin’ Donuts for a quick coffee and cruller. As we sipped and savored, we noted the pictured glossy handbill hawking an “haunted adventure” tour of the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Spring City, PA. Originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, Pennhurst was an institution for the mentally and physically disabled individuals of southeastern Pennsylvania. After a decade of controversy, the hospital closed on December 9, 1987.
As the handbill proclaimed, Pennhurst lives on as a tawdry cheap-thrills entertainment attraction called “Pennhurst Asylum–The Fear Is Real“, promoted by a commercial outfit called Pennhurst Haunts, LLC. Pennhurst Asylum is a sister act to another haunted adventure called “Bates Motel, “America’s Favorite Haunted Attraction”. Here’s a sample of what the Pennhurst Asylum attraction offers:
For families navigating the maelstrom of mental illness, the Pennhurst Asylum freak show constitutes the worst form of stigma. Its crass and creepy theatrics stir up the worst characterizations of individuals with psychiatric disabilities and the facilities that serve them. Any family that has experienced hospitalization for psychiatric disabilities knows that it is no laughing matter, no occasion for fantastic titillations, no venue for vapid entertainment. Mental illness is a serious societal issue. The woefully inadequate treatment options for mental illness is a serious societal disgrace. The enormous burden carried by individuals with psychiatric disabilities and their families are a grave social injustice. Commercialized entertainment such as Pennhurst Asylum, which foments the worst stereotypes of a greatly disadvantaged class of fellow citizens and community members, constitutes grossly insensitive and harmful bigotry and prejudice.
Here is the entrepreneur behind this stigmatizing horror show:
“Pennhurst Asylum has been designed and constructed by Bates Motel Productions, LLC. Randy Bates has been operating professional haunts since 1991, most located in southeastern Pennsylvania. The Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride has been one of the most successful attractions in the country and attracts customers from almost every state. With his wife Anne, and six grown children, Randy runs several business from their farm in Gradyville, PA.”
Worse, Bates has several prestigious sponsors of his enterprise. They include upstanding entities such as Amoroso’s Baking Company, The Hair Cuttery, Dunkin’ Donuts, Susquehanna Bank, and–incredibly!–The American Cancer Society.
PsychOdyssey does not begrudge Mr. Bates’ entrepreneurship or commercial successes. Nor do we wish to castigate or cast aspersions upon him. We suppose that he is creative, industrious, and well-meaning. (Indeed, he is a pioneer of an interesting new entertainment subindustry called “agri-tainment”, for which he was featured in a 2010 Wall Street Journal article.) We merely urge him and his sponsors to reconsider the social effects of stigma that Pennhurst Asylum perpetuates and ask that they more thoughtfully redirect their worthy showmanship and sponsorship inclinations to more constructive and less stigmatizing entertainment programming.
PsychOdyssey does agree with Mr. Bates on one point. When it comes to the effects of stigma on the lives of those with psychiatric disabilities and their families, indeed the fear is real.