Disability History Gets Forgotten Each Halloween

By: Emily Smith Beitiks, Assistant Director

As a proud recent addition to the Paul Longmore Institute on Disability, I was recently reminded of Paul Longmore's essay exploring how every Christmas, negative representations of disability abound through the popular Christmas character Tiny Tim. Alas, Christmas isn't the only holiday that invokes problematic notions of disability.

Tomorrow is Halloween and many thrill-seekers across the country will visit haunted houses, hoping to make it through without embarrassing themselves in front of their friends and family. From Denver to Las Vegas to Flint, many haunted houses pull in large crowds by offering an "asylum" theme. Sometimes, the asylum theme is entirely fictionalized, but a few attractions even take place in abandoned institutions and hospitals, using the history of institutions to make for an even scarier attraction because "the fear is real." Once inside, attendees can expect to be scared by doctors and nurses, and at center stage, patients with mental and physical disabilities.

I'm struck by the need to add "haunted asylums" to the many sites we seek to challenge as we work to make disability history more widely known. The Longmore Institute's mission statement explains that we "introduce new ideas about disability and disabled people."  Haunted asylums, which forward the idea that people with disabilities are menacing villains worthy of our fear, represent an out-of-date understanding of disability, which is deeply harmful and must be thrown out.

The history of institutionalization is indeed horrific, but the abuses that were committed were overwhelmingly directed at residents with disabilities, not the other way around as haunted attractions suggest today. Yet these horror playgrounds of disability succeed because the history of institutions is not widely known. That so many people flock to these attractions year after year shows how much work we have ahead.

The Op-Ed below is a piece I co-wrote with James W. Conroy last Halloween, responding to a particularly troubling variation of the Haunted Asylum in Spring City, Pennsylvania. To read a more detailed account of the attraction described below, you can also access my essay, "The Ghosts of Institutionalization at Pennhurst's Haunted Asylum" in the Hastings Center Report available here for free.

I'm all for Halloween, but let's keep the fear focused on candy and ghouls, not people with disabilities.

Haunted Pennhurst attraction the 'final indignity'

 Pottstown Mercury, Saturday, November 12, 2011
Emily Smith Beitiks and James W. Conroy

The name Pennhurst is infamous in the disability rights movement — not once, but twice.

Pennhurst opened in 1908 as a school for people with physical and mental disabilities. By the time it closed in 1987, it had become an iconic symbol of segregation, overcrowding, abuse, and neglect. In a momentous victory, a federal court order mandated Pennhurst's closure for violating the constitutional rights of the residents, who had done no harm to anyone. The people who left Pennhurst went to small family-like homes with 24-hour support and services, where their lives were enriched in practically every way we know how to measure. (See Temple University's landmark Pennhurst Longitudinal Study, 1985.)

In 2010 and 2011, infamy has once again tainted the name of this place in our community — for the Halloween attraction known as the Pennhurst Asylum. The attraction:

  • uses imagery of people with mental and physical disabilities, which abuses the memory of the 10,400 Pennsylvanians who lived and mostly died under horrendous conditions,
  • mistreats the buildings that deserve preservation,
  • and finally, insults the community itself by being the worst kind of "neighbor" imaginable.

Once Pennhurst was finally shut down, it sat abandoned for two decades until entrepreneur Richard Chakejian purchased the property and turned it into a haunted house along with Randy Bates, haunted house expert. They maintain that it doesn't play on the site's history. Yet they concurrently legitimize the attraction's tagline, "the Fear is Real," by citing facts (some of them even true) about Pennhurst's past. The distortion of history and myth trumped up to make money worked well for the The Blair Witch. The only problem is that Pennhurst's people were real. Last Halloween, Pennhurst Asylum opened its doors for $25 a head and the haunted house was attended by thousands — such a success that it reopened this year and expanded. There is fear at Pennhurst, once again. And once again, it's based on ignorance.

Pennhurst deserves sacred memorialization and preservation. Out of national shame came national triumph — though very few people know about it. It was at Pennhurst that the right of all children to attend American public schools was won in 1972. The "Right to Education" has had a profound impact on all children with disabilities and their families. It happened right here, and it happened because of the outrages at Pennhurst. Secondly, it was Pennhurst where the nation finally learned that there is a "better way" to support people with developmental disabilities, not in large institutions but in small, family-like community homes.

The Pennhurst Historic Marker, placed last year on Route 724 near Bridge Road, tells of Pennhurst's national importance. We encourage our neighbors to visit that marker, read the words on it, and think about ways to preserve and memorialize what happened here. It was tragic for many years, but the story also includes hope and progress.

 In this light, it is most shameful that the current attraction is causing so much disruption and dismay among the neighbors. The township that is considering permanent zoning changes might also demand common decency in its deliberations — as well as a more appropriate use of this historic site. This second round of infamy is not good for our locality the way things stand — it is, in fact, the final indignity.