If I were asked whether or not I believed in ghosts, I’d have to answer with whatever the agnostic boilerplate response to that question would be. I’ve had a handful of unexplainable things happen throughout my life, and I believe that our own existence is a complicated one that we’ve yet to fully explain with conventional science. Could that mean that we’re allowed to hang around in limbo after we die? It’s possible. Could it all be an elaborate trick our minds play on us, providing equal parts comfort and terror as we see fit? Also possible.
So when I was offered the chance to take part in a private ghost hunt inside a well known haunted house, accompanied by a self-described “empathic ghost hunter,” and a psychic medium, I eagerly agreed. Maybe it wouldn’t immediately sway me to one side or the other on the “do ghosts exist?” question, but I was more than willing to be open to the possibility that something unexplainable might happen. Also, a good part of my reckless youth back in the midwest was spent sneaking into abandoned buildings and cemeteries, so the chance to do it again as an adult, minus any possible legal repercussions, was a welcome one.
The place was Pennhurst Asylum, also known as “The Shame of Pennsylvania,” a now-abandoned collection of a dozen or so worn-down buildings constructed in the early 20th century. It opened in late 1908, originally designed to hold the physically and mentally handicapped. Within a few years, Pennhurst State School and Hospital (its official name that no one uses), was under pressure to accept orphans, immigrants, and criminals, which resulted in overcrowding, which then led to inhumane conditions for those housed within its walls.
A series of investigative reports by Bill Baldini titled “Suffer The Little Children” began airing back in the late 1960s, and exposed these conditions to households across America. Allegations of patients being beaten, tortured, and even killed by the staff (or one-another) eventually led to the Halderman vs. Pennhurst State School & Hospital case in 1981. By 1987, the facility was closed for good, and it’s remaining 460 patients were either discharged or transferred to other facilities.
In the years following its closing, the property has become overgrown, and several of the buildings have fallen into various states disrepair. Some are structurally condemned, and others have taken on new roles — in the area’s most popular haunted attraction. Pennhurst Asylum (though it was never technically an asylum) now hosts fans by the thousands who come for the chance to roam the halls and underground tunnels, working themselves into a terrified frenzy.
My ghost safari vehicle was the fittingly-named Chevy Tahoe Midnight Edition. After arriving in the City of Brotherly Love, we took a trio of these sleek SUVs to survey the grounds at Pennhurst — providing a pair of Chevy photographers an atmospheric backdrop to shoot the cars.
During the shoot, our little cluster of passengers freely roamed the grounds. It was striking to see how things had deteriorated in the three decades since Pennhurst was shuttered. The place had been left to rot and the elements proved more than up for the challenge. Trees and bushes climbed their way up along the walls and into doors and buildings. Roofs caved in, and entrances stood blocked or boarded up.