A Ghost Hunt In Philadelphia Sheds Light On A Dark Corner Of History

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.

As the sun started to slowly sink behind the treeline and the temperature began to drop, we met up with Andrew Spitz — a professional ghost hunter who’d spent a considerable amount of time inside the walls of Pennhurst. Standing around the literally crumbling remains of what was once Pennhurst’s hospital, Andrew told us the stories like that of Dr. Fear, a staff member from the 1960s (whose name was completely not made up). Fear liked to inject patients with painful serums for no other reason than to teach them a lesson. Fun stuff.

Even though Fear faced some repercussions for his actions, the severity with which he approached his patients wasn’t all that uncommon. Along with the beatings, abuse, and general humiliation, some were subjected to, one of the most infamous practices was to pulling out a patient’s teeth one-by-one if they were caught biting another inmate or staff member… but only after the second offense. Andrew also detailed some of his own experiences while inside Pennhurst, including the appearance of shadow-puppets against the walls on the second floor, and one particular spirit who had a penchant for shoelaces.

Not long after our initial walkthrough, we met with Donna, a former employee of Pennhurst State School, and current caretaker of the Pennhurst museum — an early stop on the formal haunt, where attendees learn some of the institution’s backstory from someone who lived it. While she never denied the outright mistreatment that occurred there over the years, Donna felt it was necessary to return to her former place of work to provide a more accurate depiction of how the institution was run in its later years. Namely that the vast majority of the staff took their jobs seriously, and did their best to provide the best possible care for their patients.

For much of the time Pennhurst was operational, Donna explained, society was considered to be more prim and proper, and having a child with a physical deformity or mental disability simply wasn’t accepted, much less understood. As a result, children were driven up to the entrance of Pennhurst’s grounds and simply dropped off. It’s much less “horror movie” and much more “an indictment of our callous society.”

Given a more rounded historical context, suddenly Pennhurst stopped seeming like such a horrific hotbed of torture and mistreatment, and more like a place that was — for lack of a better way to put it — shaped by its era. Its patients were people whose parents didn’t have the means, knowledge, or desire to care for them, and places like Pennhurst were likely the only solution they had.

After a quick detour for dinner, our crew reconvened just after 9 pm (under cover of darkness), to meet Tyler Evans, a British born medium who introduced himself by telling a story of how he knew not only the night his father died, but how, and even what he was wearing, from hundreds of miles away.

Together, he and Andrew ran through a list of what to expect when trying to communicate with the spirits that dwell the halls of Pennhurst. For example, emotions can get the better of you. You can feel suddenly sick to your stomach, but if you leave the room, the feeling ought to subside. We were encouraged to speak aloud anything strange that might come to mind — because someone nearby might be thinking the same thing. And most importantly, as they were misunderstood in life, these spirits were equally misunderstood in the afterlife. Some may welcome visitors, others may not, but it was important to remain empathetic to them.

Before entering the main facility, Mayflower Hall, we took a formal tour of the grounds. Tyler spent his time explaining the toll places like Pennhurst have taken on him mentally, and how he’s had to limit his involvement in haunts like these as a result. His story was punctuated by a stop at the Pennhurst pool — where staff had been alleged to drown patients, patients had drowned staff, and patients had drowned one-another. It was spooky, but also tragic.

Back at Mayflower Hall, Donna greeted us again. Despite her position as museum-keeper, she’d actually joined our tour in hopes of finding out who, exactly, was “picking at her hair” whenever she walked through the halls alone at night.

The halls were pitch black, so we were handed flashlights before entering. Starting off in the basement, we walked through a room stuffed with church pews covered in dust. It was an immediately unsettling visual, particularly for the first official stop on a ghost hunt. Donna was quick to point out that the pews actually only arrived for a movie shoot a few years prior, and the room itself is where the laundry used to be stored (to the best of her recollection).

From the laundry room/ foreboding church, we moved into a large, open space at the end of the hall, complete with stuffed animals sitting in a circle. Ominous as that seemed, Andrew told us that they’d placed them there as a method of comforting the spirits there who may have died at a young age. Which… is still pretty freaking spooky.

Andrew then pulled out a Windows tablet from his backpack and opened an app designed to pick up sounds from varying radio frequencies. After connecting the tablet to a speaker, he began asking questions to see what kind of answers we could hear. This little contraption was in use through the majority of our three-hour expedition, delivering a mix of odd, reverb-drenched sounds that may have been communications with the other side.

It also could have just as easily been random sounds picked up from the countless frequencies in range.

“Spirits,” Tyler said at one point, loud enough that his voice echoed faintly off the graffiti-covered tiles, “I want you to come meet with my friends.”

Spread out across the dark, mostly quiet room, we waited calmly for his request to get a response. He explained that the answer was usually some kind of knocking sound.

As we sat waiting for some kind of sign, Tyler said that the name Jeff kept coming to him, and something about motorcycles. Seeming to be a hair beyond a simple coincidence, I told him that my uncle’s name was Jeff, and was, at one time, an avid motorcyclist.

“Is he from Atlanta?” asked Tyler.

He wasn’t.

“Never mind then, it has to be all three,” the medium said, before suggesting we pack up and move to another floor of Mayflower Hall.

If I had to pinpoint a moment where my skepticism started to weigh in pretty heavy, this would be it. While I’m (obviously) not well-versed in the nature of spiritual communication via psychic mediums, the absolute necessity of going three-for-three on vaguely defined impressions seemed… like an arbitrary rule.

Still, I tried to keep my mind open, as the group headed back up to the main floor. Gathered around in one of the building’s largest rooms, Andrew and Tyler brought out another tool in their arsenal, and old audio recording device manufactured in the 1970s, commonly referred to as “Pandora’s box.” Long-since discontinued, the device was significant because it would automatically start recording whenever it picked up audio. The trick behind it was it could pick up frequencies that the human ear couldn’t — like a dog whistle, for instance. This has become a go-to tool for ghost hunters — known for picking up voices from beyond the grave, which can only be heard on playback.

Tyler picked Austin, one of the Chevrolet emissaries, to take the recording device and walk to the other end of the room, which led down another hallway toward a back stairwell. He then told him to state his name and say aloud, “Is anyone out there?”

We sat quietly while Austin asked the question, then returned back to the group telling us he’d felt something while standing alone with his back to the stairs. Upon playback, we could hear Austin asking the question as requested, while Tyler became hung up on a specific sound that came at the end of the recording.

Whatever it was, it hadn’t been uttered by anyone in the room, and the aspiring believer in me was titillated a little. It was immediately countered, of course, by the ever-present voice of reason, which wrote it off as something as simple as a thumb brushing up against the device’s microphone. The seemingly tireless analysis of what that sound could have been, or what word it sounded most like, wasn’t exactly winning over my inner skeptic.

After we spent some more time listening to the recording, and Andrew calling out again for some kind of communication, our leaders suggested we go up to the third floor — famous for unexplainable incidents. Once there, we were directed down corridor dotted with smaller rooms on each side, where Tyler suggested we each pick a doorway to stand in. What happened next was likely the closest thing to a spiritual encounter that would occur. Facing the inside of the room, I asked if anyone was there. Tyler, pacing slowly up and down the corridor, stopped near my doorway and clarified my question by requesting a knock if someone had heard me.

Then, after a few silent moments, there was a faint knock — something that sounded like it was coming from the other side of the brick wall. A murmur of excitement came over the group before Tyler asked if the spirit could knock again. Once more, after a few more moments of silence, the same muted knock was heard. Sure, there could have been any number of logical explanations, but it nonetheless felt like this was the moment that my inner skeptic wouldn’t be able to explain away. Or at least not easily.

Though this seemed like the kind of thing that would’ve been worth exploring a bit further, we headed down to the second floor, where patients were once housed in cramped quarters — four or more to a tiny sectioned off space. Andrew closed the door behind us, telling us that during previous tours he’d seen spirits open it on their own. After a mostly uneventful run, it did seem like our best chance for us to see something out of the ordinary to happen.

We sat around for several minutes, listening to the occasional bursts of noise that came from the Blue Tooth speaker, eagerly hoping for some kind of spiritual encounter. I quietly wandered around the space before settling down in a corner of the room while Tyler kept asking the spirits to give us any kind of sign.

“Please, spirits. My friends all think I’m mad,” he pleaded, before moving into a more confrontational tone, shaming those that used to work there for their inhumane of the patients over the years.

Then something did happen: The door seemed to open on its own. Sadly, it turned out to be someone leaning on the room divider — in place to help keep the lines of attendees organized during the standard haunts.

As we neared the midnight hour, it became increasingly clear that we wouldn’t be experiencing any sort ghostly encounter. Regardless, I left without feeling like our time was wasted, or that we’d been part of some elaborate grift. Both Andrew and Tyler’s commitment to their craft was convincing to the point where I was willing to believe that they believed everything they told us. And though I know little about spirits and ghostly phenomenon, it makes sense that their activities might not always accommodate the confines of private group tours of Pennhurst.

In the end, I walked away with a much different understanding of what Pennhurst was than I’d gone into with. While unspeakable atrocities had happened there, the majority of the staff over the 90+ years it operated did their best to care for their patients, even if their ailments weren’t understood or accepted at the time. As Donna pointed out during her tour of the museum, Pennhurst had racially integrated classrooms and sports teams decades before that’d happen in mainstream society.

In that regard, the decaying ruins of Pennhurst, overgrown with trees and brush, stood as a sad testament to an institution mired in a controversy that overshadowed the good it did (or at least tried to do) when it was operational. It occurred to me as we left — while Tyler and Andrew bid goodnight to the stubborn spirits — that the real ghosts of Pennhurst weren’t the apparitions of the dead, but the overwhelming misunderstanding that plagued the place for all of its years.