Welcome, You’ll Be Feeling Better In No Time.
Oni and I were a bit nervous when we decided to return to Pennhurst Asylum to do a review of it this year. Pennhurst’s design was done by Randy Bates, who has his own haunted attraction The Bates Motel that we’ve been to many times (and love). The problem stems from the fact that our previous visit in 2010, on it’s initial year of operation, proved to not be a great experience. Pennhurst Asylum the haunted attraction is located on the actual grounds of the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital and has the same built in creepy factor of other haunts like Eastern State Penitentiary:Terror Behind The Walls or Hotel of Horrors by being in a real location as opposed to an artificial one.
The 2010 year was plagued by a short development time (due to protests and other legal factors that delayed things until almost the last second of the Halloween season) that basically seemed to rely on the location itself to provide most of the scare factors. We decided in fairness to not do a real review for that year, but to provide a list of tips we felt they needed to work on in order to make things better.
So, we waited a few years and now we went back. Did they follow any of our advice? Did it iterate from being just a few people in some rooms wearing scrubs, and one long open hallway filled with smoke, into a haunt worthy of the Randy Bates reputation?
Short answer: Yes.
Pennhurst has 4 attractions now, with 3 being actual scare filled locations and one being a self-guided flashlight walking tour of one of the buildings.
The first haunt is exactly what you’d expect, but done in a way you wouldn’t. While it has the theme of a asylum, it doesn’t simply rely on the standard “people in straightjackets” and howling idiots that most asylum based haunts lazily drop into. The scares came all over the place and there were some really great unexpected moments thrown in between rooms. Since Pennhurst (like Bates Motel) is a touch attraction it got very disturbing very fast when one of the inmates (clad only in a large diaper) chased us around after screaming that he needed a change–and yes, we got hit with something squishy and moist.
The actors were all really good and really seemed to have characters instead of being “generic patient number 1”. As opposed to 2010 this attraction was designed with great sets, perfect controlled walkways (to make you have to interact with the actors), and enough scares to be really effective.
Dungeon of Doom
This second haunt was new to us since it wasn’t in existence in 2010. this area is a more amped up version of a mad scientist vibe, and was just as intense as the asylum. The same stuff was true here as the asylum, and we were blown away with how well things were going this year so far. At this point we knew that we were going to recommend Pennhurst and were having a great time.
This area was the one we were most worried about when we decided to visit Pennhurst again. In 2010 this attraction was literally just a fog filled right angle corridor with a few people in costumes screaming and wandering around. Since it was basically unchanged from the way the location was designed, it ended up with a large number of attendees crowding in it with no way to control the flow–so it was essentially locked up with a ton of us and few of them, the scare actors. It was a mess.
I can tell you though, the current incarnation is nothing like that. It’s a study of movement control and design, with closed in walkways that guide you through and intense experience of monsters, giant animatronics, and fun times. It was here that I got suckered by one of the actors who had jumped out at me–“I’m sorry about that” he said then rached out to shake my hand–of course I ended up with a hand filled with goo. Yeah, that was a lovely feeling :)
In the corridor you go through a cave environment, a warehouse looking location, a well designed claustropobia area, and many more sections. As opposed to the first year this section seemed to go on forever, with us being pretty exhausted (from scares) by the end.
It was honestly glorious to see the massive change that had occurred. This is the set up we were hoping for in 2010, and has now been fulfilled.
Your Room Is Now Available.
While not a haunt as such, the flashlight tour was very effective nonetheless. In fact afterward Oni ended up being more jumpy afterward as a result than from the haunts themselves (which is an achievement). The building doesn’t have any direct “set pieces”, but they definitely added some items to some of the rooms to make them look a bit more scary in the dark (children’s toys were everywhere). They had employees in the building to look after things–and after being through the haunts it sometimes happened that when turning a corner you’d come face to face with one and actually end up jumping as if they had been a scare actor. We think they actually stood in areas on purpose to have this happen, though they did not interact at all.
The building was filled with graffiti from the many years it was empty and visited by random people, so it of course has “satanic” and other goofy stuff painted everywhere. In the dark though, with only the beam of a small flashlight, it was a great way to end the evening.
Pennhurst has a midway that was small but had a merch area, some food concessions, a DJ, and some covered areas to sit and eat. It felt a bit like what Randy has at Bates Motel, but was a bit more fleshed out.
There’s Plenty Of Fire To Go Around
One other part we really liked was the start of the first haunt. In that area they have a small gallery of items from the operating years of the facility, and had 2 former real employees there to answer any questions. Most people of course ran right past them into the haunt, but we actually stayed in the area for quite awhile and chatted with Donna and Ruth. They were both enthusiastic and were open to answering real questions on their daily work at the facility. They revealed that the place was actually quite mundane in reality, with none of the fantastic elements you’d imagine would be happening there. They even said that the location was pretty bright and open looking when it was operating–with all of the eerie tree covering and dark atmosphere a result of being closed for 25 years. We’d really suggest visitors take the opportunity to talk with them–it’s an insight you’d never normally be able to get anywhere else.
As a side note, when driving up the location at night, the current set up is really primed to make you scared. The roads twist and turn and you’d easily freak out if anything at all happened on the side of the road. You can’t really see much before you turn to the next section so it lends itself to the mindset that will get you jumpy later.
A Comforting View
Randy also did a great job of setting up the queue lines and presenting the location when you arrive. The steps up from the parking area go directly up to view the front of the first haunt, which is lit in a suitably framed way to inspire terror. From what he told us, this was a major change from previously and works well now. One thing we could suggest though: When we arrived right after sundown the steps were really dark. Given their decay I could easily imagine someone possibly tripping. When we left it was much better illuminated–so maybe they just hadn’t turned the lights on when we arrived–but it really should be a focus to make sure that’s done as soon as it gets dark.
Overall we really loved the Haunt. If you like Bates you will love Pennhurst. It’s a real must do for haunt fans at this point.