It takes unrelenting misery for a place to become a paranormal hotspot. Those who lived at Pennhurst State School endured 79 years of unimaginable horror.
We recently returned to Pennhurst State School, which we first visited in 2018, to ghost hunt again. Our first investigation there was pretty amazing. The facility began its service to Pennsylvania in 1908 as an institution for mentally and physically disabled children. It closed in the 1980s, only re-opening in 2010 as a museum and seasonal Halloween attraction.
It was logical that we’d return for another investigation at this crumbling relic. Pennhurst offered its residents a home of incredible unrelenting misery. On our return, we were sad to see some buildings gone, having crumbled beyond saving.
A Pleasant Prison — Or Was it?
Pennhurst’s older buildings, designed by Phillip H. Johnson, were two-storied, and made of red brick, terra cotta and granite trimmings. Fire-proof tunnels with walkways — the catwalks — on top of the tunnels for transporting residents connected the buildings.
In 1913, the legislature appointed a commission which recommended custodial care for individuals with mental or physical disabilities. These individuals were “unfit for citizenship and posed a menace to the peace.” The Commission’s real goal was to prevent the intermixing of the genes of those held at Pennhurst with the general population: eugenics. The state encouraged families to drop off their disabled children and forget about them. The children grew up in the institution, becoming adults. Pennhurst served as a “pleasant prison” for folks who didn’t fit in.
Except, it wasn’t pleasant at all. It housed misery and sadness. Conditions at Pennhurst rapidly became unsanitary, inhumane and dangerous. Residents were often confined to their beds, tied to chairs, drugged out of their senses because the state employed too few staff to care for them properly. Care-takers and other residents abused more vulnerable residents as well. Some female residents gave birth while at the facility.
Finally, when a family visited their daughter in the late 1970s, they saw bruises on the child’s body and filed a lawsuit. The court found that conditions there violated the 14th Amendment. The case became an important rule of law known as the Pennhurst Doctrine. Pennhurst shut down in 1987.
It takes that kind of unrelenting misery to become such an active paranormal location.
Ghost Hunting at Pennhurst
The public ghost hunts Pennhurst holds have evolved since our 2018 visit. There were a lot more of us than last time: at least 70. Thankfully, we broke up into about six different groups. Of course, Pennhurst is plenty big for all of us. Other than in passing outside, we were barely aware of the other 60 participants. Also thankfully, they organized the ghost hunt well. As we arrived we received colored bracelets that designated our groups. A volunteer shepherded us around to the different locations and answered our many questions.
After a tour of the facility, the investigation began. Although each group tour guide offered to loan out EMF readers and other ghost hunting equipment, we had brought dowsing rods, a spirit box, pendulums, cat balls (they light up!), a full-spectrum camera which I forgot to use and a few other items.
During the evening, we investigated on the third floor and basement of the Mayflower building, the tunnels between the Mayflower and Devon buildings, the infirmary (newly opened to paranormal investigators), and the first and third floors of the Devon building.
We tried a new-to-us technique: the Estes Method. To make this work, one participant puts on noise-cancelling headphones to listen to the spirit box and call out words they hear, while other participants in the group ask questions. We got some interesting results from this, including at one point, the participant with the spirit box who was also blind-folded calling out “She’s coming.” Indeed she was. The tour guide was headed toward him in the tunnel.
I find it particularly interesting to run the Ghost Vox app on my phone during Estes Method. It occasionally spits out words that pertain to the questioning. Essentially, it just offers spirits another way to communicate.
Unlike our first visit to Pennhurst, the dowsing rods weren’t very active. But in the tunnels, we experienced an extensive “conversation” via flashlight turning on and off. In fact, I think our most interesting results came from the photographs we took during the ghost hunt. We caught an interesting black shadow, seemingly peering out of a closet (a good place for a black shadow to lurk). And an interesting possible mist.
The most active building was again the Mayflower. I’d really like to return, this time with a much smaller group, and for longer, to focus on going through this building more methodically.
Know Before You Go
Come dressed to get dirty. Old abandoned buildings are dirty and probably dangerous. Wear a mask — not just for covid — but to avoid inhaling lead paint dust and who knows what else into your lungs. Sturdy sneakers or boots will protect your feet. Wear long jeans because spiders and mice and such critters. I recommend bathing in bug spray in the summer months.
Getting there: 1205 Commonwealth Dr, Spring City, PA
Hours: Check the website for dates and times of tours and ghost hunts.
Website: Pennhurst State School
Can’t get enough ghost hunts? Check out the ghost hunts and paranormal investigations we’ve participated in!