Judge: Pennhurst horror house can open

A scene from inside Pennhurst, a long-closed asylum that a judge says can now be turned into a haunted house.
A scene from inside Pennhurst, a long-closed asylum that a judge says can now be turned into a haunted house. (Frank Kummer)
Posted: September 24, 2010

The former Pennsylvania Pennhurst Center, once the site of real life horrors committed against the mentally handicapped, will become a fictional house of horrors tonight.

After listening to two hours of testimony, Chester County Judge Robert J. Shenkin declined to issue an order that would have prevented the "Pennhurst Asylum" from opening at 6:30.

"We're very happy," said Richard Chakejian, who owns the 110-acre property.

"I'm disappointed," said Saul Rivkin, chairman of the East Vincent Township Historical Society on whose behalf the request for an injunction had been filed.

"I just hope nothing happens to anyone," he said.

Opponents to the attraction argued that East Vincent Township failed to require necessary building and construction permits, denying the public the right to challenge the plan.

Rivkin and his wife, Linda Fulton-Rivkin live on Pennhurst Road close to the complex, just outside Spring City.

Transcending the permit questions, however, was the issue of whether a haunted house is an appropriate use of the site, given the well-documented abuse of patients there. Pennhurst was the focus of landmark litigation that led to deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill.

"This is such an indignity to the people who lived and died at Pennhurst," said David Ferleger, the lawyer who filed the original Pennhurst suit on May 30, 1974. U.S. District Judge Raymond Broderick ruled in his favor, and Pennhurst closed in 1987.

"Pennhurst is a place where people's lives were wasted," Ferleger said.

Randy L. Bates, owner of the Bates Motel & Haunted Hayride attraction in Glen Mills, who developed the Pennhurst haunted house with Chakejian, said the criticism stung him.

"I've spent my whole life with people patting me on the back and people telling me what a nice guy I am. Now I'm told I'm the devil's pawn," Bates said Thursday as crews put finishing touches on the hulking Pennhurst administration building, where the attraction is housed.

Two rooms are devoted to Pennhurst's history, but Bates said that throughout the haunted-house exhibits, he had tried to create a fictional environment disassociated from the realities of Pennhurst.

"We created a backstory specifically to counteract any type of correlation between the former residents and what we're doing here," he said.

Chakejian, who said the haunted house was his 13-year-old son's idea, said he believed that "99 percent" of the 12- to 20-year-old visitors would have no acquaintance with Pennhurst's history.

"They're here to get a scare," he said.

Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

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