The Ethical Implications of Ghost Tourism

The only thing scarier than ghosts are human rights violations.

No, this is not an article about whether or not I think it’s ethical to disturb the dead during their eternal slumber. Sorry if that’s what you wanted to read. I unfortunately don’t have a strong belief in ghosts, so I do not have a stance on that particular topic.

 Something I do have strong stances on are human rights and mental health awareness, and I would like to discuss those here today. It’s Halloween, and being a Sociology major, I’ve come to learn that there is nothing scarier than the man-made horrors that happen all around us. Being a Psychology dual-major, I’ve also come to learn just how deep our violation of human rights and dignity goes. So, how does this tie into paranormal attractions? 

Well, if you’ve watched literally any ghosting hunting show, spooky YouTube video, or horror movie, where do many of them take place? An old, abandoned mental hospital or a “lunatic” asylum, where spirits of insane mental patients still roam, and there’s always the ghost of a nurse still hanging out for some reason.

My biggest problem with ghost-centered attractions is the way it sensationalizes or brushes past the dark history of these places. The ghost craze has twisted the history of human rights violations, abuse of disabled people, abuse of children, and the depressing history of the fields of psychology and psychiatry, and turned these somber institutions into campy haunted houses to visit with your friends.  

Case Study: The Story of Pennhurst “Haunted” Asylum

Because there are so many of these asylums all over the U.S., I want to focus on one to tell this story: the Eastern State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, aka, Pennhurst State School and Hospital (referred to hereafter as “Pennhurst”). Construction began on the extensive institution in 1903, with a capacity for over 500 patients. On November 23rd, 1908, Pennhurst admitted its first patient. His name is listed simply as “Patient number 1” and he would become the first of over 10,000 to be admitted over the institution’s history. 

By 1912, the institution was overcrowded. Something these ghost stories don’t seem to mention is the fact that these “asylums” rarely operated as such; in the case of Pennhurst and other institutions like it, they operated as a place to put away anyone society deemed “unfit.” 

America was in the midst of the Eugenics Movement in the early 20th century. As a result, the majority of the inpatients at Pennhurst had no mental illnesses or disabilities; they were immigrants, orphans, criminals spilled over from prisons, the poor, and other labeled “defectives” that were all herded into asylums in the 1900’s. 

After this overcrowding, Pennhurst made a resolution to only admit “feeble-minded” people, who were defined as people “unfit for citizenship,” “menaces to the peace,” “potential criminals,” and anyone who was not wanted in the gene pool. These definitions were given by Dr. Henry D. Goddard, a leading American eugenicist of the time. Goddard was quoted by Pennhurst’s lead physician when making parameters for admittance to Penshurst. 

It was noted by Goddard and the lead physician that “…the feeble-minded girl should have institutional care in preference to the boy, since she is the greater menace.” This led to the creation of a “female colony” in Pennhurst. Women were segregated from the men to prevent pregnancies, since the disabled were considered unfit to reproduce, lest they “taint” the gene pool.       

In 1955, Pennhurst’s population hit its peak of 3,500 inpatients. The hospital was severely overcrowded. In 1968, NBC10 released an investigative report entitled “Suffer The Little Children,” exposing the systematic mistreatment of Pennhurst’s over 2,000 children residents. Pennhurst was officially closed in 1986, in part due to legal precedents and acts like the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, which placed protections on disabled people. 

The Terrifying Treatment of Disabled & Mentally Ill Individuals

Throughout history, the way we have treated mentally ill individuals has been horrendous and dehumanizing, as illustrated by the story of Pennhurst. Eugenics played a huge part in their treatment; innocent people who were simply born different or did not meet the societal standards of the time (standards set by affluent, heterosexual, able-bodied white men) were locked away, condemned, left to die in an over-crowded asylum of disease, suicide, or maltreatment. 

This is the legacy of the American healthcare system. This is the history of the fields of psychology, counseling, and disability rights. And how do we immortalize it? With ghost tours, dramatized shows, and movie tropes. 

Ghosts Tours, Protecting History & the Memory of Pennhurst 

Pennhurst State School is closed, but its new owners offer ghost tours, a haunted house attraction, and paranormal investigations. Before I continue, I do not want to come off like I’m anti-fun here; I love a good haunted house. I literally wait the entire year for Halloween time. 

My problem is not with the innocent whimsey of Halloween and spooky ghosts, it’s the fact that a place where human rights were fought over, where hundreds of people suffered and died, where a genocide against disabled people took place has been morphed into a kitsch fright night that capitalizes on our ability to brush over history, sensationalize it, and choke down our hang-ups for a little bit of fun. 

Pennhurst State School & Hospital was renamed “Pennhurst Haunted Asylum” by the owners who do the ghost advertising. It is open to TV hosts, YouTubers, and regular people to run around and take selfies and shoot fun videos in a place where many people lived out their final days in misery. 

This campy ghost campaign has been perpetuated to the dismay of organizations like the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance (where I got most of the information and quotes for this article, found at, which actively works to preserve the real history of Pennhurst and to support the living survivors. 

Yes, there are still living survivors of Pennhurst. Remember, it didn’t close until the late 80’s. They most likely have seen the way we remember the place where they spent probably the worst years of their lives. They likely have seen the haunted house advertising, the ghost tours, and the way we go into abandoned places to take creepy photos for our Instagrams. I wonder what they think.  

The Scariest Thing of All: Stereotypes and Stigma

Caricatures that frame mentally ill people as crazy screaming lunatics in straight jackets are gross. When people talk about Pennhurst, they spin a story that this asylum was once filled with insane, violent people who needed to be removed from society. In reality, it was overcrowded with people with very manageable disabilities such as autism or learning delays.

With all the progress we’ve made with mental health awareness, you’d think we’d be smarter than this, but apparently I need to spell it out for some of you. Mental health awareness applies to people who suffer from symptoms that you may not understand. If your version of “mental health awareness” only applies to experiences that are relatable to you, that is not awareness. 

Mental health awareness applies to people who have physical tics, who talk to themselves, and who have other symptoms that are not featured in aesthetic little Instagram posts. These people are just as deserving of support and sympathy. Just because it is harder to sugar coat these symptoms does not mean they don’t deserve attention.  

When we perpetuate the idea that these patients were in some way sub-human monsters, we amplify mental health stigma. People who suffer from mental illness or neurological problems are typically able to live very healthy, functional lives if given the proper support, therapy, medication, etc. They were not given that care in Pennhurst. They were not cared for by their own families. They were not cared for by their communities. No ghost could be more horrifying than that.   

The Real Ghosts of Pennhurst      

Pennhurst is now considered to be a historic battleground for disability rights. I think that is how we ought to remember it. I also think there is something to be said about the way we devalue the disabled and mentally ill when we turn the places where they were imprisoned and left to die into “paranormal hot spots.” 

We care about the victims of Pennhurst only when they are “ghosts” we can “commune” with and thus speak for, yet we show no mercy for them when they were a living person. When we can control their stories to our comfort level, we can accept it. The only way we can exert this total control is when the people whose stories we tell are already dead. Hence, we come up with ghost tales to calm our stomachs. Ghost stories are the digestible fluff we feed ourselves to ignore the real horrors we do not wish to face. This is because some of these horrors may cause us to examine the society we live in, the people in authority, and, most terrifying of all, our own ingrained beliefs and values.        

 The ghosts of Pennhurst are not the ones you can find on a guided tour through the old property. No, the ghosts of Pennhurst are the stories of the people who were born different, who perceived the world in a different way, people who were deemed a “nuisance” and locked away. The ghosts of Pennhurst are the stigma we still place on people who we label “different.” The ghosts of any “haunted asylum” you may enter are the ghosts of our still broken mental health system. 

Listen to the real stories of the people who lived these horrors, not the ghost stories we read online when we’re bored on Halloween. Real stories are the most sensational, but they offer the greatest lessons: Have empathy. Be understanding. Stand up for the rights of every person, because if we remain content with maltreatment, then we embody the evil we claim to be scared of. 

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