Jim Werner: Pennhurst School and State Hospital

Written by: Frank Iacono

In 1903, the Pennsylvania Legislature authorized the creation of the Pennhurst State School and Hospital, originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. The institution, which officially opened its doors on November 23, 1908, was the second such state-operated facility and served the mentally and physically disabled individuals of Southeastern PA.

From the outset, the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution was overcrowded. Designed for epileptics and persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, there was tremendous pressure to admit many different persons whom society, steeped in the eugenics movement, wanted removed from the gene pool, including immigrants, orphans, criminals, etc.

Unfortunately, cruel punishments were common at the facility. Overworked staff responded to unruly patients by drugging them into submission or chaining them to their beds. Other residents were isolated for such long periods of time that they regressed and lost their will to speak, fight or even to live.

In 1968, Philadelphia CBS correspondent Bill Baldini produced an exposé on the institution entitled “Suffer the Little Children” which uncovered the atrocities of the facility and created a sympathetic public sediment. His exposure led to a massive lawsuit. In 1987, the facility officially closed its doors and the network of buildings was neglected and left to the tortured, sad spirits.

In 2010, to the shock and dismay of many – especially those in the mental and physical disabilities community – Pennhurst owners worked with Randy Bates of The Bates Motel Halloween attraction located in Glenn Mills, PA to turn Pennhurst’s historic lower campus into a commercial Halloween “haunted” attraction.

In this edition of The Creative Spotlight, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Werner, the Operations Manager of Pennhurst Asylum, and asked him about the history, the eugenics movement, the five-part news report, the annual haunted attraction and “good to know” facts concerning the Pennhurst State School and Hospital.

Q&A Session

The Creative Spotlight: When the Pennhurst School and State Hospital opened its doors on November 23, 1908, how did the Eugenics movement influence the purpose of the institution for the feeble minded and epileptic and what problems ensued?

Jim Werner: At the time, when the Pennhurst School and State Hospital opened its doors in 1908 in Spring City, Pennsylvania, people with special needs were perceived as a subclass very similar to how African Americans were regarded. Pennhurst was part of a national trend to segregate individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities from mainstream society. To that extent, I feel that the Eugenics movement was a flawed science in that it truly discouraged aiding the sick and poor. In the prior century, the ongoing idea was that by pulling those with special needs out of society it both protected society and also gave them a place to live safely. We know that without knowledge there can’t be change and as society was never exposed to the disabled, they were seen as an almost non-existent and unknown population.

TCS: Can you provide us with at least three historical facts about the Pennhurst State School and Hospital that the average person wouldn’t know?

JW: Three “Good to Know” facts about the Pennhurst School and State Hospital, include:

  • When the facility opened in 1908, the administration building had not yet been completed so the Philadelphia building was actually used as the original Admin building.
  • There was a time when train cars could travel all the way up from the main tracks to the middle of the lower campus in the area of the Dietary building
  • The Pennhurst School and State Hospital was never actually an asylum.


TCS: How many building encompassed the Pennhurst facility and what were the buildings used for?

JW: At its height, the Pennhurst School and State Hospital encompassed more than 30 buildings. The earliest of which, designed by Phillip H. Johnson, were constructed of red brick, terra cotta and granite trimmings and are connected by a series of underground tunnels that stretch for miles. Pennhurst was a self-sufficient community as its 1,400-acre site contained a firehouse, general store, barbershop, greenhouse, hospital with a morgue, auditorium, farm, power plant, and even a graveyard.

TCS: When Pennhurst was built how many patients was it initially built to accommodate and how many occupants did it have at its fullest capacity? Additionally, what was the ratio of doctors and nurses or employees to patients?

JW: The Pennhurst facility was initially designed to house around 500 patients, by 1912 the institution was almost immediately overpopulated. Once in, every patient was given a classification of mental prowess, either as an “imbecile” or “insane” and physically as either “epileptic” or “healthy.” Many of the people that were placed in the School and State Hospital should not have been. In 1946, there were only seven physicians serving over 2,000 patients with no room for the 1,000 still on the waiting list for admission. By the mid-1960s, the facility, housed 2,791 people, most of them children, which was about 900 more than the administration thought the buildings could comfortably accommodate. The staff was extremely overwhelmed and unable to properly care for the patients.

TCS: In your opinion, do you feel that Pennhurst predominantly assisted in providing a positive learning experience for the patients or do you feel its programs and resources caused more harm than good?

JW: For some of the patients, the answer is “yes” and for others the answer is “no”. The high functioning patients could work and live a pretty full life on site without the persecution of the general public raining down on them. However, with a budget shortfall and staffing issues the low functioning patients were not cared for in a manner that would help to improve their condition. By the mid-1960s, only 200 of the residents were in any kind of art, education, or recreation programs.

TCS: In 1968, Bill Baldini, a local CBS Philadelphia newsman, opened the eyes to the horrors of Pennhurst when he exposed it during a five-part series entitled Suffer the Little Children. How did this expose change the daily operations of Pennhurst and Pennsylvania laws concerning the treatment of the mentally disabled?

JW: Bill Baldini, then a fledgling TV reporter, heard about the Pennhurst School and State Hospital facility and went there one day to visit and was immediately appalled at the conditions. Baldini has said that when he left that day, he cried the entire way home in his car. His five-part exposé outraged the public and truly painted a picture of neglect and abuse in the Chester County, PA institution. Many of the regular news viewers found it very difficult to stomach the coverage. This state-funded school and hospital center was at the heart of the human rights movement that revolutionized this country’s approach to healthcare for the mentally and physically handicapped. This facility was one of the most striking examples of the maltreatment that was characteristic of such institutions––at one point, papers labeled it “The Shame of the Pennsylvania”.


TCS: Who and how many are buried in the Pennhurst Memorial Cemetery? Can you tell us if these were patients of the hospital and why didn’t family members come to claim their bodies?

JW: The Pennhurst Memorial Cemetery is located on the grounds of the Pennhurst State School and Hospital. From a time period between 1918 and 1933 there were 40 former residents are buried. Unfortunately, I cannot answer why they didn’t claim their bodies with anything other than just speculation.

TCS: Can you describe for us some of the coverage that the Pennhurst School and State Hospital has received especially on shows like Ghost Finders, Syfy’s Ghost Hunter and the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Paranormal Challenge?

JW: The Pennhurst School and State Hospital site has long been regarded as a paranormal hotspot by some of the shows within that genre and they draw specifically on that reputation.

On Ghost Finders (Season 4, Episode 10 and Season 4, Episode 9 Pennhurst), join team members Rob, Heather and Amber as they capture some incredible evidence caught on camera.

On Ghost Adventures (Season 2, Episode 12), Zak Bagans, Nick Groff, Aaron Goodwin travel to Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Pennsylvania, which was an institution for both the mentally and physically disabled. Pennhurst State closed in 1987 after several allegations of abuse, including dehumanization.

On Ghost Hunters Live: Pennhurst State (Season 7, Episode 21), the Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) team and some special guests spend six hours at Pennhurst State School and Hospital, with live interactive features so that the viewing audience can join in the chase.

On Paranormal Challenge (Season 1, Episode 3), creator and host Zak Bagans invites two teams of amateur ghost hunters to spend the night locked down inside haunted hotspots. During the night, the teams will put their paranormal skills to the test by conducting a ghost investigation with high-tech gear and their own knowledge. The teams will then present their findings to Bagans and a panel of three paranormal experts who judge the teams on teamwork, use of technology and evidence collected during the lockdown.

In this episode, the New Jersey Ghost Hunters Society take a more methodical approach to investigating the looming spirits of Pennhurst State School, while the rough-and-tumble Quest Paranormal Society employ an in-your-face plan of attack.


TCS: While working at Pennhurst, have you personally experienced any paranormal encounters such as shadows, unexplained lights or apparitions? If so, can you please describe where and what happened specifically?

JW: Fortunately, or unfortunately, while I’ve worked at Pennhurst School and State Hospital I have not personally experienced any paranormal encounters.

TCS: In October of 2010, Pennhurst owners worked with Randy Bates of the Bates Motel & Haunted Hayride attraction in Glen Mills, PA was to turn Pennhurst historic lower campus into a commercial Halloween “haunted” attraction. With that, can you share what visitors to the annual event will experience during their trip to the Pennhurst Haunted Asylum?

JW: Visitors to the annual event can enjoy four terrifying attractions featuring the Pennhurst Asylum, The Dungeon of Lost Souls, Containment and Mayflower After Dark.

Pennhurst Asylum

The Pennhurst Asylum is a “Hospital” themed walk through attraction featuring many items and artifacts that are salvaged from the original State School. Located on the upper floors of the old Administration building, which dates to 1908, this attraction features fine detail and realism through a combination of high tech animatronics, digital sound and highly trained actors.


The Dungeon of Lost Souls

Enter the world of the underground as your soul is led down the steps of the past to go back in time to a labyrinth of dilapidated cells, never ending halls, and be forced to confront a series of human experiments that have gone horribly and deadly wrong. This experience includes CGI special effects, illusions, attention to detail and ghosts that have never left the halls.


Containment (Tunnels) New* 2017!

Containment is a new attraction for 2017 that takes you through a 1,200-foot-long gauntlet underneath the Pennhurst complex. Stationed as a government facility hidden underground for decades, you will bear witness to patients being experimented on in the most inhumane ways possible. Lucky for you, this research facility is still accepting patients! The brand-new sets and scares of this attraction are guaranteed to produce horrifying screams and nightmares to come.


Mayflower After Dark

The final attraction, Mayflower After Dark, is a self-guided tour of the Mayflower Building, reportedly the most ghostly active of all the locations on the campus. It’s featured on Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters. No actors or props, visitors are sent at their own risk to wander through the dormitory, left caught in the sands of time just as it was 26 years ago. Search for spirits on your own, or let them find you first. Included is a museum of Pennhurst State School artifacts with real former employees taking you back in time to what life was really like for the patients.


Contact or Visit Pennhurst

Pennhurst School and State Hospital
Church Street and Bridge Road
Spring City, PA 19475
Phone: 484-886-6080
Get Directions

TCS: What can you tell us about the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance?

JW: The Mission of the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance is to promote an understanding of the struggle for dignity and full civil rights for persons with disabilities, using the little-known history at Pennhurst. By sharing this tragic story as well as its landmark victories, they seek to educate citizens in local, national and international communities, to assure that we never go back.

The Vision of the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance is to be part of an effort to create a world-class museum to honor and memorialize the ongoing civil and human rights struggle of Americans with disabilities at a location of national significance.

TCS: Where do you see the Pennhurst property in the next 20 years?

JW: We very much hope that the essential buildings located on the Pennhurst site can be economically restored. From a historical perspective, we plan to have a museum or other venue on the property to recognize the site’s vast history and display artifacts. Additionally, our goal is to continue to operate and expand the Halloween haunted house attractions on a year-to-year basis.

About Frank Iacono

Frank Iacono Photo

Frank Iacono is a highly skilled results-oriented Strategic Marketing Professional with proven critical thinking, problem solving, and project management skills, developed through more than 20 years of experience concentrated in integrated marketing strategies. Frank brings a thorough, hands-on understanding of marketing strategies and technological platforms as related to applications available for web design, content development, email marketing, site and campaign analytics, search marketing and optimization, service and product marketing, lead and demand generation, social media, and customer retention.

Frank has a BA degree in English/Communications and Marketing from Cabrini College, and he received his Webmaster Certification from Penn State Great Valley.

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Eastern State Penitentiary: America’s Most Historic Prison

Written by: Frank Iacono

Construction of the Eastern State Penitentiary, America’s most historic prison, began on a cherry orchard outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1822. The chosen design created by British-born architect John Haviland was a technological marvel which consisted of seven wings of individual cell blocks radiating from a center hub; this was unlike any other prison design seen before the penitentiary opened in 1829.

Eastern State, at its completion was the most expensive public structure ever built, is considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary. It was initially renowned for its Enlightenment-inspired efforts to reform inmates rather than merely punish them. Eventually, this system was abandoned in favor of solitary confinement and a Death Row block. The once-genteel penitentiary housed, at one time, the most notorious prohibition-era gangster – Al Capone. Capone’s private cell even allowed him to have fine antiques and Oriental carpets.

The prison was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and closed in 1971. It is now considered by several sources to be one of the most haunted places in America. The penitentiary has been featured on the Travel Channel’s Most Haunted Live, Ghost Adventures, and Paranormal Challenge; Fox Television’s World’s Scariest Places; TLC’s America’s Ghost Hunters; and MTV’s FEAR.

Today, Eastern State Penitentiary is open for tours seven days a week, year-round. Visitors can explore the cell blocks and learn about the history of this facility and its relevance. Eastern State offers a daily guided tour with one of their expert tour guides, or visitors can take a self-guided audio tour, “The Voices of Eastern State” Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi.

In this edition of The Creative Spotlight, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President & Director of Interpretation and Amy Hollaman, Associate Director, Events and Operations; Creative Director for Terror Behind the Walls and asked them about the history, the correctional system of incarceration, notorious criminals who were incarcerated, the annual Terror Behind the Walls and “good to know” facts concerning the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Q&A Session

The Creative Spotlight: The Eastern State Penitentiary, which was designed by John Haviland and opened its doors on October 25, 1829, was considered the first true penitentiary. Why do you think it received this designation and what made it so controversial?

Sean Kelley: Eastern State is considered the world’s first true penitentiary because of its intent, to instill penitence and true regret in the hearts of its prisoners. Eastern State’s focus was on achieving this penitence through silence, prayer, and labor, all of which took place in the solitude of inmates’ cells. Solitary confinement was a revolutionary concept when compared to prisons at the time, where inmates of all ages and crimes were housed together and physical punishment was the norm. Now, we can look back at the system of isolation that was so prevalent at the beginning of Eastern State’s history and recognize how, although it was supposed to be a solution to prison reform, it truly was harmful for inmates.

Curious how the building has changed over time? Here’s an online tour from 1998.

TCS: For the benefit of those who are not familiar with the Eastern State Penitentiary, can you provide us with at least three “Good to Know” facts?

SK: Three “Good to Know” facts about the Eastern State Penitentiary, include:

  • Eastern State Penitentiary’s system of solitude was seen as a revolutionary concept in prison reform. But what we know now, nearly 200 years later, is that solitary confinement is incredibly damaging for people’s mental health.
  • Architect John Haviland’s wagon wheel design of Eastern State has been copied over 300 times. There is a prison that looks just like Eastern State on every continent except Antarctica.
  • The penitentiary had running water and central heat before the White House!


TCS: Eastern State Penitentiary is touted as America’s Most Historic Prison. Can you perhaps share with us some stories about notorious criminals who were incarcerated there such as bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al “Scarface” Capone?

SK: One of the most famous bank robbers in American History, “Slick Willie” Sutton spent 11 years at Eastern State Penitentiary. In 1945 Sutton, along with 11 other prisoners, escaped from Eastern State in an inmate-dug tunnel that went almost 100 feet underground. Sutton was recaptured just minutes later. Over the course of his criminal career Sutton is credited with over 50 bank robberies, three successful escapes from prison, and over 30 years served behind bars. Visitors can step into the cell and view the hole from which Sutton and 11 others escaped.

Our visitors also enjoy viewing the cell of Chicago’s most famous mob boss, Al Capone. According to news reports, his time at Eastern State was spent in relative luxury. Reports stated that his cell housed a cabinet radio, oriental rug, and fine furniture. He also had his tonsils removed from the penitentiary operating room in 1929.

Take a 360-degree panorama view of Al Capone’s cell by visiting kuula.co/post/7lL8y.

TCS: Please explain Eastern State’s revolutionary so-called separate philosophy or correctional system of incarceration, dubbed as the Pennsylvania System of Confinement?

SK: The separate system, or Pennsylvania System, was based on the idea that penitence would lead to reform. Through silence, spiritual reflection, and physical labor, criminals were supposed to find this penitence in their hearts and change their ways. The early system was strict. Inmates has no contact with each other, and even interactions with guards was mild. Meals were even passed through a feeding hole, limiting guard/inmate interaction further. When inmates were taken from their cells, a hood was placed over their head to avoid any contact.

TCS: Can you please describe for us what an inmate experienced in the 1800’s under the Pennsylvania System of Confinement?

SK: When Eastern State was designed, its architect had to create solutions to ensure the success of this separate system. Originally, each cellblock and individual cell was designed with similar architecture to a church, with high, arched ceilings and a single skylight. Because each cell was meant for a single inmate, each has its own exercise yard and flushing toilet.

The penitentiary’s most famous architectural aspect is its radial design, with a central surveillance hub and seven cellblock which radiated from it much like a wagon wheel. This was to ensure complete and total surveillance to ensure control. As additional cellblocks were built over time, this idea of surveillance became harder and harder to achieve.

TCS: Can you please describe for us some of the horrible forms of punishment that the inmates encountered when they broke the rules?

SK: Eastern State officials mostly avoided physical punishments, though straightjackets and other restraints were occasionally applied.

In the 1800s, Eastern State’s “silent system,” or “Pennsylvania system,” stood in opposition to the Auburn system of incarceration employed in New York State prisons such as Auburn and Sing Sing. The Auburn system housed prisoners in solitary cells overnight, but grouped them together during the day for silent labor. Auburn administrators used corporal punishment on those who broke prison rules, while Eastern State officials largely avoided such punishments.

On occasion, Eastern State officials placed prisoners who became unruly or violent, and those who repeatedly disturbed the penitentiary’s silence, in restraints such as the “iron gag” and the “composing chair” (also called the “mad chair” or “tranquilizing chair”). One prisoner, Mathias Maccumsey, died after being placed in the iron gag for attempting to communicate with other prisoners.

Another punishment that officials used on occasion in the 1800s was the “shower bath.” A “shower bath” was a punishment used by prison officials in which a prisoner was restrained and doused with water.

Though solitary confinement had been used in the prison’s early years for rehabilitative purposes, by the early 1900s, solitary cells were reserved for those who broke prison rules. Infractions that resulted in solitary confinement included stealing items from the kitchen, fighting, gambling, cursing an officer, and other misconducts.

TCS: Please share with us the specific changes that occurred to the Penitentiary in the 1900’s and how those changes affected the prisoners daily living conditions and interactions with other inmates versus the 1800s?

SK: The separate system that Eastern State was so infamous for had begun to erode early on. By the late 1800s, inmates were issued hoods with— for the first time—eye holes. They would exercise together, in silence and anonymity. A congregate workshop was added to the complex in 1905, eight years before the Pennsylvania System was officially discontinued. With a large number of prisoners in an aging structure, the system of solitary isolation was completely abandoned in 1913.

An issue that faced the wardens of Eastern State, which we still face today, is prison overcrowding. As the penitentiary took in more and more prisoners, the separate system was no longer realistic or achievable. The original seven cellblocks were no longer enough to hold inmates, and by the time the penitentiary closed in 1970, an additional 8 cellblocks had been added. This compromised both the system of isolation and surveillance that was so pivotal in the 1800s.


TCS: By 1965, the Federal Government designated Eastern State Penitentiary as a National Historic Landmark. In 1971, it was closed. Can you describe for us the various proposals the City of Philadelphia had for the property after it purchased it for redevelopment?

SK: Eastern State sat abandoned for about 16 years before it went up for sale in 1987. Developers placed bids ranging from $2.5 million to $3 million. Suggested developments included a condominium complex, a supermarket, restaurants, and a nightclub. The following year, the preservationist group Eastern State Task Force (which would eventually become Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc.) was formed and the first limited group tours of the prison are offered. The rest, as they say, is history.

TCS: Please describe for us what the public can expect to see or encounter during one of the historic public tours?

SK: There is something for everyone at Eastern State. We offer a daily guided tour with one of our expert tour guides, or visitors can take a self-guided audio tour, “The Voices of Eastern State” Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. Eastern State also features history exhibits and a critically acclaimed series of artist installations. Visitors can enjoy Hands-On History interactive experiences which allow visitors a closer look through short demonstrations with our expert tour guides. Our latest exhibit, Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, looks at our nation’s skyrocketing incarceration rate and the driving factors behind it. Eastern State sits on nearly 11 acres, so we encourage visitors to walk around and explore everything the museum has to offer!


TCS: When do you start preparing for Terror Behind the Walls and tell us what exactly goes in to the overall preparation process?

Amy Hollaman: Terror Behind the Walls, America’s largest haunted house, is located inside the massive, castle-like walls of Eastern State Penitentiary. This extraordinary theatrical production is consistently ranked among the top haunted attractions in the nation. Preparation takes place year-round, and once the event is up-and-running it takes an elite team of 14 makeup artists almost three hours to prepare the cast of more than 200 performers each evening.

Terror Behind the Walls is the single largest source of revenue for Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., the 501(c)3 tax-exempt, charitable organization that administers both the daytime prison tour program and the Halloween fundraiser. Since 1991, Terror Behind the Walls has raised more than $5.3 million to fund preservation efforts at this National Historic Landmark.

With the help of Terror Behind the Walls, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is thriving. Daytime prison tours are available every day, year-round, from 10 am to 5 pm.

TCS: Terror Behind the Walls an annual Haunted House Halloween event, consists of six startling attractions. Can you please describe each of the attractions and tell us what you feel entices visitors from across the country to attend year after year?

AH: Terror Behind the Walls (TBTW) consists of six haunted attractions that create a seamless experience for visitors. All six attractions are included in one admission price. As visitors enter Terror Behind the Walls, they are confronted with a critical decision: should they explore the prison and watch the action, or should they mark themselves to truly interact with the denizens of the cellblocks? Those who opt in for true interactivity may be grabbed, held back, sent into hidden passageways, removed from their group, and even occasionally incorporated into the show. They will deal with the consequences of their decision through six long attractions:

  • Lock Down: The creatures of Lock Down: The Uprising have risen to TBTW from the depths of the darkest universe. They are agile, ruthless, and hungry for flesh. They have no law, no chain of command, no concept of confinement.
  • Machine Shop: Hidden deep inside the cell blocks is a long-forgotten Machine Shop. Evil pervades this space – an evil with one mind but with many bodies.
  • Infirmary: The Infirmary takes the fear of hospitals to a whole new level. Discover the world of prison medical treatment, including shock therapy, hydrotherapy, and other torturous experiments gone wrong.
  • Blood Yard: The carnage sends a clear message: You could be next. Hunt or be hunted!
  • Quarantine 4D: Flat walls appear to have depth, creatures emerge from seemingly nowhere, and some brave visitors will be challenged to face their worst fears.
  • Break Out: Inmates surround you using every way imaginable to escape. Keep an eye out at every corner, as inmates may even be using YOU to aid in their attempt to gain freedom.

Terror-Behind-the-Walls

Be the first to know about our new attraction – follow us @TerrorAtESP on:

TCS: Can you describe for us the coverage that Eastern State received on Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Most Haunted Live, Syfy’s Ghost Hunters, MTVs Fear and others?

SK: Many people believe that Eastern State Penitentiary is haunted. As early as the 1940s, officers and inmates reported mysterious visions and eerie experiences in the ancient prison. With the growing interest in paranormal investigations, Eastern State Penitentiary may now be the most carefully studied building in the United States. Approximately 60 paranormal teams visit to explore the site in a typical year. The penitentiary has been featured on the Travel Channel’s Most Haunted LiveGhost Adventures, and Paranormal Challenge; Fox Television’s World’s Scariest Places; TLC’s America’s Ghost Hunters; and MTV’s FEAR. Footage captured on the second tier of Cellblock 12 by paranormal investigators during filming of SyFy’s Ghost Hunters may be the most controversial ghost sighting in history. During the filming of Paranormal Challenge S01E02, host Zak Bagans called Eastern State Penitentiary “one of the most haunted places in the world.”


Contact or Visit:

The Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Website: http://www.easternstate.org
Phone: 215-236-3300

About Frank Iacono

frankheadshot

Frank Iacono is a highly skilled results-oriented Strategic Marketing Professional with proven critical thinking, problem solving, and project management skills, developed through more than 20 years of experience concentrated in integrated marketing strategies. Frank brings a thorough, hands-on understanding of marketing strategies and technological platforms as related to applications available for web design, content development, email marketing, site and campaign analytics, search marketing and optimization, service and product marketing, lead and demand generation, social media, and customer retention.

Frank has a BA degree in English/Communications and Marketing from Cabrini College, and he received his Webmaster Certification from Penn State Great Valley.

Randy Bates: Haunted Attractions

Written by: Frank Iacono

randy-bates

Over the years, Halloween has become one of the most celebrated holidays of the year, and this is important as the Halloween season lasts for the whole month of October. With the advent of high-tech horror movies and shows coupled with their amazing special effects, haunted attractions strive to create an atmosphere of realism that rival these Hollywood films and television. Now more than ever, people are going to haunted attractions, hayrides, corn mazes, and pumpkin patches.

Haunted Houses in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area are some of the scariest haunted houses in America. And, Randy Bates, better known as the mayhem-keeper, operates two major haunted attractions in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. In 1991, he opened The Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride, located on Arasapha Farm in Glen Mills, PA, and then in 2009 he became the managing partner of the Pennhurst Haunted Asylum, located in Spring City, PA. Both are highly detailed and themed, and have a combination of high-tech animatronics, digital sound and light systems, and professional actors. The Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride is a member of America Haunts, the national coalition of America’s best haunted attractions.

With its trilogy of terror that includes The Bates Motel, Haunted Hayride, and The Haunted Corn Maze, Arasapha has been terrifying visitors with some of the most amazing heart-pounding theatrics, Hollywood-style special effects, costumes, props, and trained actors for years. The attraction has garnered national attention and even been named one of the best 13 haunted attractions in America year after frightening year. Additionally, the Bates attractions have been featured in various publications including Haunted Attractions Magazine and Hauntworld Magazine as well as on the Travel Channel.

The Pennhurst Haunted Asylum consists of 4 main attractions. The Asylum is a hospital themed walk-through of the first and second floors of the old administration building. The Dungeon of Lost Souls is a medical experiment laboratory gone horribly wrong. Using items found on the abandoned Pennhurst property, this attraction is dark and intense. The Tunnel Terror haunt is located in the subterranean tunnels of the Pennhurst complex: a 900-foot walk-through of the darkest history at Pennhurst. The Ghost Hunt attraction is a self-guided tour of the Mayflower dormitory, reportedly the most haunted building on the premises, and featured on Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures.

In this edition of The Creative Spotlight, I had the pleasure of interviewing Randy Bates and asking him a few questions about his farm, his career in the haunt industry, his attractions, his influences, his success and struggles, and the future of the fright business.

Q&A Session

TCS: How and when did you decide to delve into a career in the haunt industry and whom or what would you say inspired you?

Randy Bates: In the late 80’s there was a haunted trail nearby that was a fundraiser for a local historical society. In 1990, they shut down due to damage to their property. In 1991, we decided to run a similar operation, but do it from our hay wagons. For 15 years, we had been doing hayrides and bonfires for church groups, scouts, fraternities, and so on. So, we had the infrastructure in place to start the haunted hayride. I really had no one that inspired me; in fact, I had never heard of haunted hayrides and never went to a haunted house. I always loved scaring people and tormented my sisters and their friends. This is our 26th season and the business has saved our family farm and provides income to over 300 people.


TCS: For the benefit of those who are not familiar with Arasapha Farm located in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, can you describe for us the three main haunted attractions and how they have evolved over the years?

RB: The Haunted Hayride began in 1991, Bates Motel opened in 1996, and the Revenge of the Scarecrows Haunted Trail opened in 2000. Each event gets additional props, sets, and scenes each year as we always strive to be the best.


The Haunted Hayride

For over 25 years, the Haunted Hayride at Arasapha Farm has been scaring its visitors with amazing props, digital FX, great actors and extraordinary professional makeup. The Hayride has been featured several times on the Travel Channel and has been rated as the Number 1 Haunted Attraction in America by Hauntworld Magazine, USA Today, and many other national publications. The Haunted Hayride is a 25-minute, action packed, heart pounding ride through the dark forest of Arasapha Farm, located just outside of Philadelphia Pennsylvania, and is filled with huge, detailed sets, giant monsters and more pyrotechnics than a Kiss concert. With scenes like a 100’ foot long, 40-foot-tall drive thru insane asylum, a full-scale mockup of a New England church and a 200-foot-long cave, the Haunted Hayride is an amazing example of Hollywood style sets and props. And then there is the scares. With over 75 actors and 25 scenes, it is no wonder why this event is always on the “Top 13” national lists of the best haunted attractions. To celebrate our 25th Anniversary, we have added a new, giant set that will put this year’s hayride over the top. This jaw dropping scene is guaranteed to strike fear in the bravest of souls! And, this year we present the return of the Headless Horseman, one of our customer’s all-time favorites.

bates-motel-the-haunted-hayride

Bates Motel

Don’t forget to check into the Bates Motel, for the most incredible display of terror and mayhem this side of Hollywood. Filled with high tech special effects, digital soundtrack and lighting, the Bates Motel takes Halloween to a new level of horror…up close and personal! With incredible detail and stellar acting, it is no wonder why the Bates Motel is considered one of the best Haunted Houses in America. The realism in this attraction is astonishing and is guaranteed to wow the experienced haunted house enthusiast. As you creep through this show, you see levitating spirits, floor boards that come alive, pictures that follow you, and incredible, custom animatronic props that you will not see anywhere else. The actors interact with you on a personal level and the screams echo throughout the building! What’s new for this year? You will have to come out and see for yourself! The Bates Motel is a high startle; high action haunted attraction and not recommended for children under 8 or people with heart conditions.

bates-motel

Revenge of the Scarecrows Haunted Trail

The third show in this Trilogy of Terror at Arasapha Farm is the Revenge of the Scarecrows Haunted Trail. It is a terrifying walk through a tall corn field filled with buildings and sets, tons of animatronic monsters and over 30 actors in full makeup and custom costumes. This event is like no other corn maze in the country and has fast become a favorite at the Bates Farm.

Arasapha Farms Haunted Corn Maze

TCS: When do you start preparing for the Bates Motel haunted hayride and the haunted corn maze and tell us what exactly goes into the overall preparation?

RB: Preparation begins in January. We start with a brainstorming session with our managers and creative staff. Ideas are thrown around and detailed plans are drawn up. Build crew lists materials needed, electronics, lighting, and what props we will need. Over the winter months, our art staff refurbishes older props and creates new ones in our mold and sculpts facility. The construction crew repairs animatronics, adds new features to the and manufactures new ones in our metal fabrication shop.

In March, our staff attends the Transworld Halloween trade show in St. Louis, Missouri. There, we attend seminars, network with other haunt owners, and search the show for new props, makeup, and ideas. Some of our staff, including myself, hosts seminars for the show. These include safety and awareness, show control operations, makeup, and custom mold making. Once we return from St. Louis, construction begins on the Bates Motel. Rooms are torn out and replaced with new ones. By April construction begins on the hayride, usually with additional trails, sets and props. We have our own sawmill on the farm and produce lumber for many of these sets. By July, we are in full blown construction with as many as 15 employees working full-time.

When we come up with a new idea, the build crew draws up the construction design and a list of materials, the electronics crew determines how the scene will be triggered, lighting, sound effects, foggers, and most importantly, where the scare is. The art crew then decide how the scene will be detailed, paints needed, additional scene decoration and what the characters will be wearing and type of mask or makeup.

All of this is what sets us apart from other attractions is our uniqueness.


TCS: Can you talk about how your key staff members utilize your complete workshop on the premises to create some of the details of each of attraction?

RB: Our facility has a complete metal fabrication section, wood shop, and creative art department. We make our own makeup appliances, masks, and monsters.

TCS: Can you describe the talent search process in becoming an actor for your haunted attractions?

RB: First we ask current employees if they have family or friends that would be interested in working for the attractions. We have a link on our website where potential staff can complete an employment form. We also advertise on Craig’s list. Once we have a sufficient number of potential employees, we hold auditions at the farm. We usually hold these in July and August. My Daughter, Angela handles all hiring and staff placement; an enormous job considering we have over 300 employees. At the auditions, our actor managers put these people thru an intensive workshop to determine if they will be suitable for the long hours and physical stress.


TCS: Which one of your three attractions is the most popular and why?

RB: Our most popular attraction is The Haunted Hayride. This is most likely due to the fact that it’s suitable for all ages. One of my favorite scenes is our collapsing mine shaft. It is something we drew up years ago and still gets great screams. The Bates Motel and Haunted Trail are more intense as the actors and props are much closer to the customers.

TCS: Can you tell us about how your attendance at the Halloween Trade Show in Chicago, Illinois, in 1996 truly impacted your decision to open The Bates Motel attraction?

RB: In 1996, my staff and I attended the Halloween Trade Show in Chicago, IL. Until that point, we had pretty much developed in a vacuum with little or no outside influence. When we saw the amazing props, masks, and costumes that were available, it totally blew us away. I attended a seminar given by Leonard Pickel, an authority on haunted houses since the early 1980s. We learned how to design and build a haunt from the ground up. I also attended a seminar on haunted hayrides, eager for great information. It was the most disappointing seminar as the presenter was operating his hayride with customers sitting in the back of a pickup truck! This is when we realized that we were at the cutting edge of hayrides, and even had other haunt owners pumping us for info. During this time, haunters would not exchange info with anyone who had an attraction in the same state. I never had that problem and now attraction owners discuss their operations freely.


TCS: How long have you and your family owned Arasapha Farm? And, can you describe for us some of the other attractions that you’ve implemented over the years to keep the farm running on a yearly basis?

RB: Arasapha farm was purchased in 1952 by my parents Bill and Anne Bates. They raised sheep, chickens and then game birds such as pheasants, quail and fancy birds. They also grew crops. In 1970, my dad and I planted 2000 Christmas trees that we eventually harvested and sold. After my father died in 1982, my wife, two kids and I moved back to the farm to help my mother. Over the years we have developed the farm into an Agritainment venue, with the Halloween events, Daytime children’s events, including bounce houses, farm animal petting zoo, hayrides, corn mazes and other fun games. In 2006, we planted 5,000 trees, and began our Holiday Hayride. This is a ride thru the rolling hills of the farm with huge light displays, festive music, snow machines and live reindeer. We also added a Santa’s workshop, photos with Santa and a gift shop. At all our attractions we offer food and drinks.

TCS: Can you give us at least three “Good to Know” facts about The Bates Motel, Haunted Hayride, and The Haunted Corn Maze?

RB: Three good to know facts are:

  • If you plan to come out on a Saturday night in October, be prepared to wait in long lines. Our attractions have become very popular over the years and the majority of our customers come on Saturday nights.
  • Always wear comfortable shoes as you will be on a working farm.
  • The Haunted Hayride is always the first attraction to close, so make sure you do that event first.

TCS: In your opinion, what do you feel are the key factors in operating a successful haunted attraction?

RB: Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise! To have a successful event, you need a great team. From management staff to artists and IT guys, you must have a complete staff. Marketing is the next most important key to success. A complete marketing plan that includes media ads, print articles, coupons and flyers, and digital marketing is necessary. You also need to have a quality show which will bring in repeat business. Changes to your show are also necessary for the repeaters.


TCS: Within Pennsylvania, there are many well-known haunted attractions so what do you feel makes your attraction stand out from all the other scary destinations?

RB: There are lots of quality attractions in the area. One thing this has done is raise the awareness of Haunted Attractions in the tristate area. PA has become a mecca for travelers looking for the best haunted attractions, and people come from all over the US and Canada. Our attractions stand out because of our uniqueness. I don’t attend other shows, so all our ideas are our own. Usually by the end of the season, I’m pretty burnt out, but now that my family is running many aspects for the business, it has taken a lot of stress off my shoulders. I still get excited when we design and build new things, and love watching the customers high five each other after attending.

TCS: Have you embraced social media marketing strategies to promote and market your business?

RB: Yes, we have used social media to market our business and stay connected with our audience via the following vehicles:

  • Bates Motel & Haunted Hayride Website
  • Bates Motel & Haunted Hayride Facebook
  • Bates Motel & Haunted Hayride Instagram
  • Bates Motel & Haunted Hayride Twitter
  • Bates Motel & Haunted Hayride YouTube

TCS: Congratulations on running such a fun and successful attraction for the past 26 years. In that timeframe, what would you say has been the most rewarding and the most challenging aspects of running your haunted attractions?

RB: The most rewarding part is watching my children grow up and become major parts of my business. Also, the thank you’s we get from our customers. For over 12 years, we have made all the top 13 lists, including number one attraction in the country 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Being featured in major publications and on network television, including twice on the Travel Channel has also been rewarding. The most challenging aspects of the business is handling over 300 employees. The hiring, paperwork and actor placement takes a lot of time and effort. We have a backup team ready to fill in when staff call out and that makes for a lot of juggling.

TCS: Describe your role as Managing Partner with the Pennhurst Haunted Asylum?

RB: In 2009, I was approached by the owner of Pennhurst to produce a haunted attraction there. I wrote the business plan and told him that if I was to be involved, that it had to be world class right from the start. The Bates Motel build crew spent most of the spring and all summer in 2010 and opened with two attractions that October. There was a lot of negative publicity surrounding the use of the property, and all my friends said don’t worry, publicity is good. They were right.


Opening night was amazing, with all three major networks and Fox News covering us with live feeds. The first year we built the Asylum haunt and the tunnel of terror. We worked right up until opening day. In 2011, we designed the Dungeon of Lost Souls, a more mainstream themed attraction. My daughter, who handled all the social media marketing, mentioned that many people wanted to see some of the buildings as they were 30 years ago. So, we opened the ghost hunt attraction. It became an instant success. Dealing with partners can be difficult at times but we made the best of it. In early 2016 the property owner fell into bankruptcy and was threatened with foreclosure on many of his properties, including the Pennhurst property. A new owner is in the process of purchasing it and will open the attractions this year. I decided to sell my shares in the business, partly to take off some of the stress, and also remove myself from liability issues due to the deterioration of the buildings. The previous owner refused to perform maintenance on the buildings and I feel that they are becoming a serious liability. I wish the new staff well.


TCS: What do you think is the fascination behind people wanting to be scared or frightened? And, do you believe in the Paranormal?

RB: Getting scared is an adrenaline rush for most people. There is the physical as well as the mental reaction that people crave and hate at the same time. We designed our attractions to be like a roller coaster ride. Suspenseful beginning, music to get them on edge, then hit them with the scares. Our ultimate job is to mess with people’s heads, and we have gotten very good at it. As for Paranormal, I feel that some people are tuned into it and others are not. I have worked, alone, in the pitch-black darkness in the basement at Pennhurst, and never saw anything. My daughter, who is also a professional photographer is tuned in and has had many experiences both at home and at Pennhurst.

TCS: Yes, I know we should have ended the interview with 13 questions to keep with the freight theme, but our audience needs to know where do you see the haunted attraction industry headed within the next five years?

RB: Every year, I attend the Transworld Haunted Attraction Show, now located in St. Louis. Every other year we attend the IAAPA show in Orlando, Florida. We also periodically attend the Mid-west haunter’s convention in Columbus, Ohio. It’s always great to see old friends and make new ones. In 1997, I helped found the International Association of Haunted Attractions, and was a past board member. In 2003, we founded the association called America Haunts, a group of the largest haunted attractions around the country. There were 5 original members and have now grown to 28. This is an invitation only, market exclusive association that works together to promote haunted attractions around the country. We gather at the trade shows and have an annual meeting each year at one of the member’s attraction. The group trades ideas, develops unique marketing strategies and promote our attractions.


In 2005, we hired a film crew and produced a one-hour TV show called America Haunts. It was sold to the Travel Channel, who liked to format so much they shot 4 more shows the nest year, filming our new members. In 2010 I helped found the Haunted House Association, with the idea that any trade association should be run by qualified attraction owners. I am a past board member and past president of this group. In 2007, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began requiring Haunted House owners to take a safety course, pass an inspector’s test and file required paperwork with them. I was asked to help write the test and put together seminars specific to haunted attractions. Since then, I teach Code Compliance in Haunted Houses, Hayride Safety, and Outdoor Attraction Safety to new inspectors.

Along with these organizations, I am also a member of our local volunteer fire company, sit on the Delaware County Conservation District board, and am the Vice Chairman of the Edgmont Township Supervisors.

I see the Haunted Attraction industry going the way of Hollywood and video games. Everything is becoming more sophisticated, computerized, and detailed. Someone trying to break in to this business has to put up a lot of money to open and compete. Shows like The Walking Dead on AMC, and all the horror movies that are out prove that there is a huge horror audience. In the Philadelphia market alone, there are over 10 major attractions, with many smaller operations. With this much marketing going on, the consumer becomes hyper aware of Halloween haunted attractions, which benefits all of us.

About Frank Iacono

Frank Iacono Photo

Frank Iacono is a highly skilled results-oriented Strategic Marketing Professional with proven critical thinking, problem solving, and project management skills, developed through more than 20 years of experience concentrated in integrated marketing strategies. Frank brings a thorough, hands-on understanding of marketing strategies and technological platforms as related to applications available for web design, content development, email marketing, site and campaign analytics, search marketing and optimization, service and product marketing, lead and demand generation, social media, and customer retention.

Frank has a BA degree in English/Communications and Marketing from Cabrini College, and he received his Webmaster Certification from Penn State Great Valley.