DOMINIC SISTI AND ANDREA SEGAL
The earliest psychiatric hospitals date back to 15th-century Spain, where they were conceived and constructed to give poor, homeless individuals with mental illness a safe place to live and, it was hoped, recover.
The next two centuries saw the degradation of asylums essentially into dungeons where mentally ill people were confined, living in chains and squalor, and periodically made into public spectacle.
By 1800, places like London's Bethlem Royal Hospital - or Bedlam - became famous for opening its doors to the public for viewing of its inmates, providing a source of income for the institution. The public went for any number of reasons, but the basic idea was that a visit to watch the "lunatics" provided an entertaining experience that shocked the senses.
Today, the idea of portraying institutionalized mentally ill people as an entertaining spectacle should strike us as utterly degrading and morally repugnant. So why do we still allow it to happen?
Pennhurst State Hospital was opened in 1907 to provide care to individuals with mental illness. It closed in 1987 after decades of mismanagement and horrifying scandals. Purchased in 2010 by a group of investors, led by Richard Chakejian, it is now the Pennhurst Haunted Asylum and, for a fifth year, will be a popular destination for visitors looking for a scare this Halloween season.
Website photos of the attraction are deeply disturbing, not because they are scary per se, but because they blatantly exploit and perpetuate the stigma surrounding serious mental illness. We've not visited, but the entire experience seems predicated on the false belief that individuals with mental illness are horribly violent, terrifying, or psychopathic. The website features macabre images of patients receiving electroconvulsive therapy - a modern version of which is used to effectively treat refractory conditions - and pictures of patients in mechanical restraints, a last-resort intervention that today is considered a treatment failure.
The Foundation does not necessarily endorse the positions expressed by its grantees. The Foundation does endorse an open and honest debate about the limitations of mental health care delivery in the US.