34/52: I Was Afraid of the Dark (and I Still Am)


This week’s assigned lyrics: “I was afraid of the dark, but now it’s all that I want.

From Maroon 5’s “Daylight”

No, Maroon 5.  No.

This was my second visit to the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital, a state facility that opened in Pennsylvania in 1908 as an institution for the developmentally, intellectually, and physically disabled. It was a place where the “feeble-minded” were to be kept away from society, for as one of Pennhurst’s doctors reported to the State Legislature in 1913: “Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal.”

Within a few years of its opening, Pennhurst became terribly overcrowded, accepting not only the disabled but also orphans, unwanted children, and criminals.  It was grossly underfunded and understaffed.

There were many well-meaning attendants who just could not handle the patient load, which resulted in widespread neglect. Many residents spent their days overmedicated and in restraints. Many regressed considerably. There were five-year-olds who had never left the confines of their cribs and could not walk.  Urine and feces covered the ward floors.

Some attendants abused their charges.

Punishments were harsh. If a resident continually bit others, his teeth would be removed. If a child misbehaved, he would be downgraded to a lower ward, sharing quarters with the criminally insane.

Patient-on-patient assault occurred frequently.

In 1968, TV reporter Bill Baldini exposed the horrors at Pennhurst in a five-part report entitled “Suffer the Little Children.”   A class action lawsuit was filed in the mid-70s, and finally, in 1987, Pennhurst closed its doors for good.

Now privately owned and accessible only through private tours or its (controversial) Halloween attraction, Pennhurst stands in a state of decay, its disturbing history hanging heavy in the air.

The buildings were abandoned as is, leaving behind furniture, bedding, clothing, resident and personnel files, wall calendars, posters, etc., now in a state of deterioration.


Visitors often leave toys or candies for the ghosts who reportedly still inhabit Pennhurst.


Resident rooms were set up like cubicles, with two to four individuals sharing a common space. Their names remain on the walls.


X-rays and various patient records were found scattered across a desk in one of the rooms on the third floor of Mayflower.


This is one of my favorite rooms in the Mayflower building for its many colorful layers of peeling paint. And OK, I like that it’s well-lit. Even so, there is always an unshakeable feeling of despair.


This old-fashioned wheelchair on the third floor of Mayflower has been photographed often.


Our guide later told us an “aggressive male entity” is known to occupy this third floor bathroom in Mayflower.  Gulp.


“Candyland” in the pitch-black basement of the Devon building used to be an indoor playground for the children. I only ventured down here because I had an escort of three other people, one of whom was carrying a very bright light. 🙂


Rust, grime, and decay are everywhere, and after awhile, I felt anxious to get back to daylight and fresh air.


View of the Administration building from Mayflower

On this second visit, I forced myself to spend time in some of the areas I avoided the first time, but I still find it an unsettling place to be.  It is heartbreaking to think of the suffering that went on here as a result of society’s abandonment of its most vulnerable members—truly a dark and shameful period in our history.


2 thoughts on “34/52: I Was Afraid of the Dark (and I Still Am)

  1. Fiebs, this is a great piece of work. There are lots of images showing up on F/B but this is the first that I could appreciate the back story. Nice work, thought-provoking images, a well-written perspective. Best!

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