On one rainy October night, I lined up with dozens of other people outside in the cold. All around us, looming quietly stood the old, empty buildings of the Pennhurst State School, a former institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities outside Philadelphia. We were waiting to tour the Pennhurst Asylum, a haunted attraction created at the historic site around Halloween. Anyone who knows me knows that haunted houses and scary movies absolutely petrify me. But, as a public historian who studies the history of mental health, I faced my fears and there I stood.
While in line, I overheard countless conversations about how this place had once locked up “crazy” people, an image later reinforced by ghoulish characters in straitjackets jumping out at us. While walking through the attraction, I could not help but personally recall my great Aunt Ruth who had lived at an equivalent institution for nearly half of her life. Thinking about her and the thousands of people like her who lived at Pennhurst, I became profoundly saddened at the twisted story that the Pennhurst Asylum told and its elision of the history of people with mental health disabilities.
The next day I co-led a public discussion about the Pennhurst Asylum, in which a colleague and I talked about the ethics of the attraction with a vibrant audience. That 24 hours became one of the most memorable of my career so far. I recognized that my job had moved from just thinking and reading about public memory to fostering and furthering public engagement with it. Touring the haunted attraction was one of the hardest days at work for me, but the opportunity to create a space for dialogue made it the best.