PENNHURST – Journey Through the Darkness

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where one ends and the other begins? –Edgar Allen Poe

Pennhurst Asylum. This photography experience is not one I will soon forget. When I signed up to attend a workshop here with other photographers, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. For many years I wanted to walk these grounds and take in the energy of the tormented souls that remain on this expansive 600+ acre property that will forever haunt so many. I was grateful when the opportunity arose recently and I was able to spend an evening exploring.

We met in the late afternoon of November 16 and I was happy to meet a fellow photographer to walk around with. I knew I didn’t want to venture out in the darkness alone with so many unknowns. This property has many, many buildings and when you walk around inside them, it is easy to become disoriented. There is no electricity and the buildings are full of decay and abandoned remnants. It is difficult to walk this property and not think about what happened here before it was shut down in 1987. Pictures flashed through my mind of how these patients lived here and what they went through. Walking through their nightmare is hard to put into words. I almost wanted to tiptoe and not make a sound, for fear of torturing their poor souls further.

Many of the buildings are closed to visitors, as they’ve decayed into disrepair and the structures are unsafe to enter. We were able to walk the outside grounds anywhere we wanted to go. The only buildings we were allowed to enter were the Mayflower and Devon. We also had access to two underground tunnels. With so many others exploring alongside, it was difficult to settle into the property and “feel” it. So my partner and myself made use of the remaining daylight by exploring some of the grounds and the inside of the Mayflower. Nightfall arrived quickly though and the energy changed a bit. Several attendees chose to leave, as the chilly nighttime temps in the upper 20s shortened their visit. With less people, the darkness seemed a bit darker and the eerie silence became almost deafening.

I will say that as the night went on, I was very focused on my photography and learning how to capture images in the dark. That focus kept my mind off where I was and paying attention to what was around me. However, with very few people left on the property, I found it harder and harder to ignore my feelings. There were several times I knew we weren’t the only people in the room and more than once I knew something was standing over me from behind, as I sat on the ground in the basement of both buildings. Numerous times I had to stop what I was doing and shine my flashlight to look around. I never felt “scared” but I never felt alone either. It is very hard to ignore the souls that are left roaming this place.

It has been interesting to process my images from this night. Looking through them, I am reminded of what I felt as I took them. Many of the areas we were able to walk through have items that were previously staged from different events held here. However, there are also many remnants left over from a time when this asylum was operational. The abandoned decay gives one an eerie feeling, especially when you look around and see so many large, neglected stone buildings surrounding you. Knowing the history of what happened here only adds to that eeriness. I think the best way I can describe a visit here is to say that it is almost as if you step into a space, void of time, and walk into a vast unknown, fully aware that you are surrounded by many, many lost souls but unable to help them.

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