The Secrets and Stories of the Haunted Pennhurst Asylum, from a Photographer Who Worked Inside

The third floor of the Mayflower building, a part of the now-infamous Pennhurst Asylum, is home to a spirit with a fondness for spooking alpha-males. One such alpha male, a large man roughly six-foot-three-inches tall, fled from both the ghost and his tour group while visiting the supposedly-haunted Pennhurst grounds.

Melissa June Daniels, a photographer and former tour guide at the abandoned asylum, went to ask the man what was wrong.

“He said he physically saw and felt this pressure on his neck,” Daniels says, “of this ghost lunging at him, trying to strangle him.”

The man asked to go downstairs to escape this ghost, but he froze when Daniels told him he’d have to pass by that same room to reach the staircase.

“He just stood there with his eyes glazed over, and he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t move. I asked if he wanted me to hold his hand. He looked up and said, ‘Will you?’”

This sums up Pennhurst, a dilapidated paranormal hotspot that Daniels is proud to call her workplace.

Once a thriving village for the mentally and physically disabled and part of the larger Pennhurst State School and Hosptial, the asylum and surrounding facilities were condemned in 1987 after a decade of controversy sparked by news reports detailing employee mistreatment of patients. Despite its negative reputation, Daniels insists it was never all bad.

Melissa-June-Daniels-300“The thought behind it was to have a self-functioning community, a loving community for these people that were more or less discarded by society and their families,” she says. “It was once a very good place for that, and I’ve heard people tell stories about how happy they were, how beautiful the gardens were.”

The gardens have since died, with weeds now partially enveloping the grounds. In 2001, a private developer purchased the entire Pennhurst School and began to re-purpose the decaying facilities. One of the most successful projects was opening the asylum for tours. So began Pennhurst’s road to notoriety.

“It was reopened as an asylum, and then a paranormal hotspot and a photography hotspot,” Daniels explains, saying she falls somewhere in between the two camps. Though she proudly calls herself an urban explorer and photographer, both pursuits stemmed from an early fascination with the supernatural.

Her first experience came in the wake of her grandfather’s death. The first was brief and uncertain — Daniels caught a glimpse of him in the corner of her eye while laying down in a room he frequented while alive. The second time, however, there was no mistaking what she saw.

“I was laying on the same couch, and he was hovering over me, not in a natural position,” she says. “I asked him, what are you doing here? And he kind of smiled and disappeared. The smile had sort of a friendly, warm, loving feeling, almost like a departure.”

She says she can still feel her grandfather’s presence guiding her to this day. Whether by his hand or her own, she wound up working at Pennhurst, first as an actor for the popular haunted house. It wasn’t until she became a tour guide and photographer at Pennhurst, however, that she first felt the spiritual presence for which the asylum is known.

“There were a few things that happened while I was investigating the place, but nothing that I could quantify,” she says, “except for one very, very strong experience.”

Daniels was scouting one of the dilapidated buildings with two photographers when she went to the upper floor to take some readings. She started speaking to the ghosts, as she often did, hardly expecting any sort of answer. After about ten minutes, she started to hear something through her multi-directional recorder.

“Then I started to hear the crinkling of paint chips on the ground, as if people were walking all around me. It was more than one, coming from the left and the right. I asked more questions, the sounds got louder, and I thought maybe the women came upstairs.”

She turned the recorder off and checked the hallway. She was still alone — feeling “stirred” but not scared to be investigating by herself for the first time. Again, Daniels spoke and the paint chips sound started. She listened for a time, and then, staring at the door, she saw a clear upper torso of a human form peek around the corridor. It looked at her, and then backed away.

“It was just a shadow though. It was a solid black shadow.”

The figure was so clear, Daniels was certain it must be someone on her tour who thought she was taking a photograph in that direction and so turned back. But upon investigating, she realized she was still alone.

Perhaps because of her paranormal experiences at Pennhurst, Daniels has a clear fondness and fascination for the facility that comes across in the way she speaks about it and the way she photographs it. The place has captured the attention of many, and she has no trouble seeing the reason why.

“It’s astonishing to watch a ruined building just falling to the elements,” she says. “It’s a rather beautiful thing. It’s becoming a part of the landscape as it is, just sitting there along. That draws people to these places.”

See more of her photos here, or find out more about visiting the Pennhurst Asylum in Eastern Pennsylvania.