Ethical Questions Haunt Eastern State Penitentiary

A big question that seems to be popping up more and more in the paranormal community is one of ethics: is it right to use (some would say exploit) places of great tragedy in order to sell tickets for spooky ghost tours? I’ve discussed this before in relation to Pennhurst Center, and it seems like more and more people are speaking up about this sort of thing now. This time, in relation to Eastern State Penitentiary.

Eastern State Penitentiary (Photo by Laura Pennace)

Eastern State Penitentiary will host a discussion about the ethics of operating the historic prison in Philadelphia. By far the most popular event at the penitentiary is its annual Halloween haunt, “Terror Behind The Walls.” But there are some concerns about using historic sites as scary sites.

The penitentiary isn’t the only place that exploits its past to make a few bucks. Last year a controversy erupted over the use of the old Pennhurst mental asylum as a place haunted by ghouls in straitjackets.

But Eastern State Penitentiary is a nonprofit prison museum; as such, it’s ethically bound to protect the site’s legacy. The prison survived the recent recession in large part because the Halloween event’s ticket sales generate most of its annual operating budget. On the other hand, every October, it presents a warped view of itself.

“There’s a big difference to me between a haunted mill or a haunted cemetery, and a haunted state hospital or prison, because state hospitals and prisons were government run,” said Ann Parsons, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois who is studying the history of involuntary confinement. “In a democracy, we are tied to those histories. How has our state government created these places standing empty that are some of the most frightening places in America?”

Parsons says Eastern State Penitentiary is the perfect place to talk about this because the prison stages one of the most popular haunted attractions in America—a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

I’m going to quote myself here, because my feelings still stand on this issue. From my original post about Pennhurst:

I have no problem with haunted tours as a general rule. I think if they educate the public and offer historical value, then there’s nothing wrong with sharing a few ghost stories along the way. If the ghost tours help bring in much-needed revenue to a museum or other non-profit organization, then more power to them. On the other hand, there are people who are trying to capitalize on a current fad. Find a spooky building, charge people money to walk around, and tell them embellished and sensational ghost stories to make a quick buck. And if they’re not new ventures, then it’s places that have always had some supposed haunted activity that are now charging ghost hunters hundreds of dollars to come in an investigate. Usually it’s because they were investigated by TAPS on “Ghost Hunters,” or the “Ghost Adventures” crew, or “Ghost Lab,” or one of the other 500 or so shows on the air now. Places that used to be freely accessible to paranormal investigators are now booked for months in advance and really expensive. But ghost tours continue, at $25 or $50 or $80 per person, and it becomes nothing more than a sideshow attraction.

This is a very tricky issue. One could also argue that paranormal investigators disrespect the memories of people who died in institutions like this as well, simply by investigating. But I think there’s a big difference between scientific paranormal groups who are there investigating and looking for proof of the afterlife and a cheesy Halloween tour that’s designed to be spooky and entertaining (and profitable). The TV shows have been great as far as bringing paranormal investigating to the forefront. But when it turns into pure entertainment and profiteering, it’s just sad.

One could also argue that these tours bring in a lot of much-needed financial support. But is it worth the price? Where is the line drawn when it comes to respecting the dead? Sharing the history, while mingling in ghost stories, is one thing. But having cheesy haunted house attractions is quite another.

2 comments on “Ethical Questions Haunt Eastern State Penitentiary

  1. I’m with you, Jason. I get mad at those who want to shut ghost tours down because they find them disrespectful. They do need to be handled with respect, but above all the best ghost tours focus on the history. They’ve found a new way to make it both interesting and entertaining. A LOT can be gleaned from such events. Including getting people interested in preserving historic places and honoring the past, as well as generatiing revenue for historic places to continue with preservation efforts.

    However, those just in it for the money and sensationlism…I’d like to pin ’em down and twist their nipples. Great post.

  2. Thanks Court! I does drive me nuts too, since it’s such a fine line between running a historically-relevant haunted tour and just using a place because it’s spooky to put up plastic skeletons and fake cobwebs in order to scare people for Halloween. I’m glad people are raising awareness of this though 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.