How long would you stay in a haunted house? Though many believers may choose to avoid the experience altogether, paranormal investigators seek to log as much time in an allegedly active location as possible. However, even most television investigators manage to stay at these haunted hot spots for three days at most.
That is all about to change with World’s Biggest Ghost Hunt, the new A&E unscripted special airing Wednesday, Oct. 30th at 8 p.m. Set at Pennhurst Asylum outside Philadelphia, the show will revolve around investigators living in the notorious location for an impressive two weeks. More than a stunt, the special allows for a unique round-the-clock ghost hunt on the sprawling asylum campus.
Established in 1908, Pennhurst State School and Hospital was intended to be a place of healing for those with physical and mental ailments. However, during its 79 years of operation, it became a living hell of overcrowding, abuse, and neglect for the men, women, and children who were deemed inmates. Pennhurst became a catch-all facility for those considered unfit for citizenship (including the “insane,” criminals, and orphans), and was eventually labeled the “Shame of Pennsylvania” by the Pottstown Mercury newspaper. Despite a 1968 documentary, “Suffer the Little Children,” which exposed the human rights horrors taking place, Pennhurst remained open for another 19 years.
Perhaps not surprisingly for an epicenter of such tragedy and inhumanity, Pennhurst Asylum has become known in modern times for reports of paranormal activity. Stories range from mysterious noises to sightings of shadow people, and full body apparitions, as well as violent physical attacks.
Investigators Max Baumle, Austin George, Zak Heino, Ali Horrick, and Katie Burr are the ghost hunters delving into this paranormal soup for the two weeks documented on World’s Biggest Ghost Hunt – where they had unprecedented access and, for George, the experience left a lasting mark following what he said was a nervous breakdown experienced during the investigation.
In the following interview, Baumle, George, and Heino weigh in on the toll the investigation took on their lives, as well as teasing the evidence they believe they collected, and how the entire experience changed them. Check out what these investigators had to say, and watch the exclusive clips from the special before tuning into World’s Biggest Ghost Hunt.
What was your awareness of the history and paranormal reports of Pennhurst heading into this?
Zak Heino: I’ve always known about Pennhurst because we live probably about 45 minutes away or so, and knew the history.
Max Baumle: I knew absolutely nothing about Pennhurst up until it became a local haunted attraction. And once I heard about it, it became kind of this alluring unicorn kind of thing. I wanted to check it out when it wasn’t a haunted attraction, but just never really got around to it. It just seemed so random that such a huge notorious building complex could be so close to Philadelphia, and so close to us. Then you start to learn about it, and uncover its dark history.
When you’re there for two weeks, you have more time to cover everything. Do you feel walking out of this world’s biggest ghost hunt that you explored the breadth of Pennhurst?
Austin George: We had really extensive coverage. I went in several buildings, but a lot of the buildings you can’t even get into [due to safety]. But I think we did a pretty conclusive search.
Zak Heino: We really did check every box on there, turn every stone. We were really were able to, from my perspective, complete the task at hand, and really understand what was going on there. I think what made it unique, having slept at Pennhurst, is that even when the cameras weren’t rolling we were still turning over stones. Just walking to the bathroom, was an adventure because you had to walk across the campus. And it was so all-consuming.
There is the paranormal theory that the more you’re immersed in activity, the more receptive you become to it. Did you find that to be accurate for you?
Austin George: I can say more than anyone that with time spent there I became very attached to that location, because something incredibly huge happened to me. As soon as I stepped into the Devon Building, I felt incredibly attached to it … Pennhurst changed me as an investigator. It changed me as a person, we spent so much time there. We got attached to that place and it really made me feel going forward, if I could handle Pennhurst for two weeks, I can handle anything.
Zak Heino: Being there for that long really did open us up. Max and I are very methodical with our ways. We are very science-based. This place really allowed us to kind of almost feel the energy. It’s indescribable, really. And I’ve seen Austin experience that. There’s tons of talk about all the places people can get possessed. We’ve never seen that before. And I still don’t know what happened to Austin. He would know best himself, but that was the most real and awakening moment in our careers doing this.
What are some approaches you were able to do that would be impossible if you were only shooting this show over the course of two or three days?
Max Baumle: I wouldn’t say that it was the length of time, it was the repeatability of the things that we would do. For example, underneath the Philadelphia building we were in the tunnels, and we would split our group up into two teams. We would isolate ourselves from knowing what the other team had done. I know Ali went down and they would do a ‘spirit box’ session. We would gather data, and then halfway through the night, we would switch places. We wouldn’t communicate with each other. We wouldn’t influence each other by telling each other what we did, or heard, or said. And then myself, Katie, and Austin would go down there and do the exact same experiments again. And if it was repeatable, if we got the same evidence, then we would look at each other and we would reconvene later and compare our results. I don’t think other groups have had that opportunity because we did not only to split the group up in such a way, but also to commit to it for such a long time in an evening.
Austin George: For me personally, the longest, one method I used was the meditation in Devon basement. And actually it was probably like three and a half hours, four hours.
Did you hit a breaking point during the two weeks?
Austin George: We kind of all hit a exhaustion wall at some point throughout the show. But personally, I had a really good time staying there. It was kind of like camping. So I really enjoyed it, and I was tired for sure by the end of it. But I really grew attached to it.
Zak Heino: We don’t work 16 hour days normally in our day jobs, but we worked that much and then we would go to sleep at night and all that. I had great sleep and I think our drive in trying to further the research in this, I think that’s what kept us going. Now the environment, I have to admit that the dust, the molds: it’s pretty gruesome.
Max Baumle: I didn’t really hit a breaking point until, I would say the last day or two. When I was genuinely literally falling asleep during some filming session and I’m pretty sure that the production staff were having bets on when I would start snoring on camera.
How long did it take you to start a detox when you go back to your normal lives? Did you sleep for days?
Austin George: This is actually hilarious because the last day that we left, we left Pennhurst 5:00 a.m., and get back to the hotel. I slept for four or five hours, get on a plane and go back to Georgia, sleep that night, and then I have a final at eight in the morning — that I had spent the last three weeks not in class for. So I had severe whiplash back into reality I passed that final and I graduated, so…
Zak Heino: We were so tired. But when I finally got back, I was laying in my bed and I was telling my wife, “I’m actually, I can’t fall asleep.” I was so used to living there and just the noise of Max’s snoring putting us to sleep. And it’s kind of like Castaway. In the movie, he was sleeping on the floor because he got so used to sleeping on the cave floor. That’s kind of how I felt. And it was a detox from social media, our phones, everything. We didn’t have any contact with the outside world at all. So coming back into that was a little overwhelming at first.
Max Baumle: I actually found the experience at Pennhurst more refreshing than coming back, because when we were away and we were isolated it kind of felt like all the other problems in life had melted away for those two weeks. When I jumped back into “reality” it was like, “Oh, shoot — now I’ve got to answer my cell phone, now I’ve got to go back to work and answer these emails and conference calls”
Are you 100 percent confident that in the World’s Biggest Ghost Hunt you made contact with an intelligent aware spirit — and do you think that that’s something that the audience can look forward to seeing?
Max Baumle: My answer is no. I don’t think we did. Or at least I don’t think I did.
Zak Heino: I would say yes. Now intelligent? I’m not 100% sure. I know there’s a lot of residual. I mean, there was definitely stuff for the intelligence side. It’s funny to hear Max because he was always in the wrong place at the wrong time, every time something crazy happened.
Austin George: I would just say simply 100%, yes. Maybe you can’t get that from just the two hours that are put on TV, but I would say 100% yes.
Zak Heino: This is unlike anything ever seen in the paranormal before. With extreme isolation from the outside world and the longest back to back investigations, we were able to have complete and utter focus on the task at hand like never before. Collecting thousands of data points along the way on our multi-sensors, an accurate model of the environment was fully realized so we could further the field of discovery and understand what is truly happening. With the basecamp cameras we were fully exposed and transparent which allows the real emotions and interactions to shine through so the viewer is able to feel as if they are on the team exploring and investigating with us. Unrelenting until we find answers, we are paving a new way into the study of the unknown, diving into uncharted waters and using REAL scientific methods with REAL scientists and engineers. We strive to one day turn the paranormal into a fully verifiable science. At the end of the day this was an ambitious experiment that yielded incredible results and this is only the beginning.
World’s Biggest Ghost Hunt: Pennhurst Asylum premieres Wednesday, October 30 at 8PM ET/PT on A&E.