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April 7, 2022

Disaster Preparedness with Pennhurst Asylum’s Jim Werner

Disaster Preparedness with Pennhurst Asylum’s Jim Werner

Jim Werner is the Operations Manager for both Pennhurst Asylum Haunted Attraction and Eloise Asylum; today we discuss disaster preparedness and training with him.

Jim Werner is the Operations Manager for both Pennhurst Asylum Haunted Attraction and Eloise Asylum, which debuted in 2021. Today, we’ll hear from Jim on:

  • His journey as a haunter.
  • How both attractions create a fantastical experience while also maintaining the local history.
  • Disaster preparedness and training for your team.

This is the 3rd episode in our mini-series introducing the new Haunted Attraction Association Board Members.

Additional Resources


Philip: Jim Werner is the operations manager for both PennHurst Asylum Haunted Attraction, and Eloise Asylum, which debuted just last season. Today we'll hear from Jim on how both attractions create a fantastical experience while also maintaining the local history. He also has some tips on disaster preparedness and training for you.

From the Haunted Attraction Network, I'm Philip, and this is the third episode in our mini-series. Introducing the new Haunted Attraction Association board members. Long before Eloise and even PennHurst Jim started as a home haunter.

Jim: Halloween was Christmas, from as early as I can remember. I used to convince my foster parents to go by the different colored flood lights so I could light up the front of the house with different colors to make it scarier. As a young person, there was a haunted trail nearby us, I got started there. 15, 16, I worked at the haunted trail for a season or two, and then in high school, we actually did a fundraiser where we built our own haunted attraction at the high school. It was very dynamic. Even back then the seeds of what I do now were planted, because it wasn't just a, you walk through, there was dynamic interaction. I had the biggest guy in the whole school chasing me down the front stairs with a chain saw, stabbing me with the chain saw, blood pack going off, dragging me back up the stairs. So, the theatrical has always been there.

Philip: Life happened, and Jim drifted away from haunting to start a family for a few years.

Jim: And then in 2010 they opened PennHurst Asylum, literally half a mile from my house, it was half a mile, and it still took me two years to get a job here as an actor. I started as an actor.

Philip: He was climbing the leadership ladder, but then in 2016, PennHurst was sold.

Jim: It was really a dark time for all of us. We have a cast here, well over 150 people, and it was sold, and it destroyed us. Then the new owners decided they were going to keep running the haunt. So, a lot of us just came back, and I was very lucky that I did because they gave me an opportunity to work as an assistant manager to the general manager Cara Lightcap. From that assistant manager's position, I jumped into operations manager.

Philip: And it's while Jim is the operations manager at PennHurst that Eloise comes into the picture.

Jim: In the haunt industry the unicorn is always, "well, what would you do if someone just gave you several million dollars to build a haunted house?" Well, it happened in Westland, Michigan. There was so much investment into the Eloise property, and the project had such strong backing, that when the ownership here at PennHurst went and bought into that they said," well, we've got an operations guy and we'll give him to you to get this off the ground, because what you're doing there is very similar to what we're doing here." It's a historic property, it has a very dark but sensitive history that we need to be aware of, it's a dynamic haunted attraction with high throughput, and it allowed me to travel 10 hours from home for a season to help make Eloise a complete success. And it really was a great first season. Absolutely great first season.

Philip: I'm wondering, from your perspective, what is it that makes these two haunts unique in the markets they operate in?

Jim: What we have at Eloise, and What we have at PennHurst is, if I took everything out, every fabricated piece out of these buildings, every actor out of these buildings, these buildings would still be terrifying, and that, I truly believe, is what makes us part of a very special niche within the entire haunt community.

Philip: Essentially, that niche been operating in historic sites.

Jim: Oh, absolutely. I think one of the things that makes both PennHurst and Eloise very unique is that, although they are extremely notable historic sites, neither is under the control of a historic society. What that has allowed us to do is, it allows us to operate in such a way that we can make repairs, changes, and we can focus on what's going to drive our sites the best. PennHurst and Eloise, we recognize that the cornerstone of what has made our sites so viable is the haunted attraction, and we recognize the value of our haunted attraction. I'd be lying if I said that there wasn't huge operational problems with operating in a hundred year old buildings. But one of the hallmarks that I've developed is our safety standards, our daily checks, our follow through, our build crew, it really is top tier. Part of our inspection is we look at the structure itself. How often do you look at your wall panels like, "I wonder if that panels, panel number 47, is going to fall?" I don't think panel 47 is going to fall here, because we check it twice a day.

Philip: Talk to me a little bit about the line that you have to walk between the history and the fiction.

Jim: I would be lying if I didn't say that, when PennHurst opened in 2010, it made so many people

Philip: So many. Yes, I have. A lot of articles, so many.

Jim: And it very much was an appalling, "how dare you do this? How dare you do this?" And that argument is valid. I can't take away from that argument. The idea of us coming here and making light of the history, that would be absolutely appalling. But PennHurst was not PennHurst Asylum, it was never PennHurst Asylum. PennHurst Asylum is our fake on it house.

The PennHurst State School, the PennHurst Center, these names are what this place actually was. We have developed, in conjunction with the leading nonprofit the PennHurst Memorial Preservation Association, a very successful history program where people can come in and take history tours. We have the only Disabled Rights Museum in the country, and you can learn the history of what happened here in detail, with no interjection. As soon as you're on the property, you're going to want to learn more. It's, "yeah, I went through the haunt. It was great. But why do these buildings exist? Well, let me look. Oh, I can go on a tour, let's go on a tour." And that's the mission.

That's the mission, teaching people. What happened here, why it matters, how the fight for disabled rights is still going on today just as much as the one back then. I think it's our dedication to those things that have allowed people to say, "you know what? They are not making fun of disabled people at PennHurst." We have monsters, we do not have patients who have disabilities, we have creatures. It's that line that we've really focused on since 2016.

 We did the same thing at Eloise. Eloise is a different animal. Eloise was an asylum. Eloise dealt very heavily in mental health, it was a poor house, it was a lunatic asylum, it was a TB ward. But once again, the story that we're putting on is such an exaggerated and farcical story, and I think that's how we do it. And we offer history there as well, you can come take a history toward Eloise and learn about the property and the people that live there.

Philip: The line, it seems that you're drawing, is you are using the backdrop of the building, but you are not using the building's history in the attraction that you are creating, you are creating a definitively different, fantastical story that happens in the building. But then you are augmenting that with, as you said, the historical tours, so that way people can learn about it, and it further accentuates the difference.

Jim: And I look at it this way, without PennHurst Asylum, without Eloise, without our attractions funding these; and I'm not operating in some 10,000 square foot warehouse. Each floor of Eloise is 30,000 square feet, PennHurst is 250,000 square feet, it is massive, and then our structures aside from this, we have other buildings that we don't use. They're alive, and they have the potential to not be lost to history because of what we're doing.

Philip: Well, let's pivot now. Of course, you just joined the board directors for the Haunted Attraction Association, tell me, what do you bring to the board? What expertise are you bringing to the members?

Jim: Long before I put my boots on and said, "I'm going to go scare people semi-professionally," I've been running as an emergency services provider. I'm actually an advanced EMT, and nationally registered NRE and EMT in Pennsylvania. I'm a captain at an ambulance corps, I've been a supervisor, a Lieutenant, that's one of the big things that I bring to the table that's extremely different than most other people, because I'm really good at emergencies.

To give you some examples. Here at PennHurst, couple of years back, we had the problem where we had to get everybody into the attraction. Pennsylvania is not known for tornadoes, so when one touchdown two miles from my queue lines, we all had to act. We formulated a plan, and we executed on it, and we got everyone—everyone on one of the busiest nights of the year, so we're talking easily, 3000, 4,000 people static—into our buildings and safe. So they weren't under the trees, they weren't getting hit by shingles and stuff. We monitor the situation, we released them, and we were able to re-queue them so they all got to see the show. So, it worked out beautifully.

Eloise, first year, first year at Eloise, of course, someone pulls the fire alarm. Of course, someone pulls a fire alarm on an extremely busy night. Once again, we drilled, we drilled, we drilled, we evacuated, and we were able to clear and restart operations in about seven minutes. Seven minutes.

So that's my greatest strength, safety, emergency operation planning, emergency response, building your security, building your EAPs, building your first aid and safety stuff. Then, an extension from that, is developing plans for safety checks.

The safety is a big part of it, but also secondary events. That's something huge at our sites, and it's something I'm pretty good at. Things like, you want to organize a car show, or a paranormal convention, or you want to start ghost hunts, you want to hold weddings, I have a lot of experience with the running of large scale events. Our Horror Camp Out is one of the most unique things that we do, and it's a huge hit every year where people come and camp out. Instead of doing the 4th of July Monster Bash, or the Valentine's Day, we do these other specialty events.

Philip: in your opinion, thinking about everything that you kind of just said, what's the biggest misconception you think the industry has with safety?

Jim: We have the impression that because no one is getting hurt, we're safe. That complacency is something that we are all subject to if we're not careful. Because, well, no one fell, we had no problems, everything went great. But that doesn't mean that there isn't a hazard that could be catastrophic.

One of the most important things, if you unlock the door to let people in, is get your safety checks done. Get them done, get them recorded, deal with your problems, and then you know, then it's not just, "oh, I'm assuming everything's fine cause no one got hurt tonight." No, "I know no one got hurt because our stuff is safe. Everything's good."

Philip: Tell me what you're thinking about right now in terms of some of the challenges that might be coming up.

Jim: I think a lot of people kind of forgot how to function in society. We are very much a herd, we need to be together. We're humans, we congregate, and we stopped doing that. I really feel that a lot of people lost the ability to compromise. I think a lot of people started not having the ability to empathize to other people. People are less patient, and I think all of that eventually will go away. But until that happens, we need to be very hyper aware that there's going to be people that show up that we can't please. There's going to be people coming in that don't care about our rules, they just don't. But I think general behavior of our customers has changed significantly, 2019 to today. I think that we're going through an evolution. So, we need to be very flexible.

Philip: What can we do now to preempt some of that?

Jim: Well, I think a lot of it is customer education, letting them know what you're offering, how you're offering it, being very clear with your rules and your standards. I think what we need to build into our attractions is customer service. We need to be very customer service oriented. Something that we've been practicing here, for years, at PennHurst as we've ripped off the customer training manuals from both Apple and Chick-fil-A, and that's how we train our events staff. So, what you can start now to prepare, is start training your event staff in de-escalation and identification, hazard mitigation. You can train people how to do that.

Philip: Yeah, it also sounds like you are, maybe, suggesting longer training.

Jim: Absolutely. Yes, we have to hire new people. Yes, we have to onboard new people. But let's not forget about the people that come back. We all have returning staff, we all have a significant portion of returnees. I couldn't imagine staffing from zero every year, that'd be a nightmare. We have people that come back year after year after year, it would be a nightmare staffing from zero. Oh no.

Philip: The listeners now that are listening to that are like, "this is my life!" There's plenty of them.

Jim: I know there is, but man having people to come back really open up the ability to reinforce good things. So, here's the thing. So, say you have. 20% of your staff is going to come back. And they're go getters, they are people that are always there to help, you know who they are. What's to stop you from posting a hazard assessment video on your Facebook page for them to check out? The ones that care about the haunt are going to watch it, and maybe they take part of that lesson.

Philip: I do agree with that. I would push back on it and say that the opposite is also true. You have returning cast members that have been with you, a lot of haunts do, since year one, and changing the culture can be difficult when you have so many returning people.

Jim: With any leadership new direction you're going to have the same problems, but you can conquer it the same way. Your leadership has to be excited about the changes, you have to be positive about the changes, you can't be like, "yeah, I know it sucks guys, but we're going to do this." You've already lost them if you say that. You have to be like, "Hey, we're going to do this new thing because it's where we should be, and you want to be the best, right? Well, this is how we get to be the best." You instill pride into the culture shift, and you make it a point of fact for them that they are like, "well, wait, I love this place, and this will make our place better? Let's do it." At the end of the day, culture shift lies on the shoulders of your leadership, and if your leadership is who they should be, it should be a challenge, but it should never be impossible.