The 7 Most Disturbing, Macabre Virtual & OnlineTours: On The East Coast

The holidays bring the best and worst out of all of us. The internet is saturated with good tidings and listicles of the best Christmas movies to warm hearts and spread belief in miracles. The brightly colored presents placed under decorated trees silence the echoes of untold horrors experienced at the mall or online while selling your soul to acquire an overpriced PS5 from a scalper. Er, that’s what I hear anyway.

Creating fond memories for your family during the Holidays requires an immense amount of mental strength and stamina. It is exhausting. This blog serves two purposes:

1 Provide a mental escape to virtually tour something dark and interesting; and

2 Bask in the glow of how good your life is compared to others in these stories

Nothing says, ‘I have many blessings’ more than reading about the unfortunate souls of the past with a glass of wine or spiked egg nog. Most virtual tour lists consist of faraway destinations that are well-known and traveled; this isn’t that list.

These destinations are intimate, unknown trails blazed on domestic soil. Unfortunately, with COVID, it is hard to travel to a destination or lose yourself in an overdue spa day session, so it is in this spirit I present the macabre virtual tours.

Mutter Museum: Virtual tour

Photo courtesy of Mutter Museum

Nestled in the brotherly loving arms of Philadelphia, the Mutter Museum pays homage to the human body and the painful challenge to understand it. The walls within boast a rich history speaking to the medical profession’s trials and tribulations of diagnosing disease and pioneering efforts in the advancements of medicine.

Along with the fascinating permanent exhibits, the museum entertains temporary exhibitions and foresight to create virtual tours, which can be viewed under the websites ‘Education’ tab. Virtual tour options include:

  • Tour of the permanent exhibit

  • Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Philadelphia

  • Imperfecta, in which we examine the shifting perceptions about abnormal human development, from fear and wonder to curiosity and clinical science.

  • Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia

Mutter Museum also features several online exhibits such as:

  • memento mori– “remember that you shall die."

  • Healing Energy: Radium in America

  • Under the Influence of the Heavens: Astrology in Medicine in the 15th and 16th Centuries

  • History of Vaccines

The Mutter Museum prides itself on keeping the public disturbingly informed. I would have to agree as their last Podcast delved into the wild world of scrotums (with bonus scrotum trauma-don’t google that!), forensic toxicology, corpse catapults, and how to donate your body to science. It seriously had me on the edge of my seat with a few grimaces here and there. Bravo Mutter Museum!

Eastern State Penitentiary: Online Tour

Photo Courtesy of Thom Carroll for Phillyvoice

What makes this prison unique is it is the first prison that embraced the principle of solitary confinement as a tool to insight repentance and reform and abandoned corporal punishment. It was built so guards could supervise inmates at all times using a wagon-wheel architecture with guard towers. While in solitary confinement, hoods were often placed over prisoners’ heads to prevent them from seeing other inmates. Labor replaced torture.

The Quaker-inspired plan for this type of reform and architecture was hatched in Ben Franklin’s home, becoming realized in 1829 when Eastern State opened its doors. This behemoth was the most expensive building in Philadelphia and was set as the model for other penitentiaries built in the United States. Al Capone passed some time here in a lavished up cell that remains mostly as it was.

The philosophy of solitary confinement for long periods failed. Instead of reflecting on their crimes and atoning spiritually and mentally, prisoners would find insanity, not nirvana, so the practice was abandoned in 1913.

Solitary confinement is now used as a punishment in prisons for short durations instead of the norm. Prisoners will alter behavior to avoid confinement because it is maddening. The prison was cleared out in 1971 and was left to rot for over 20 years.

Salem Witch Museum: Online Site Tours

Copyright: Louise Michaud Photographer

The Salem Witch Trials is one of the most searched history topics on the internet and remains an infatuation for millions of people. Who knew teen girl angst would cause such a sensation, am I right? In 1692, a group of young girls claimed that demons possessed them. The girls accused women and other children of using witchcraft, and soon a wave of trials convened in several areas of colonial America.

Animals were not safe from being put on trial and hung at the gallows. In 1976, it was found that a fungus found in bread can cause convulsions and delusions that some of the young girls had suffered from, not the devil. Over 150 so-called witches were killed, and it wasn’t until 1697 that the courts and public came to their senses, cleared the families’ names, and provided them restitution. A day of fasting was held to honor the accused souls.

The Salem Witch Museum offers online tours of several locations that had a connection to the Salem Witch trials, so you can view different places and stories that formed the netting of chaos in the witchy web of events. The term witch-hunt is used widely today in reference to using fear and falsely accusing a scapegoat.

Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast: Virtual Tour

Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an ax in 1892. She was acquitted in 1893 and purchased a luxurious mansion with a portion of the nearly $10 million inheritance, far better than the home of the bloody scene. The bodies had been mutilated. Lizzie had also burned a dress that week that she claims had been stained with paint.

Although acquitted, the community felt that she was guilty of the crime, so she was never entirely accepted into the community again. Interestingly, her lineage is linked to Thomas Cornwall, who killed his mother nearly 200 years prior. Family trait?

Centralia: Virtual Tour

Photo courtesy of

Meet the inspiration behind the chilling game and movie of Silent Hill. Centralia was a blossoming city booming with commerce. Now, beneath the ghostly ruins of the town is a mine fire that still burns after 50 years. Centralia’s mine fire is the worst in history, displacing an entire city population and devastating the world.

There are different theories on how the fire started, but most believe it started due to the town’s trash being dumped in one of the abandoned mines. Under Centralia are vast mine shafts and tunnels, so the fire spread quickly with no one knowing exactly where it was coming from. Many excavations tried and failed. The fire could continue burning for another century.

Fort Delaware: Virtual Tour

Photo credit:

Fort Delaware was initially constructed as a stronghold to protect Wilmington and Philadelphia in 1859. The Fort sits prominently on Pea Patch Island and stands as a magnificent architectural marvel.

During the Civil War, Fort Delaware was repurposed as a prison for Confederate captives. Things ran relatively smoothly until 13,000 prisoners were transferred in from Gettysburg. The overcrowding caused a scarcity of resources, and the social climate changed dramatically.

Death became a face that you would greet every single day within the walls. Smallpox, measles, scurvy, dysentery, poor hygiene, and lack of water led to thousands of ill prisoners, with thousands dying in a single day. Lice and diarrhea filled the prison. About 3,000 soldiers died and were buried in mass graves across the river in New Jersey.

Pennhurst Asylum: Virtual tour

Photo Courtesy of

The Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, better known as Pennhurst Asylum, was born from health officials’ urging to state legislatures to permanently separate those that demonstrated feeble-mindedness (intellectual and developmental disabilities) from the general population and sterilizing them. Doctors believed that by taking these individuals out of societal circulation, they would extinguish the hereditary traits that caused these conditions.

Pennsylvania was not alone in its efforts; this was a national trend. Pennhurst Asylum is one of the few that are still standing and available to the public for tours. Pennhurst opened in 1908, taking up 1,400 acres of Spring City. The grounds housed it’s own power plant, barbershop, and other amenities for staff, much like Alcatraz.

Overcrowding Escalates A Bad Situation

Pennhurst was seen as a model institution that operated under the best of intentions of known ‘science’ at the time. Unfortunately, the science of the time led to widespread, systematic abuses.

The institution did not only accept special needs patients; it also admitted immigrants, orphans, and criminals, further complicating the situation. Patients were sorted into groups according to their conditions, which were limited at the time:

  • Imbecile or Insane

  • Epileptic or Healthy

  • Dental conditions (good/poor/treated)

The diagnosis determines their lodging and care. Accepting such a diverse amount of patients led to overcrowding. The asylum was meant to occupy 500, and at its height, there were 3,500 occupants within the campus, most of them children. Overcrowding is the catalyst for deteriorating care and treatment.

Pennhurst morphed into a brutal survival of the fittest contest for resources and fundamental freedoms while off-campus society remained blissfully unaware of the dehumanization within the walls.

The overwhelmed staff became desensitized to the cruelty of treatment towards patients both by them and ‘non-feeble’ residents in this harsh world that mainstream society had abandoned. Some things that occurred where:

  • Restraints used where people would be tied to the bed for over 600 hours at a time

  • High-functioning adults & children that acted out would be placed in the ward with low-functioning as punishment

  • Children would be locked in cages for several days

  • Bullying was prominent, and the punishment was often injections to cause pain

  • Teeth removed from patients that bit

  • Unhygienic conditions and patients usually were not cleaned after forced to lie in excrement, and there was often feces and urine over floors and walls

  • Psychotropic drugs used to control patients in high doses, not treatment

  • Injuries to patients from staff, each other, and self-inflicted continuously

  • Patients wandered naked, seldom being dressed

  • Intelligent & emotional degradation due to the hostile environment

The Beginning Of The End

Pennhurst didn’t have many visitors because patients were sent there to be treated and forgotten. In the 1950s, a ripple in the water occurred as family members found their voice and reported on the abuses. Shock and awe came in 1968 when a news reporter, Bill Baldini, filmed a 5-night expose about the conditions inside the asylum named “Suffer The Little Children.”

The footage captured the disturbing images of neglect. Baldini chastized the public for allowing this degradation to occur in their backyards and urged the public to reach out to their state legislators to intervene. The public response was epic, and outcries were heard in waves across the country.

The groundbreaking lawsuit that closed Pennhursts doors was Halderman vs. Pennhurst State School and Hospital in the 1970s, revealing first-hand stories and potent evidence that could not be argued or justified by the defense. The state settled in 1984, and Pennhurst was closed in 1987 along with several other similar state-funded asylums throughout the country.

The site has drawn an enormous amount of paranormal crews and hobbyists, as well as those that are curious to see the remains of buildings that housed such horrors. The Pennhurst Preservation and Memorial Alliance take great interest in preserving and protecting the site from destruction. I know what you are thinking; why? Why would you want to keep those ghosts alive?

History Stands As Testament

Erasing history is incredibly irresponsible and dangerous. The way to honor victims is to remember them and acknowledge their pain through acceptance and remembrance. Acknowledgment of our history is the failsafe in preventing it from occurring again.

Acceptance of what happened is not the same as tolerance of what happened. Acceptance allows us to learn from what occurred to do it better in the future - it’s about rebuilding. It is hard to ignore or deny statues, monuments, and buildings standing in plane view as a constant reminder not to repeat the same mistakes.

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