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Hanrahan, DeWitt receive recognition for presentation on Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum research

ISSUED: 6 May 2020
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — A paper presented by Shepherd University faculty members Dr. Heidi Hanrahan, professor of English, and Dr. Amy DeWitt, professor of sociology, during the November 2019 Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association (MAPACA) won the Ralph Donald Award, which recognizes the most outstanding paper and presentation given at the annual conference. The paper, titled “The Asylum is Waiting for You: Analyzing Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum’s ‘Criminally Insane’ Tour,” is published in MAPACA’s journal, Response.

Hanrahan and DeWitt visited the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston about two years ago on a “dark tourism of West Virginia” road trip.

“We were just fascinated by the place and how its owners are trying to make a go of it in an economically challenged region,” Hanrahan said. “The more we talked about that, the more we were convinced we had a decent idea worth exploring.”

The paper explores how the master story of the American asylum intersects with contemporary culture’s interest in popular crime narratives and concerns about ethical and responsible depictions of mental illness. It focuses specifically on the asylum’s “Criminally Insane Tour,” showing how management and staff attempt to thread the delicate needle of creating a profitable tourist destination while avoiding charges of exploitation, sensationalism, and insensitivity. As such, the tour serves as a fruitful if complicated model for charting the intersection of history and historic preservation, the tourism industry, and popular culture’s interest in mental illness and crime.

“We had a long discussion on our way back from our first visit to the asylum about the need to preserve this history, but the only way to maintain this massive gothic structure and the artifacts inside is to make money,” DeWitt said. “As a sociologist I was fascinated both by the historical treatments of vulnerable populations and also the modern-day fascination people have with vacant mental health hospitals and prisons. We decided to explore the ways the institution profits from this fascination while mindfully representing voices from the past.”

“Something I love explaining to students is that English studies and humanities studies in general help you learn how to read the world as a text,” Hanrahan said. “Once you flip that switch on, it’s hard to shut it off. This project gave me the chance to read ‘texts’ of all kinds. We looked at everything from the language the tour guide used to artifacts on display to gift shop merchandise.”

Hanrahan and DeWitt will receive free registration at the 2020 conference in Princeton, New Jersey, November 5-7, where award winners will be honored at the conference dinner.

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