Monday, July 27, 2009

Abandoned Mental Wards: Buildings of Pain

There’s a s#$%-load of abandoned mental hospitals around the country. The majority of them built in the late 1800s and early 1900s were considered to be a new and humane way to deal with the mentally ill population, and often times just those who acted up. Enough time has passed that these buildings are no longer safe and have been closed down. They were cold and without utilities and often times downright dangerous and dirty. The newer more antiseptic “day-spa-looking” mental hospitals have taken over the landscape. Some day, they too will be abandoned and picked over by the curious locals who will be amazed at how “barbaric” they were, including still using electroconvulsive therapy.

The treatments were even more barbaric before there was an understanding that illnesses of the mind are no different than illnesses of the body. To put someone aside for having a sickness of the gallbladder is as ridiculous as telling someone with dysfunctioning of the brain to please go away. We’ve made some strides and yet we still cling to old methods of dealing with mental patients from overmedicating to “talk” therapy where they cry about all the wrongs done to them, stuck in time and therapy forever blaming missed opportunities and misunderstanding parents instead of learning skills to become strong and productive. Hopefully, with enough time, cognitive-behavioral therapies will catch hold more in mental hospitals and allow patients to learn to live with deficiencies in one area while learning strengths in other areas to help compensate, as you would do with rehabilitating a paraplegic, even allowing them to rejoin us in society once again as productive human beings.

At the turn of the last century, lobotomies were one of the first experiments used, as were things like sensory deprivation and isolation, ice water baths until they passed out, and bleeding them to get these “feelings” out of their bodies.

So, it’s no wonder that as ghost hunters we are endlessly fascinated with abandoned mental hospitals, TB clinics, hospitals, and jails, perhaps because so much human suffering, grief, anger, and pain were held within their walls for decades on end. Its no coincidence that they are the first places we seek out when entering the industry. And, they are also the places we are most likely to go back to over and over again and again, each time finding something new, something provoking, even if it’s just a visceral response genetically predisposed in our DNA that makes us feel compassion and fear at foul treatment.

If we seek the tormented, we do so in these places.

An abandoned asylum wasn’t my first foray into a mental hospital. When I was quite young, my oldest sister had difficulties. She ran away from home and was molested. My parents didn’t know what to do about it and since it was 1970s and the peak of hippie lifestyles, they assumed she must be doing drugs and took her to a local mental hospital to heal the carvings she made in her arms and let her think about what she’d done.

She went into Shepherd Pratt and then later Taylor Manor where over 18 months she received over 100 electroshock therapies resulting in my 18-year-old sister coming home with no memory of her upbringing. We were all strangers to her. The only reason she ever left the expensive Taylor Manor facility was because my father yanked her out against medical advice out of fear of the amount of heavy-duty drugs that they had her on. She was the sister who babysat me and braided my hair and was my “Lillamor” or “little mother” to me. I really didn’t know how to handle this stranger that came home. She looked like my sister (but a lot paler) sounded like my sister, but looked bewildered.

Over time and lots of love, she realized how close we all were and became one of the family again, but still talk of the “old days” made her frown again in puzzlement. We developed a new relationship and she went on to have a perfectly happy life, married, had kids, was a compassionate nurse at a prison where she felt a great deal of understanding for the tormented individuals within.

What amazes me most about this whole thing is that it was not so long ago in the scheme of things, in 1970, when patients were turned into zombies with Haldol and shocked to bring “sense” to them. It was an expensive industry at $100 a day to stay there in 1970. It paid the facility to keep their patients no longer independent.

Admittedly, walking through the halls of the places my sister stayed at was much the same as walking through these abandoned sites. I could hear the faint wailing of torment and the stern footsteps of an angry nurse, and I could imagine just how much a person’s memories could be imprinted into a building, the huddling fear, their loneliness, their confusion.

Some people says prisons are super haunted, but most prisoners have only remorse when they know they’ve been caught, and the greater majority feel justified in what they did and terribly out of touch with their own emotions other than anger and resentment. But human agony, that’s another thing. I say mental hospitals are the wards of the most extremes of human emotions and if a place is to be haunted by lingering human drama, these would be the seats of agony and hopelessness.

Perhaps these remaining skeletal buildings will teach us something about where we put our mentally ill people and how we isolate them. Just spending one night ghost hunting in such a place gives people so many unsettling feelings they can't shake the memories. To me, they're mausoleums of the "old ways," may they rest in peace.

A fantastic site with a list of abandoned mental hospitals can be found here.


  1. Wow, that was some story about your sister. The 70's was a unique time to grow up in, I should know. How is you sister now? I can see that an abandoned mental ward could have more hauntings and an old prison. Most had no idea of what was going on and aware of their surroundings, so their spirits have no where else or any idea of where to go. Sad, but these place do make for good ghost hunts.

  2. I think it's a great thing when folks get to walk around those places and get the feel of residual that exists there. It's a stark reality when they see the straps on the tables and the equipment. I have to admit, my life has been very complex and the stories are so immense that people tell me to write a book about my life, but I don't think anyone would believe it--stranger than fiction. I also feel that, once going through it, I have a perspective that makes it hard to portray the immensity of it because enough time has gone by to see it as part of a process instead of a bunch of assaults against my security. Sadly, my sister died at the age of 50 in 2005. She had been morbidly obese (chronic caretaker of others and not herself). She got gastric bypass surgery and a tummy tuck when she lost 150 pounds and then had abdominal adhesions resulting in peritonitis--a horrible way to go--most painful. Unfortunately, as a psychic, I knew she was going soon. Something in her voice and something about her bothered me. I begged my hubby to go back and visit with her and my other siblings and I told him "this is the last time I'm seeing her." He didn't believe me, but when we saw her, she looked horrible. We had a great time together and I felt nothing was left undone or unsaid and she died a few weeks later. Yeah, another story for the book of my life, I guess. The great thing about all of this, however, is that after losing our father and mother, my sister and I became very very close and she was my best friend and my "Lillamor" again. She was very accepting and supportive and I gave her the same, so we did resolve all the distances that laid between us after her memory loss. I try to treat everyone and every day like it could be the last and nothing is unsaid, even if I just notice a stranger's shoes, I'll compliment them, or make someone laugh who's frowning. I never hold onto compliments. I always share. I'm thankful for the people I've had in my life and the time I got with them (we only get to borrow people), so I never have regrets. I wish other people could learn that instead of hanging onto the dead and all the "what if's" and "if only's."

  3. Amen to your commment about hanging on. I was able to say goodbye to my Dad but not my Mother-in-law and brother-in-law. I have no regrets because I know that when they died, they knew that I loved them both very much. I'm sorry about your sister but at least she is at peace now.

  4. Thanks Julie. It's part of the human experience. I think that's why everyone always empathizes so much when talking about loss.

  5. Roosevelt Island, where Jennifer Connelly's malefic & tragic haunting melodrama, "Dark Water", was filmed, has at least one abandoned sanatorium. Also, there was a Civil War era hospital there, whose ruins were used in some band's music video. But dang! I cannot for the life of me recall whose it was at present writing. Eeek. Appropriately enough, largely due to what my word veri implies, "orerb", for "or 'erb". LOL! I'm sure that something'll actually manifest there, that is, if any intrepid parapsychological crews would only have at it ~ (•:-)}

  6. Anadæ;
    I'm really amazed by the number of abandoned mental asylums are across the US. There was a huge boom around the early 1900s to build them and every state has several. In fact, I'm targeting one that's been completely fenced off and off limits from the public for decades but they want to raise $ to refurbish it as an historic site and we're hoping to convince them to let us run a few tours through there to raise money. I can't imagine being the first ones in there after all this time. It'll be like a ghost hunting virgin site not corrupted yet by trampling masses. I am definitely checking out Roosevelt Island info. Thanks for the insight. :-)

  7. autumnforest...if you have time, maybe see if you can set up a haunted house through there on halloween! only thing is, some might take that as disrespectful...but, personally, if i had ever been in one & died, i'd be honored if someone did that! ...but that's just me...

  8. Thanks Libby;
    Yeah, I always said that when I got elderly, I'd hook up with a trusted ghost hunting team and they'd be on-call when I'm passing so they could document the process and try to make contact. But, then, I'm weird anyways.