I was reminded of the ongoing allure of Danvers State Hospital, here in eastern Massachusetts where I make my home, by this story of three “would-be ghost-busters” who were arraigned today on trespassing charges after taking a video camera onto the grounds of the asylum, which opened in 1878 and closed in 1992 amidst allegations of overcrowding, abuse and neglect of its wards. At their court appearance, the chastened men each admitted their fascination with ghosts and the legends that the hospital grounds are haunted.
Danvers’ imposing Gothic architecture (it inhabits a place in the National Register of Historic Sites) is one of the most overwhelming of the grand state psychiatric hospitals in Massachusetts, the majority of which — with their monumental edifices, their sprawling grounds, and their treatment of those in the state most tortured by severe mental illness — were closed in the deinstitutionalization mania of the ’90’s from which the mentally ill of Massacusetts and their caregivers have yet to recover. (Institutionalized treatment in massive and remote asylums was supposed to be replaced by community-based outpatient supports when the institutions were closed, but the budget-makers of the state conveniently forgot about that small detail.)
Danvers State occupies a unique place in the psychogeography of this region, like a scratch you cannot reach to itch. It has its own Wikipedia entry, which mentions urban legends that former patients have come back to the closed facility in hopes of finding a place to live, become squatters, and terrorized teenage joyriders who trespass on the grounds. It sounds like a cheap horror flick. Indeed area film director Brad Anderson set his haunting 2001 horror film Session 9, which has been described as “an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with the modern feel of The Blair Witch Project…,”.on the grounds. “It’s the scariest building in North America,” actor David Caruso, who starred in the movie, told AboutFilm.com. “It was always scary, and you could really feel the pain of the people that were at Danvers.”
A real estate developer, in what is becoming a trend at abandoned asylums throughout the continent, is planning to turn Danvers State into an upscale condo development. The developer maintains that the project will be a ‘showcase for attractive and respectful reuse.’ No doubt there will be no accommodations for those peripatetic squatter ex-patients… A group of advocates and former patients are pressuring the group to include a museum to the hospital’s history in their scheme. There are also ongoing moves for the rehabilitation of the cemeteries on the state hospital grounds, in which hundreds of institutionalized patients were buried in graves marked by their medical record numbers. After the 1992 closure of the facility, advocates accessed the archived records to identify the graves and put up headstones where possible.
I have written before in FmH about the infiltration movement and its eponymous webzine, about “going places you’re not supposed to go”. Danvers has been an object of veneration for infiltrators in the decade-plus since its closure. (The three trespassers would have done well to study the ethos and methods of serious infiltrators before their escapade, especially because Danvers State is across the street from the State Police barracks!) Here is a site on the infiltration of another venerable old Massachusetts state hospital, Metropolitan State in Belmont and Waltham, where I myself trained and later worked in the ’80’s treating patients devastatingly ill with schizophrenia, and which has been closed for more than a decade as well.
Opacity, a site by the pseudonymous Motts, who started out being photographically interested in ‘urban ruins’ but grew increasingly fascinated with the act of exploring itself, has a photo essay about the eerie grandeur of the abandoned Danvers State as well as a number of other facilities in Massachusetts and elsewhere.
None has been as obsessed with the closed asylum as Michael Ramseur, author of the reverent website, The Castle on the Hill as well as Haunted Palace, a 260-page history of the facility and The Eye of Danvers, an 88-page art history.
Danvers is just a stone’s throw from Salem, the center of Massachusetts witchery, and interest in the asylum overflows from those preoccupied with the Witch City. Some claim that the hospital was the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Asylum, which in itself leads Goths to urge its preservation. Who knows what unmentionable horrors lie in wait in the decades to come for those who remain to be seduced by its terrifying summons?