Mental Hospitals and Asylums seem to draw ghost stories the way a light on a dark night draws bugs. Ghost stories cling to them like moss and collect over time until the dead patients wandering the halls outnumber the living. There is an irony to this. These hospitals were built to be places of healing where the broken and lost could find sanctuary and solace, but these plans often go awry and accidents and apathy turn healing to hurt. Tragedies linger in the shadows of these hospitals and collect like dust over time.
I have worked at several asylums during my career as a counselor and many times these places are not creepy. They are places of healing and the staff fights the darkness with art therapy and recreational therapy and all the things mental health professionals do to make hospitals a place of healing. However, sometimes the sad condition of the chronically mentally ill can’t be combated by these tools and bad things happen. Things happen that are so bad, that evil seems to remain in the old hospitals. It seeps into the foundations of the buildings and creeps up through the walls tainting everything inside. Bad doctors and staff turn bad things into travesties and these hospitals become places of fear. According to many, the ghosts cling to the emotions that are kept in the hospitals. Across the nation, there are many hospitals that are considered to be haunted. These hospitals have tragic histories and their stories can send chills down the spines of even the bravest souls. Here are a few of my favorite haunted asylums:
1. Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
This is considered by many to be the most haunted hospital in the United States. This hospital was founded in Weston West Virginia in 1864 and was then called The Weston State Hospital. The hospital had 250 beds and houses some of the sickest patients in the region. Although the hospital was built to house only 250 patients, by 1950 overcrowding turned the hospital into something out of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the building housed as many as 2500 sick souls. Even Charles Manson spent some time at this notorious hospital. The hospital witnessed all the worst of the early treatments for mental illness and frontal lobotomies and water shock treatment were the mainstays of early treatment here. However, the worst tragedies occurred when the patients hurt each other. There were several patient to patient killings here and one nurse vanished only to have her body discovered under the stairs two years later. Death became common place at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. In 1994, the hospital was considered unusable and it was close. Those that have visited this hospital say that they hear phantom noises throughout the hospital. They hear ghostly screams and wails. Full body apparitions have been seen wandering the hallways and strange noises come from the darkness.
2. Bryce Hospital for the Insane
Alabama Hospital for the Insane was designed to be a refuge for the mentally ill. Its architecture was designed based on the ideas of Dorothea Dix and Thomas Story Kirkbride. It was meant to be moral architecture that would contribute to the healing process within the hospital. The hospital opened in 1861 and for a while it held to the ideals of Dix and Kirkbride. The first superintendent, Peter Bryce, was an idealist and he had studied mental health in Europe. He believed that patients should be treated with respect kindness. He even abandoned the use of restraints. The hospital was later named for Bryce and it went on to be the model for progressive mental health care.
Time quickly eroded Bryce' legacy, however. By 1967, there were more than 5200 patients residing in a facility that was never meant to hold that many. Observers described Bryce as a concentration camp and a model for human cruelty. In 1970, one patient named Wyatt started a class action law suit against the Alabama's other mental hospital, Searcy State Hospital. This lead to major change in the way the mentally ill were treated in Alabama. The number of beds was cut drastically and humane treatment of the mentally ill became an absolute necessity. The landmark Wyatt v. Stickney Case would change Bryce drastically. The lawsuit was brought on by a patient and set minimum standards of care of inpatient populations and would improve the treatment of the mentally ill drastically over time (http://www.
Old Bryce was the African American portion of Bryce Hospital and was notorious for being even crueler than its white counterpart. After Wyatt v. Stickey and desegregation, Old Bryce was shut down entirely and other buildings were used. The African American patients were integrated into the white population.
Old Bryce still sits quietly deserted, however, as a reminder to the old days when patients were held like prisoners with no rights. It is covered in graffiti and has been vandalized many times. It’s even been set on fire. Trespassing is forbidden here, but the curious have reported seeing all manner of horrors coming out of the dark around Old Bryce. Lights flicker on an off in the building that has no electricity. Phones ring in rooms with no phones. Phantom lights drift from room to room. Furniture moves on its own and footsteps echo through the abandoned hallways. The living patients may be gone, but many believe Old Bryce is still filled with the ghosts of those who once suffered in its walls.
3. Norwich State Hospital for the Mentally Insane
Norwich Hospital for The Mentally Insane was built in 1904 in Preston, Connecticut and is known for the dark ghosts that live inside of it. The Norwich Hospital was designed to house the worst of the criminally insane patients in the state and, until 1971, it did just that. It was home to murders, rapists, and other violent offenders. The hospital is situated on 900 acres of woodland and is utterly isolated and crumbling. This façade has added to the horror stories that have built up around the violent people that lived within the hospital and has created a collection of ghost stories so large they could fill a book. Suicides and murders fill the history of Norwich Hospital and those who have died there never seem to leave. Witnesses describe hearing screams in the darkness Faces appear out of nowhere and strange mists and lights are seen in the halls.
4. Searcy State Hospital
Searcy State Hospital is located in the most Southern part of rural Alabama. Prior to being a state hospital the old hospital has a long and dark history that is very difficult to find, but easy to see upon casual observation. The hospital is encased in long, chipped, white walls that seem as old as anything in the United States. From outside these walls, you can see a battered watchtower that gives testament to the fact that the hospital is in the same location as a 300 year old fort. The fort bears witness to American history and was originally a Spanish fort. It switched hands during the Louisiana Purchase and became a US fort. After the US took possession of the fort it was converted to a military arsenal and became known as the Mount Vernon Arsenal. The Arsenal switched hands again several times and was taken by the Confederates during the civil war only to be passed back over the United States again in 1862. From 1887 to 1894, The Arsenal became a Barracks and was used as a prison for the captured Apache people. The most famous of the Apache people to be held in these barracks was Geronimo. The infamous Aaron Burr was also held at this secluded prison at some point.
In 1900 the Barracks were transformed once again and the prison became a mental hospital. Searcy hospital was built as the African American mental hospital in Alabama. Conditions in the hospital were beyond questionable and at one time there were over 2000 patients in the crowded hospital and all were seen by one psychiatrist. All patients were expected to work in the fields.
The hospital was desegregated in 1969, but its history is all around it. The hospital is still used today, and although the residents live in new buildings, many tell stories of ghosts and devils that linger in the white walls and abandoned buildings that surround the new facilities. These stories are usually ignored, because the patients are crazy, but I’m not the only sane person who saw a few ghosts while they were working there.
Searcy served as the inspiration for my new novel, Circe. Its tragic history and haunted atmosphere serve as a backdrop to the chilling tale of a young intern slow decent into madness. If you would like to read more about Searcy, you can find my book at:
5. Rolling Hills Asylum
Rolling Hills Asylum in East Bethany, New York, is one of the most haunting asylums in America. In 1827 it opened its doors and was known as the Genessee County Poor Farm. It provided housing for all manner of lost souls. The poor, the blind and the mad were all kept here. In the 1950's it was turned into the Old County Home and Infirmary. The property has had many owner since then. It was an antique mall for a while and was finally bought by the Carlson's. The Carlson's were the first to really describe the paranormal activity in Rolling Hills. The Carlson’s describe strange phenomena, with reports of disembodied voices, doors slamming and being held shut, footsteps, shadowy figures, and misty apparitions.
6. Pennhurst Asylum
Pennhurst Asylum had a long history of patient abuse and neglect. The sorrows in the hospital had built up like a mountain on its steps. Stories tell of patients that were chained up and children that were caged in cribs. There are even rumors of patients being murdered here.
Pennhurst opened its doors in 1908 and was called The State School for the Mentally and Physically Handicapped. At one time, it housed more that 10,000 patients that were poorly cared for and abused. In 1986, the hospital was shut down due to allegations of patient mistreatment, but the ghosts of those who were hurt here seem to find no justice in this closure. Stories of the haunting here include moving objects, hostile voices, and ghosts pushing and touching those that dare enter Pennhurst's haunted halls.
7. Danvers State Hospital
Danvers State Hospital was another asylum built with the best intentions and structured based on the theories of Thomas Story Kirkbride. Like Bryce Hospital, Kirkbride's theories of compassion and advocacy only lasted a brief period of time in Danvers State Hospital and the hospital eventually succumbed to overcrowding and rampant patient abuse.
Danvers State Hospital is located in Massachusetts and served as the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's famous Arkham Asylum which eventually inspired the asylum in Batman. The building was used in the movie Session 9 and served as the inspiration for the game Painkiller.
By 1939, Danvers housed 2,360 patients and was so crowded that patients were known to die and their bodies would go unnoticed for days. Electroshock therapy was used as a means of regular punishment and a way to control the patients and treatment was lost in the need to keep the patient population under control. Danvers was known as the birthplace of the prefrontal lobotomy and numerous patients had a small pick shoved up through their eye socket in this hellish procedure that severed the frontal portion of their brain.
Danvers was closed in 1992 and most of the hospital is gone now. But the cemeteries, tunnels, and remains of this institution that inspired some of the darkest asylums in modern fiction still remain host to haunting stories.
8. The Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry
Byberry was started as a small work camp for the mentally ill. In 1936, the hospital was turned over to the state and named The Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry. Like all of the hospitals on this list, conditions here gradually declined until they became deplorable and horrific. Patient abuse and neglect were standard of care. Photos documenting care at this hospital showed patients kept naked in hallways lined with feces.
In his 1948 book, The Shame of the States, Albert Deutsch described the horrid conditions he observed:
"As I passed through some of Byberry's wards, I was reminded of the pictures of the Nazi concentration camps. I entered a building swarming with naked humans herded like cattle and treated with less concern, pervaded by a fetid odor so heavy, so nauseating, that the stench seemed to have almost a physical existence of its own."
The hospital was closed in 1987 and eventually demolished, but the miles of tunnels that were built beneath the facility remain and stories of the horrific haunting in these tunnels will send chills down your spine. On account says the ghost of a man with a knife still takes victims in these tunnels.
9. Wernersville State Hospital
Wernersville State Hospital in Pennsylvania has a less horrific history than many of its predecessors. However, the ghost that is said to roam its hall is so terrifying room has to be made for it on the list. The ghost of a headless orderly who died there is said to wander its halls. Wernersville is still home to 185 patients and despite its ghost stories, is said to take good care of its patients.
10. Peoria State Hospital
Peoria State Hospital has gone by many names. The hospital was completed in 1902 and was then called The Illinois Hospital for the Incurably Insane. It is also know as Bartonville State Hospital. This haunting asylum was built based on a cottage system plan and had 33 buildings, a store, a power station and a community utility building. More buildings were added over time and the grounds currently consist of 47 buildings. The ghost that is said to haunt Peoria is named Manuel A. Bookbinder. He is commonly called Old Book. He is a patient who worked burying all the patients that died in the hospital until his own death. According to local lore, he cried for all the deceased he burred and that upon his own death over one hundred witnesses saw him crying at his funeral by an elm tree. It is said his weeping can still be heard today.