Antique morgue fridges, operating rooms where lobotomies were performed and unkept cemeteries with thousands of unmarked graves are just some of the chilling sights to behold in America's abandoned mental asylums. But for those who get a kick out of the creepy, most of them are not accessible to the public due to being structurally unsafe (seriously, don't try). However one guy was granted access, equipped with his camera and safety helmet.
Photographer Matt Van der Velde explored America's abandoned state hospitals, asylums and psychiatric facilities to produce a series of powerful and haunting images, capturing the often tragic history of these establishments, which now stand forgotten and slipping into disrepair.
And on November 15, his new book 'Abandoned Asylums' will be released, taking readers on a visual journey through some of these historic but damn creepy buildings. Here he gives us the lowdown on his spookiest experiences and what former asylums you can actually visit.
So, why mental asylums? What drew you to this subject?
As a past member of the Canadian Forces infantry; I, like many others, am not immune to mental illness, and depression is something I've always unashamedly carried around. Exploring and photographing these former institutions offered me solace in seeing first hand how far we've come, and how far we have to go in the treatment of mental illness and the stigmas attached.
What's the aim of this photo series? Is there a take-home message?
I think most importantly, the book is aimed at opening society's eyes to places that were rarely seen by those who were not either a patient, physician, or employee of these former institutions. They were very much a closed-off area of society and as a result, we've all developed a sort of morbid curiosity, and natural urge to see these places. Many people don't realize that in almost every corner of America there are massive former institutions (upwards of 500-700 acres, and 40-50 structures) with both architectural and historical significance that currently lay in a state of decay destined to the fate of the wrecking ball.
The book features an in-depth look at the evolution of psychiatry; why the need arose and how they failed. But these were not all terrible places run by terrible people, as popular culture and horror films would have us believe. There were some exceptions though, and the book certainly doesn't shy away from them.
What were some of the more shocking things you saw in your explorations?
Some places are incredibly empty and others are filled to the brim with old equipment, hospital records, and various items leftover from when they were active. One place in particular had a heartbreaking room full of patient luggage, while another had a lot of bio-hazardous material - blood samples in test tubes, brain samples encased in wax, and bodily fluids on microscope slides.
One of the more shocking things I've experienced is an institution in New York City that had six inches of bird feces covering the floor. Birds would come in through broken windows seeking shelter and not find their way out; ultimately starving to death and defecating everywhere in the process.
There's something incredibly ironic about that, as a large number of 'chronic' patients would spend their entire lives institutionalized in such a place. Even more alarming; just below the floor with the bird poop was a space that a squatter (believed to be a former patient) has called home for upwards of a decade. It's both eerie and heartbreaking being somewhere, knowing that someone is enduring such a sad state of existence there.
Were you ever scared? Be honest....
The ghost question is possibly the most common reaction I get when I tell people of what I do. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I've never had an ghostly experience. The scariest thing was the actual condition of the buildings themselves. Asbestos, mould, lead paint and floor collapses are always on my mind in these places, and I take as much precaution and proper safety equipment as possible.
Other than that it's just been the odd run-in with a racoon or devlish chipmunk. I don't know who is more surprised to see who - vermin, I tell ya!
Are there any asylums that we CAN visit?
There are indeed. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia can still be visited. Opened in 1864, it followed the 'Kirkbride Plan' - meaning that it's architectural design was a treatment in itself. It's wards were long and wide; and staggered en echelon (like birds in flight when viewed from above) in such a way that fresh air and plenty of natural sunlight could easily pass through. Originally designed to treat up to 250 patients, at it's height the TALA was home to 2600 troubled souls. Rumor has it, that the infamous Charles Manson was institutionalized here at one point. Today, the asylum offers photography tours, ghost hunts, and a seasonal Halloween attraction.
There's also the Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Spring City, Pennsylvania. Although not an 'asylum' by name, this institution offered treatment to children and young adults who suffered from physical, mental, and intellectual disabilities. Opened in 1908, it's history is an exceptionally sad one, tarnished by almost a century of abuses and scandal, which lead to its closure in 1987. Conditions here were nightmareish. Ultimately there were too many patients and too few attendants, leading to neglect and squalid conditions.
The lawsuits that followed perpetuated change in the American legal system, and a rule of law known as the 'Pennhurst Doctrine' went on to become a precedent under United States Constitutional Law, governing the ways in which those with intellectual disability would be treated.This institution has been featured on numerous paranormal TV shows including Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures. There's also photography tours, ghost hunts, and a seasonal Halloween attraction here, which has sparked outrage by the surrounding community due to its dark history.
What did this experience teach you about the history of mental care in America?
Most importantly, I've learned that these places were once an object of civic pride. The grounds were well maintained and included beautiful green spaces with fountains, walking paths, bandshells, and gazebos - a long shot from what we're lead to believe through pop culture. These institutions were founded with good intentions but as society realized these could be human warehouses, they began to fail as the infrastructure and staff was unable to properly treat so many individuals. If you had anything that set you apart from the general population, the sad truth is that you could end up institutionalized.
What's your favourite photo from this series?
That's a tough one! But if I had to choose, there's a photo of a room where the floor has collapsed, revealing a four story chasm below. Below, growing precariously in the sink clinging to the wall, is a beautiful green vine plant that is flourishing. A courageous little plant; proof that even in the most fragile and uncertain environment, life can endure. There's something metaphysical about that.
Pre-order your copy of 'Abandoned Asylums' by Matt Van der Velde online via Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Target, Chapters/Indigo, or AbandonedAsylums.ca.