Cinematic Haunts #1 – Danvers State Insane Asylum
Cinematic Haunts – Danvers State Insane Asylum
Article by Annie Riordan
“We call her the “Kirkbride Building”, named after Dr. Thomas Kirkbride. It’s a pretty simple layout, if you consider a giant flying bat. The main staff building in the middle, the bat body, and slanting off to each side are these crooked bat wings. One for female patients, the other for male. A bat.”
When a haunted house movie is done correctly and well, the main character is always the haunted house or building itself. There’s something incredibly ominous about an abandoned building, whether it has a reputation for ghosts or not. It’s so huge and so empty, so filled with shadows and neglect, that it seems ravenously hungry, eager to fill its empty spaces with whatever sustenance wanders too close to its grasp. And when a haunted house movie is indeed done correctly and well, that huge, empty, bestial house comes to life and absorbs the human cast, swallowing them whole.
Most people know of the Danvers State Insane Asylum (aka Danvers State Hospital and the State Lunatic Asylum at Danvers) from the cult horror film Session 9, which was filmed on location at Danvers in 2001. But Danvers was already a horror genre staple, its monstrous red brick Gothic structure said to have inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Asylum, which went on to star in the Batman comics. Danvers was also mentioned by its given name in several of Lovecraft’s tales, including The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Pickman’s Model and Herbert West: Reanimator.
But let’s back up a tad…
In 1692, after possibly ingesting rye bread contaminated with the fungus Claviceps purpurea (aka organic LSD), a handful of inhabitants of Salem Village went batshit ballistic and began accusing their neighbors of witchcraft. By the Spring of 1693, twenty people were dead, nineteen of them hanged and one old codger crushed to death beneath a massive pile of stones. Before the century was out, most everyone involved in the Salem Witch Craze realized that they’d been misled and dutifully repented…everyone, that is, except for associate magistrate John Hathorne, who stubbornly refused to admit that the evidence against the condemned witches was, in fact, a steaming pile of bullshit.
What the hell does any of this have to do with the State Insane Asylum in Danvers, Massachusetts? Well, so stigmatized by the witch craze was Salem, that the main part of the village where the trials took place withdrew from Salem in 1752 and changed its name…to Danvers. And the house where assholish Mr. Hathorne once lived? Gone by 1874 and replaced by a lunatic asylum, whose construction was completed in 1878. Talk about bad karma. The Danvers Hospital never had a chance.
“The Ice Pick method. Insert a thin metal pipette into the orbital frontal cortex and enter the soft tissue of the frontal lobe. A few simple smooth, up and down jerks to sever the lateral hypothalamus, resulting in a rapid reduction of stress for our patient. Total time elapsed, two minutes. Only side effect? A black eye. Recommended treatment? Sun glasses.”
That piece of dialog from the film Session 9 is a pretty accurate description of a prefrontal (or transorbital) lobotomy, which was “perfected” at the Danvers Hospital. This barbaric form of psychosurgery, apparently once considered a miracle cure for everything from schizophrenia to mild depression, had been all but abandoned by the 1970s. But it was too late for Danvers, which had been suffering from a snake pit reputation since the 50s. Bad for business, but great for the horror genre!
In June of 1992, due to budget cuts and a modernization of mental health care, Danvers was closed down and left to rot on Hathorne Hill. Of course, the hollowed out bulk quickly gained a reputation as a “haunted house” and became a popular destination for amateur ghost hunters, graffiti artists and bored teens looking for cheap thrills.
In 2001, the horror movie Session 9 was filmed at Danvers, with the cast and crew restricted to a small part of the building, as the majority of the hospital had become unsafe. Whilst filming, several cast and crew members reported eerie phenomena. Actor Peter Mullan claimed to have heard his name whispered when no one else was present. Actor David Caruso claimed to have seen a figure move past a window in an empty room, but didn’t report this sighting until later, because he didn’t want anyone “looking at him funny.” (most people have been looking at him funny since he did Jade, so I doubt a ghost sighting would have made a difference.) These accounts and others are included in a making-of documentary on the Session 9 DVD.
With the building quickly decaying and becoming increasingly more structurally unsound, the entire building was locked down in 2004 and 24/7 security was installed. In 2007, the hospital was finally sold (despite public outcry) and scheduled for demolition. Most of the building was eventually bulldozed, though the original Kirkbride Tower was spared. Interestingly however, the bad karma continues with a mysterious fire destroying four complex buildings and four construction trailers in April 2007. By the summer of 2008, complaints about terrible management and poor maintenance were pouring in from the disgruntled residents of the newly christened Avalon Danvers.
Still, they can’t possibly have it as bad as Danvers previous tenants: the lobotomized, the criminally insane, the weak and the wounded. Whether or not Hathorne Hill is populated by the uneasy spirits of the tormented dead is a moot point: that place is just bad juju personified and the very idea of living in a “luxury condo” which looks almost exactly like the insane asylum that once stood there is…well, insane!