High atop Hawthorne Hill in Danvers, Massachusetts, lies a massive building filled with as much history as reported ghosts. A veritable castle, The Danvers State Lunatic Asylum has a much storied past filled with horrors of every sort and plagued by the terrible practices of asylums of that age. Interestingly enough the story of Danvers Asylum starts with witches, indeed the location used to be termed the Witches Castle on the Hill, and it just gets stranger from there.
In 1692 one of the more shameful pieces of American history was beginning in the town that is now referred to as Danver, Massachusetts in a little church on Centre Street. Most people know of the Salem Witch Trials, but the terrible judgments didn’t begin in Salem, instead they began in Salem Village; which is, you guessed it folks, present day Danver. The Salem Witch Trials were a series of prosecutions and “trials” held across the colonial Massachusetts condemning those believed to consort with demons and sending innocent women to their death labeled as practitioners of witchcraft. Upon being conflicted by illness or struck by a strange disease ignorance would blossom and the afflicted would claim to see spectral evidence, that is the outline of the witch in question that is affecting the innocent. They could bring these people to trial on accusation of witchcraft and being in league with the devil, and when tests (like having women eating cakes with the urine of the affected) were performed and deemed positive the witch was hung or burned at the stake.
What does all this monumental idiocy tell us about a haunted asylum? Not much, but the interesting thing is the most fanatical judge of the lot, Johnathan Hawthorne, lived in a house on the very hill that the asylum was built on. I know I’d certainly haunt that place if such an irrevocably evil man paraded about with claims of God’s work upon that hill.
In 1878 the massive asylum was erected and was considered the very pinnacle of healthcare and its humane treatment of its patients gave it a sterling reputation. Conditions quickly degraded though at the turning of the century due to budget cuts, lack of government funding, over-population, rising health care costs and being severely understaffed. These problems gave way to medical interventions popular with the bigger asylums at the time which included shock therapy, torture, hydrotherapy, insulin shock therapy and the most extreme among them; lobotomies.
For those unfamiliar lobotomies were performed to sever the grey matter from the white matter in certain parts of the brain. The procedure was supposed to improve patients psychosis by calming emotions and making a personality more stable. Results are hotly debated, but the surgical procedure led to everything from removing motor function to death in a patient. Originally performed by drilling into the patients skulls and running fibers through the brain with a type of destructive alcohol, and as awful as that sounds the more “refined” procedure is, for this writer, the epitome of nightmares.
Dr Walter Freeman came up with a procedure that used an ice pick like device, termed an orbitoclast that made the procedure quicker and was done even as an outpatient procedure. After electro shocking the person into unconsciousness the doctor would take the orbitoclast and insert it through the top part of the eye socket banging on it with a hammer to shatter the bone and enter the brain. Once inside the doctor would spin the tool severing and destroying pieces of the brain. If anything’s going to leave a pissed off ghost around it’s that and it’s sure to give me nightmares.
Between 1940 and 1950 the asylum contained a population of around 2,600 mentally ill patients in a structure meant to contain 600. Even with the extreme measures mentioned above the staff couldn’t contain the burgeoning population and it led to patients that looked ghastly and haggard and spent most of their time in solitary confinement, in a space no bigger than a small bathroom. “Poorly clothed and sometimes naked, these legions of lost souls were shown pacing aimlessly on the wards, lying on the filthy cement floors, or sitting head in hand against the pock-marked walls” (Deutsch 1948, 41, 49). It even became such a huge problem that bodies of dead patients would go for days without discovery, before being found naked and abandoned in random rooms or stairwells. Beatings and sexual abuse went rampant toward the end of the installation’s time when there was no longer a way to contain the violence of the patients, and the abusive tendencies of an overworked, exhausted and mentally barraged staff of nurses.
Finally in 1992 Danvers State Lunatic Asylum was shut down for good and it’s patients either released into the streets or transferred to other hospitals. For 14 years “Witch Castle” stood abandoned and silent upon Hawthorne Hill until it was bought in 2005 and remodeled into apartments some of the grandiose hospital destroyed. That doesn’t stop the patients that reportedly still roam the halls of a now unfamiliar terrain. Reportedly lights flicker in the apartments, shrieks and screams can be heard throughout the night, full bodied apparitions have been seen, doors open and shut on their own and the faint and eerie sound of a ghostly gurney squeaking can be heard.
Whether or not the remains of Danvers State Lunatic Asylum are haunted is up to an individual’s beliefs, but that doesn’t stop the storied past from being anymore ghastly. Above all there will always be an inherent horror in the idea of being trapped within one’s own mind, locked in a place of terror and submitted to medical procedures akin to torture, all whilst somewhere inside a piece of you screams out sanity’s requiem. If there is anything more terrifying it’s the idea of spirits of people such as these, furious at their treatment, and wanting to take it out on the living and sane.