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Danvers State Hospital, circa 1893

Jonathan and Aaron over at http://husbandandhusband.net are hosting Haunted Places from Around the World this month, where people share stories and pictures from their favorite locally haunted places. When they tagged me, I immediately knew what place I’d like to share although you can’t exactly visit there any more. While my hometown of Danvers, MA is known worldwide for the Salem Witch Hysteria and Trials, it was also home to one of the most infamous psychiatric hospitals in the U.S., known as the Danvers State Hospital, or The Danvers Lunatic Asylum, and even Hell House on the Hill. Built in 1874 under the supervision of the well respected Boston architect Nathanial Jeremiah Bradlee, it was completely self-contained and spread out over several acres. It was actually designed by psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride who held some pretty advanced ideas for the time on how to care for the mentally ill. He was a follower of Dorothea Dix’s ideas of more humane treatment for the mentally ill. DSH was one of many such hospitals based on his visionary dreams of compassionate care. His typical floor plans included a main building with two long wings attached on either side. Each wing was built in a way to receive the maximum amount of sunlight and fresh air. It also afforded patients comfortable and private living quarters. The grounds were beautifully landscaped, and part of them included farmland which some patients worked as part of their therapy. So, what went wrong?

When it originally opened in 1878, the asylum housed 600 patients. By 1939 it was warehousing well over 2,000 people with roughly the same amount of staff as they had in the beginning. The doctors, nurses, and orderlies were completely overwhelmed. Patients were dirty and became sick due to lack of care. In many instances, neglected patients died and their bodies weren’t discovered until days later. In order to try to cope with the surging population many of the nightmarish implements of control that we all have heard about in regards to asylums were implemented: straightjackets and bed restraints, insulin shock therapy, electroshock therapy and of course, the lobotomy. Danvers State actually has the dubious distinction of being the first to perform the transorbital, or prefrontal lobotomy (think eyeballs and ice picks!) which was used to treat everything from delusions and depression, to daydreaming and back pain.


Today’s Avalon Danvers

DSH was completely shutdown in 1992. For years it sat deserted except for frequent visits by ghost hunters and thrill seekers who reported seeing apparitions of deceased patients, doors opening and closing on their own, and the sound of footsteps going up and down the stairs. Visitors also talked about having feelings of despair and getting sick.


Image from: urbanomnibus.net


Image from: missrosen.wordpress.com

Despite the best efforts by local historians and preservationists to save the grounds and crumbling buildings as a historical landmark, the property was eventually bought by Avalon Bay Development who in 2007 demolished just about everything to make way for condos and apartments. The only things that remain of the original hospital are part of the main building’s facade, the campus tunnels (which have been blocked off), and the cemetery. 


DSH Underground Tunnels.

Image from: http://www.paranormal-activity 2.estranky.cz

The asylum has inspired quite a few authors and filmmakers over the years. It’s rumored that H.P. Lovecraft himself based his Arkham Sanatorium on Danvers State Hospital. Danvers is also part of Lovecraft’s stories, The Pickman’s Model and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. It was also the setting of the cult film Session 9 (2001) which starred David Caruso. Another movie filmed there is Home Before Dark (1958) which features some actual footage of the hospital’s interior and exterior while they were still in operation. Young Adult author Laurie Stolarz  wrote Project 17 (2007) which tells the scary fictional tale of a group of teens who decide to film a movie in the abandoned hospital and discover that while breaking in was fairly easy, it’s a lot more difficult getting out. 

Unbelievably, despite all the terrible stories of mistreated patients and subsequent lawsuits, DSH did successfully treat some of many of its patients. Unfortunately though, it will mainly be known for it’s more haunted history. Hopefully any tortured spirits are now at peace. Happy Halloween!


 Image from atlasobscura.com