Among the horror film formulas of gothic monsters, aliens, slashers and the undead is one that now stands out as unfeeling: the insane asylum.
Little wonder, given that these mysterious architectural giants loomed behind iron gates in dozens of American towns. Hollywood brought us inside, painting mental institutions as places of misery and despair. Think of Shock Corridor, The Snake Pit, or the more recent thriller Session 9.
Hollywood trumped up the terror of insane asylums, but they were originally built for healing, as places of safety as well as madness. Among the earliest of the mental hospitals was the New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane in Concord.
An acute psychiatric care facility and a children’s unit still operate there. About half of the old buildings have been converted to state offices or storage units, while the rest sit empty. Word or Mouth producer Avishay Artsy went to unlock the history of this decaying institution.
"That’s a huge keychain you have there, Doug."
"These are the old criminally insane keys. For securing the heavy doors and gates. Watch your step through here."
We’re in one of the original wings of the state insane asylum. My guides are Doug Burnham, the campus engineer, and photographer Christopher Payne. The room we’re in was converted into a very modern-looking fluorescent-lit office, filled with computers and printers.
"But you open a door, and all of a sudden, you’re going back like 30, 40 years," Payne said. "There’s no heat in here. The floors are kind of caving in. There’s a dampness in the air. It has that feeling of abandonment, like these things, these articles will never be used again. And this is that threshold, that black and white difference, is something I experienced in a lot of different hospitals, where they would gradually abandon these outer wards and move their way in, and the rest of the building would kind of atrophy. But there was always that doorway, which, you would open it, and you were in another world."
Payne’s photographs document crumbling old bridges, grain elevators and power plants. Trained as an architect, he became interested in asylums after visiting Pilgrim State Hospital in Long Island. It’s the largest hospital in the world, and in the mid-1900s, 14,000 people lived there. From then on, he was hooked.
"Over the course of six years I visited 70 institutions in 30 states," Payne said.
His new book, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of Mental Hospitals, features photographs of decaying buildings, electro-shock therapy units, and yellowing straightjackets. We’ve returned to a spot he photographed in the old dining room – a wall of dust-covered plates, saucers and cups.
"Usually the kitchens are empty, the machines are kind of gutted, there’s not a lot of stuff lying around, and certainly glass, porcelain dishes," Payne said. "Kids come in, what are they going to do, they’re going to throw them on the ground and break them. So to find this many intact on this kind of cool shelving with the brick in the background and the perfect soft light coming in from the side, it was worth the trip."
The asylum is like a labyrinth. Hallways twist and turn, and subterranean tunnels extend into darkness. Squirrels race along the steam pipes.
"It’s a nightmare I had as a kid, growing up, you know," Payne said. "Being trapped in a big haunted house that just kept going and going. That’s that I feel like with this place, you lose your bearings inside."
The asylum was built on a small hilltop, and rather than fill in the low spots, the original architects extended the building down. "If you go to the basement of one building, if you walk through the basement and go into another building, in some cases you’re on the second floor of that building. So you have to go down a few more floors," Burnham explained. He's spent the past fourteen years maintaining these buildings, and knows every square inch of the asylum. "I’m very dedicated to this facility, because of its history, because of its age. I do have a fascination with this place."
When the New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane opened in 1842, mental hospitals were big business and a source of civic pride. "The competition to secure the contract for one of these hospitals was huge among towns, because it ensured decades of economic prosperity," Payne said.
Civil War soldiers were held here for what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Other patients were sent here for epilepsy, brain injury, or even for committing adultery. In 1900 it was renamed the New Hampshire State Hospital. "And then in 1904 there was a State Care Act," Burnham said. "And that’s when a lot of buildings went up on this campus, because all of New Hampshire’s county insane asylums were closed. And all insane were sent to this facility."
It was a beautiful campus. Visitors would tour the grounds and even send postcards from their trip. "You know, they were like tourist attractions," Payne said. "It’s like, 'What are you going to go see? I’m going to go see the insane asylum.' And they were also surrounded by parks. Acres and acres of parks, which was part of the treatment. But they were also public grounds."
The asylums were like small self-sustaining cities. The patients would make their own clothes, shoes and mattresses, and grow their own food on surrounding farmland. This one has a post office, a machine shop, and a room for smoking meat. In the carpentry shop we find a table with two rows of nails protruding, and strips of fiber laced through them. In the old bakery we find a rusted bread machine.
Next we visit the Kent Wing, added in 1868. It’s a place typical of mental institutions – a long hallway, lined with doors, and light streaming in through faded curtains. Paint hangs loosely from the ceilings and walls. "Whenever I would go to a hospital this is the shot I would always take first because it seemed to typify life in an institution," Payne said. "You know, the monotony."
On one wall is a mural painted by a patient, titled "The Good Old Days" and dated 1965. It’s a pastoral scene, with a red barn, an iron bridge spanning a stream, and mountains in the distance. In one room we find an overturned bathtub; in another, a rotting upright piano, the hammers and strings exposed.
Back outside, Payne is excited to show me a hidden courtyard that he discovered. "I found this space by looking out through the bakery. And there’s a little window," Payne said. "And I peered out and said, 'what’s that,' and Doug said, 'that’s the courtyard for the criminally insane.' And he couldn’t get out here because they hadn’t been out here in so long that the lock was either busted or frozen."
"It was seized, it was rusted shut," Burnham added.
There are concrete benches covered in moss, and a rusted basketball hoop. The cement is overrun with weeds. It’s perhaps the most foreboding place in the asylum. The electrified barbed wire surrounding the courtyard is a reminder that some of the patients who once inhabited this space were considered violent criminals.
The buildings are quiet now, and some have fallen into disrepair. But for well over a century, this place was where the mentally ill sought refuge and relief. And really, it’s not that scary a place.
(Photos of the NH Asylum for the Insane courtesy of Christopher Payne)