by CHRIS MORGAN
Our world gives us easy passage to most of our desires, but we are still haunted by satisfactions not yet met. For all the talk of innovation and the future being very much now, it is all for nothing, it seems, if we cannot attain the following: (1) the knowledge whether or not love is truly enough and (2) the knowledge of being dead; and if not (2) then (2.5) eye contact with death. There are, some insist, reasons enough for us not having access to these things. "We don't deserve it" likely ranks as the highest, perhaps alongside the Lovecraftian fancy that we would not be able to handle the truth we might find. But leave it to us to kindly overlook these warnings and plough forth into all things black-shrouded and a little musty! We’ve become content with leaving love to unsupervised children with only the faintest feeling of shame, letting our search of death amass its own proportions even in the face of the sternest, longest, plumpest wagging fingers.
Death adventuring is not what it seems at first blush. Maybe, at the peak years of the Reagan era, some people would have been content to go base-jumping blindfolded or engage in autoerotic asphyxiation, but this hasn’t been the case since we sobered up and started pining for a quiet place into, and perhaps beneath, the wilderness.
The new adventuring comes out of the popular idea that there are two versions of America. People say this all the time, of course: “rich America” versus “poor America,” “white America” versus “not white America,” “red America” versus “blue America,” and so on, but the new adage frames it as a “living America” versus “dead America.” The America of the living we know well enough. Full of splendor, laughter, and relatively clean air and water. The American land of the dead, by contrast, offers none of these amenities. But it is attractive in its own way if one is eager and does not mind risking the conveniences of basic comfort and physical safety.
America has plenty of entryways and shelters where all things deceased convene and assume brotherhood, whether they be dead spaces, cultures, ideas or people. In many ways they are like our pyramids, mausoleums that seem to force land in the shape of their own contours rather than the other way around, that harbor relics of a time and things that bear no relation whatsoever to how we understand the world and ourselves. If they bear names at all, they are innocuous and bureaucratic, they sprawl over hundreds of acres and hide a labyrinth-like infrastructure below. They were once heavily populated and overly depended upon, but now have no other use besides satisfying our own curiosity and amusement. They are not the only type of derelict structures around, but few other types are obsessed over quite like the psychiatric institution.
Psychiatric hospitals (lunatic asylums, whatever you want to call them) were the peculiar institutions of the 20th century. They lived and died according to a given amount of knowledge we had about the problems they were meant to solve. In other words, the less knowledge we possessed, the greater they thrived. In the 1980s we had reached full knowledge, or at least the full knowledge that the many decades the asylum system had spent underserving its larger purpose was several decades too long and cost billions of dollars too much. And for decades more they remained, ceding much of their ground back to the elements, housing squatters and vandals. The death tourists would follow soon enough, whether in the form of ruin pornographers, TV producers, or filmmakers. They were ready as ever to scour every inch for secrets and other related knick-knacks that could not be found in mundane, laughter-filled places.
We cannot blame them for being so attracted to these places that have barely a tenuous connection to normalcy. Hospitals like Danvers in Massachusetts or Greystone in New Jersey, with their bat-like Kirkbride design, are more alien than earthly. Unless you end up studying, say, social work in college, it is possible that you will never learn about them, what they did and why they are in the state they’re in. It is not hard, then, for the desire to rummage through an asylum to become an imperative. Suddenly we have a right, no, an entitlement to stare in the face of something — anything — dead.
So, let's not blame these seekers for relying so often on the tropes of horror. Whether it is a narrative film, any kind of documentary (be it a YouTube video or a reality show) or a photo essay, its makers are continuously tempted to frame their findings within elements of dread, uncertainty and especially repulsion. The asylum system never offered anything less, almost to the point of insisting upon its own horror. Accounts from Titicut Follies, to the LIFE article “Bedlam 1946”, to Geraldo Rivera’s report on the children of Willowbrook do not reflect the quirky, generation-actualizing worlds of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted. What quirks are there in being restrained for hours on end, being force-fed through a nasal tube, or being flippantly quizzed about one’s masturbation habits? What actualization could be gained by being strewn about the halls of Byberry, with little to no clothing and about as much humanness as a half-formed, long-clawed blotch in one’s nightmares? This is, to some degree, the summation of horror, or at least certain strains thereof, that progress had failed to make "normal" those who were abnormal.
Blame it then, if you must, on The Blair Witch Project for prioritizing thrill-seeking above all else. The 1999 no-budget film’s final minutes had the protagonists running up and down a gutted house in the middle of the woods. The only lighting source was from their cameras. The set design was largely by nature. The quickened pace and already hectic cinematography made it obviously the most frightening part of the film; some would say the only frightening part of the film. The non-resolution piqued, rather than satisfied, interest.
This would be capitalized upon in short order. MTV produced Fear in 2000, in which random young people were sent into the bowels of allegedly haunted locations in search of answers. The second episode was filmed at the Fairfield State Hospital and featured what appeared to be a fake cadaver. It lasted two seasons but geared up momentum for other filmmakers and “paranormal investigators” to intrude upon similar spaces. Before Ghost Hunters, et. al. there was Scared!, a Staten Island public access show that trespassed onto Danvers and Pennsylvania’s Byberry, two of the worst-run hospitals in American history. Not to be left out, narrative films took part with Session 9, also filmed at Danvers, a remake of The House on Haunted Hill, The Devil’s Chair and most recently Grave Encounters, as well as a slew of other low budget “found footage” films.
These films are always on the search, with the grace and focus of an oil drill, for a revelatory source to help them process the magnitude of the place, as if something other than the creators' most recent life choices pulled them along. Paranormal investigators follow (rather unsafely) every bump in the night. Characters in The House on Haunted Hill and Grave Encounters find themselves pitted against some force of evil that had corrupted the institutions to their core: lobotomy-friendly sadism or the occult, generally. This would be pure entertainment if the plots weren’t so often rehashed, and the same assumptions reached. It has become routine in all instances that the surface be scratched just a little regarding what actually happened in these locations. Glib exposition gives enough to the viewer to understand that lobotomies, hydrotherapy, ECT, abuse and overcrowding happened, and their harm greatly outweighed their good, but not so much so as to clarify that it was not because a legion of American Mengeles (or actual Mengeles, in the case of American Horror Story) made it so.
Regardless of the means, adventurists find their ends unreachable. They look for death, or something like it, so as to see it on what they assume is their own terms. But nothing they see is quite dead. Yes, they see what it is like for buildings to go years without occupancy and they see the end result of healthcare becoming indistinguishable from public storage. That’s failure, kept alive but beaten by the fact that the problem it had been put in place to solve not only remains, but festers all the same.
Healthcare generally in the United States has always had a landfill mentality, but special distinction goes to the treatment of the mentally ill, care for which remains ever inadequate and underfunded. After deinstitutionalization, those patients who weren’t sent off to those few hospitals still active or community-based centers were sent off on their own. Today’s answer to deinstitutionalization is the prison system, wherein (as of 2006) an estimated 1.26 million mentally ill inmates are incarcerated at the state, federal and local level. With the prison system itself already an institutional travesty, surely some cannot wait for their mass closure and deterioration as well. Horror abounds, it seems, with little need to record it, whether it is the horror of ignorance or the horror of repetition. There is never an overcrowding problem in Hell.