by Mary Franz
FATE :: February 2008
Actor David Caruso called it the “scariest building in America” after filming the movie Session 9 there. Horror writer H. P. Lovecraft used it as the inspiration for the setting of his tale “The Haunter of the Dark.” Jonathan Hathorne, the judge who presided at the Salem witch trials in 1692 and sent 19 accused witches to be hanged, once lived on the grounds. The place is the State Insane Asylum in Danvers, Massachusetts, a turreted, Gothic fortress which for over a century served as a repository for thousands of mentally ill patients, and came to be known as the “Haunted Castle.”
Built during the 1870s on the highest hill in the town, the Danvers State Hospital was the brainchild of eminent psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride, who envisioned it as a place where the mentally ill could receive state-of-the-art treatment and care. Kirkbride was horrified by the barbaric conditions of mental asylums of the time, and sought to treat patients with kindness and respect. An authority in institutional design, Kirkbride believed that the hospital environment was a critical part of successful patient care, and personally oversaw the design and construction of the hospital, ensuring that all quarters of the massive edifice had access to fresh air and sunlight. His vision for the facility was one of beauty and elegance. The hospital was outfitted with stained glass windows, ornate tiled ceilings, mahogany doors, and marble bathrooms.
Eventually a dozen or more structures, including a pathology lab, tubercular ward, chapel, housing for nurses and the centerpiece—the exquisite 7,000 square-foot Kirkbride Building—covered the 500-acre site, which was lushly groomed with gardens and trees. An intricate web of underground tunnels connected the buildings, allowing free access in inclement weather. Construction costs reached an unprecedented 1.5 million dollars. Although the so-called “Kirkbride Plan” became a model for treating the mentally ill, there was tremendous public outcry over what was perceived as extravagance for a “pauper palace.”
Danvers State opened its doors on May 18, 1878, and by 1895 housed over 400 patients. By all accounts, the care provided at the time was humane and progressive: use of restraints and physical force was prohibited; patients were provided with jobs, crafts, music, and regular exercise; and they ate together in a dining hall where flowers and fine linens graced the tables.
Sadly, however, the benevolent atmosphere was short-lived. By the 1930s, the patient population had swelled to several thousand, and included abandoned children, murderers, rapists, drug addicts and alcoholics, and profoundly retarded individuals, often housed together in the same wards. The consequences were frequently tragic: assaults, suicides, and mysterious deaths. Overcrowding was accompanied by chronic under-staffing, and despite the diligent efforts of many employees to provide quality patient care, lack of resources often led to horrific abuse and neglect. During its 114 years of operation, countless patients, forgotten by families and lost in a bureaucratic shuffle, lived and died at Danvers State and were buried in unmarked graves.
A sense of mystery swirled around Danvers State from the time it opened. Certainly its forbidding appearance—towering spires, gabled roofs, and patients staring from behind barred windows—had much to do with its ominous reputation. Reports of ghostly activity at Danvers State soon began to circulate among local residents, who told of screams, hysterical laughter, and muffled footsteps coming from the hospital grounds at night; not unusual, perhaps, given the profound illness of many of its residents, and the fact that at least one patient managed to escape each month. Other accounts told of orbs of light hovering in the trees on the hospital grounds, shadowy forms gliding silently across doorways, and blasts of frigid air rising from the ground. During the 1970s and ’80s there were repeated sightings of the ghost of a young girl wandering the hallways of a sixth floor ward in the Bonner Medical Building, the site of the suicide of a young girl who hanged herself in the stairwell years earlier.
Jeralyn Levasseur grew up during the 1960s on the grounds of Danvers State in a house that was leased to her father, Gerald Richards, a hospital administrator. Levasseur’s strange childhood experiences offer a glimpse of the otherworldly goings-on at Danvers State. Members of the Levasseur family often heard footsteps coming from empty rooms in the house. Doors would slam shut and mysteriously re-open; lights would brighten, dim, and shut off by themselves.
One day while Levasseur’s brother and sister were playing in the attic, the apparition of a grimacing elderly woman materialized, and moved silently toward them. Speechless with fear, they finally fled down the steps at their mother’s insistence. On another occasion Levasseur was awakened from her sleep when the blankets were torn from her bed. She turned on her bedside lamp, assuming that she would confront a joke-playing sibling. To her horror, she was alone in the room.