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Why Are Asylums Scary?

A history of mistrust, mistreatment, and fantasy contribute to a horror staple.

During a fit of insomnia some years back, I was flipping through the channels and happened upon a ghost hunting show on cable TV. In this episode, the host was explaining that his team would be spending the night in one of the most haunted spots in America, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Intrigued, I followed the team as they heard eerie sounds and felt strange presences. Questions popped into my historians’ mind: What makes asylums scary? And when did this happen?

These queries nagged at me, inspiring a research voyage that has culminated in a forthcoming book. The short answers: Lots of things, and for a long time.

Image by robinsonk26 from Pixabay.
Source: Image by robinsonk26 from Pixabay.

To be more precise, when the massive public institutions started popping up across the landscape in antebellum America, people started worrying about them. Somewhat surprisingly, it was not a given that terror would be the trajectory. The word asylum, coming from the Greek phrase meaning “without the right of seizure,” implied a place of safety and refuge for those suffering mental torments. The public asylums, as the reformer Benjamin Rush advocated, needed to be places of healing and security. Ultimately, the aim was to return unfortunates to society where they could once again be productive democratic citizens. Rush fought against commonplace ideas about divine punishment and was thoroughly opposed to throwing the mad in cells covered in straw to rot away their lives. He was a product of the Enlightenment, and thus were the early public hospitals sold to the public.

The asylums soon became popular tourist attractions. Visitors would come and pay to see the deranged incarcerated, and hospital superintendents were glad to have them. These places counted on tax dollars and good press to stay in business, and so grand tours of the beautiful grounds, the pleasing architecture, and, yes, the quarantined insane, were advocated by medical experts. When Charles Dickens visited America in the 1840s, he spent time visiting a number of institutions, and came away, from some of them at least, impressed.

Yet at the same time worries crept in. Even as reformers praised public investments in mental hospitals, some found the paradoxical idea of removing liberties in order to restore liberties unnerving and, well, un-American. In her 1842 memoir A Sketch of the Life of Elizabeth T. Stone, and of her Persecutions, Elizabeth Stone recounted the horrors of being drugged and locked away in a “stone dungeon.” She had been sent to the McLean Asylum for the Insane under false pretenses by her family, following an exuberant religious conversion that they found troubling. Tricked into believing she was going to a “young ladies’ boarding place,” she found herself locked behind an iron gate and trapped for five months.

At the time, McLean was one of the premier institutions for the care of the mentally ill. Situated in a magnificent mansion fringed by sturdy three-story wings for men and women and overlooking a tributary of the Charles River, it was originally the estate of a wealthy merchant. Opened as an asylum in 1821, it served as a refuge for the troubled minds of Boston.

Here Stone reported cruel attendants, barbaric treatments, and an asylum master reminiscent of a European aristocrat. She warns us, “If it was thought best to have all the power put into the hands on one individual, then we should have a King in this country, but it was not thought best.” Democracy could bring justice to the asylum, Stone reasoned. It was just a matter of introducing the light of public awareness to the dark corridors and dungeons.

Fiction traveled apace of the memoirs. As early as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria: or, the Wrongs of Woman (published posthumously in 1798) the asylum was depicted as a repository for rebellious women. In American letters, fictional horrors probably begin with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” in 1845, with the seedy bestseller The Quaker City by George Lippard (also 1845) introducing us to the mystical asylum master lording over a domain of terror.

A parade of asylum horrors, in the form of memoirs, pictures, novels, short tales, poems, songs, and, later, film, commenced. The contradiction of undemocratic imprisonment in a land of freedom, coupled with the castle-like appearance of huge asylums, provided worrisome symbols of control and enslavement. After the emptying and abandonment of mental hospitals in more recent times, these huge wrecks have become ghost magnets, attractions drawing us towards dark secrets locked within.


Stone, E. (1842). A Sketch of the Life of Elizabeth T. Stone, and of her Persecutions. Printed for the author

Source: Image by robinsonk26 from Pixabay. Source: Image by robinsonk26 from Pixabay.


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