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Danvers State Lunatic Asylum: Batman’s gruesome inspiration for Arkham Asylum

Batman’s iconic lair of supervillains, was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanitarium which was in turn inspired by the nightmarish real-life Danvers State Lunatic Asylum in Massachusetts.

There’s something eerie about asylums that have made them classic settings for horror stories. H.P. Lovecraft, one of the masters of the genre, invented the famous Arkham Sanitarium, which appeared in several of his short stories. The terrifying place described by Lovecraft was so gruesome that in turn inspired the iconic lair of supervillains from the Batman Comics, the Arkham Asylum.

However, the horrors described by Lovecraft and the Batman stories, are nothing compared to the real asylum that inspired both hellish places, the Danvers State Lunatic Asylum. The gothic style, the dark underground tunnels, and the dense feelings of desolation that governed the Danvers Asylum are even more gruesome than the fictional versions mainly because we know the horrors were real.

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A building with a dark past

The Danvers State Lunatic Asylum was one of the many psychiatric hospitals built in the state of Massachusetts during the Industrial Revolution; that is before the turn of the century. To make the setting even more disturbing, the psychiatric facility was built in the town of Danvers, once known as Salem Village until 1752. The exact location was Hawthorne Hill, once the home of John Hathorne, no other than the judge that presided over the Salem Witch Trials.

Construction began in the 1870s when Massachusetts decided they needed a brand new psychiatric hospital to house the growing mentally ill population. Hathorne Hill was the ideal place to do so due to the size of the property, the access through the highway, and the natural landscape surrounding it.

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A humane haven for patients

The choosing of the location had also to do with a model for mental health facilities created by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. The Kirkbride Plan, as it was known in the late 19th century, stated that the surroundings of a mental hospital were essential for the treatment of mentally ill patients. Thus the Danvers Asylum had farms for patients to work on them as part of their treatment, as well as open spaces for them to simply get inspired by nature.

At first, the hospital administration wanted to make Danvers a caring place where mentally ill patients could be cured rather than just hidden from society. In the famous saga books Weird U.S., it’s stated that the main idea behind the Danvers State Hospital was to create a psychiatric facility that could be seen as a leader in the humane treatment of patients, a concept quite new to the time. And so, in 1878, hopeful psychiatrists and doctors opened the doors of the Danvers hospital willing to make a change in the field.

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Unfortunately, that humane perspective only lasted a couple of years, and soon, the gothic style of the building would be more than just an architectonic fashion but truly a horror story in itself. Just a couple of years later, the hospital that had been built to host 600 patients, would be crowded with not only mentally ill patients but also criminals and just people accused of being sick to seclude them. Around the turn of the century, the Danvers State Hospital changed its name to the Danvers Insane Hospital.

Danvers State Lunatic Asylum: the house of horrors

By the first year of the 20th century, Danvers was housing up to 1,137 patients. Although the Hospital bought some extra acres to expand its hospital, by 1903, they had 300 more patients. By the 1930s, Danvers was hell on earth. The number of registered patients was over 2,000. The hospital didn’t have the appropriate number of staff members but also lacked funding to keep it going as they had originally planned. The building was falling apart due to a lack of maintenance, and around this time, caring for the patients wasn’t the priority. It’s been registered that it was in the 1930s when the hospital started using cruel treatments just to keep the patients under control. Straightjackets were one of the most common garments used on patients.

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By the late 1940s, the understaffed facility started practicing lobotomies on their patients, and by the next decade, electric shock therapy was the preferred treatment for most patients regardless of their mental condition. Danvers State Lunatic Asylum became a torture hall rather than a psychiatric hospital.

The beginning of the end

By the 1960s things started to change at the Danvers Asylum and not precisely because they wanted to change their inhumane ways. The sixties brought a new sight to psychiatry and mental health care, and so, pointing out that asylums weren’t the ideal place to treat these conditions. Asylums, as they were conceived at the time, became outdated and seen as cruel. The population at Danvers soon started to decrease, and the lack of funding they had been experiencing since the 1930s was even more evident.

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By the 1970s, the hospital was falling into pieces, with some areas literally crumbling and falling apart. Whole wards had to be closed out for fear of them collapsing, and little by little, patients had to be sent to other mental facilities in the state. Around that time, the Department of Mental Health in the US started a process to deinstitutionalize state hospitals to make them private businesses, and due to the physical condition of the place, Danvers was among the first on the list to disappear.

The Danvers Asylum nightmare comes to an end

In 1984, the Danvers building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still, although the hospital had historical value, the condition of the building wasn’t worth spending on rehabilitating according to modern hospital standards.

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Three years later, several horror stories that happened at the Danvers asylum started to emerge in the press. One patient, who had been wandering without supervision on the premises, appeared dead the next day. The hospital was blamed for its lack of interest and care for the patients. One year later, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health was presented with evidence of abuse committed to a female patient. Stories like this started to pile up.

Though most patients had been already transferred to other facilities, the Danvers State Asylum operated until 1992, when it was officially closed. It remained abandoned for the next 13 years where it ended up deteriorating even more.

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In 1998, a group of surviving patients and their families founded the Danvers State Memorial Committee. The main purpose was to identify the names of the hundreds of patients that had been buried anonymously in the facilities. Four years later, in 2002, the committee identified over 3/4 of the bodies. A headstone with their names was placed in the facility alongside a memorial for those unnamed victims of the horrors of the Danvers Asylum.

In 2007, the building was torn down and turned into apartments. Now the location is called Halstead Danvers and has luxurious apartments with a pool covering almost entirely (the plaques remain) the dark past of the land.

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