10 Abandoned Psych Wards Photographers Love Sneaking Into
By Ransom Riggs
Abandoned buildings have long held a fascination for me. They imply a mystery (what happened?) and a challenge (can I get inside and see?) as well as a thrilling bit of danger (guard dogs! squatters! the floor might collapse!) that make an almost irresistible combination, especially for a photographer. But of all the sites that die-hard UrbEx photographers like to infiltrate (that's Urban Exploration for the uninitiated), which can range from old hotels and houses to industrial sites to bombed-out theaters and train stations, abandoned hospitals -- and especially mental hospitals -- rank very high on the list. I guess it appeals to the already somewhat morbid nature of UrbExers to infiltrate places that don't just look haunted, but, like, are, obviously.
There are many UrbEx photographers out there (the advent of high-quality, relatively cheap digital cameras that can take pictures practically in the dark helped spread the craze), but one of my favorites, and a friend of mine, is Martino Zegwaard, a seemingly fearless Dutchman whose pictures of skin-crawly places are imbued with a strange beauty. On his first trip to the U.S., he snuck into some abandoned mental hospitals. How better to spend one's vacation?
The amazing shot above comes from a facility in upstate New York that he simply refers to as "MT." (Many UrbExers hide the true names/locations of the sites they visit to prevent the hordes from descending, which helps preserve the sites in their natively-messed-up condition for as long as possible, and keeps local security guards, et al, in the dark.)
This relatively small psychiatric center is listed as one the most haunted places of the county. The lovely Nan took us to see this place. At least fenced off for over a decade the decay in here is beautiful. The building itself is about to collapse and you really have to watch your step. Parts of the floor are moving as you walk over it. This place is a must-see, despite the risks that come with the building. It has it all, wheelchairs, coffins, a dentist chair and a lot more stuff. We only had a couple of hours to explore this place, because we had to be in Philadelphia that same night.
You can see the whole creep-tastic photo essay here.
Martino visited a mental hospital in Norway which he refers to simply as the Green Hospital or Sykenhus F (or "Hospital F" in Norwegian). He describes the scene:
A short 25 minutes from the moment the wheels of the plane touched the ground of Norway, we are in our rental car and our way to Sykenhus F. It's weird to realize that within the hour after you got into a country, you're climbing a fence and your trespassing your way into an old hospital. Not all buildings of Sykenhus F are abandoned. People are living there and some mental patients are treated and coached. The first of the two buildings was easy to get into to, the second was surrounded by people and very well sealed. But we managed to find one tiny hole that we could squeeze ourselves through. It felt like walking around in a museum. We found a piano, his master's voice record players, electro shock therapy equipment and a lot of other cool stuff.
Another hospital in Norway that I've seen a number of photographers visit is Lier Hospital outside of Oslo. Photographer Martin Widlund did a very atmospheric photo shoot here -- the dreary Norwegian skies leaking gray light everywhere, paint peeling from the walls, beds and things still scattered around. (He also brought along some actors in masks to pose creepily in corners and such, something a lot of UrbExers do to try to heighten the horror of the environments they shoot in, which is sort of unnecessary if you ask me.) Martin writes about the hospital:
Lier Psychiatric Hospital was closed in 1986 and it´s located in the middle of nowhere just outside Oslo (the capital of Norway). The place has a dark and interesting history. Here the staff tested new medicines, lobotomy, electroshocks and drugs like LSD on the patients in hope it could make them better. Today the place only visitors is teenagers going there at nights and looking for ghosts.. And yes the place was really spooky. It´s a book called 23-salen written about this place by a man who worked there. Read it if you understand Norwegian..
Cane Hill was a massive asylum on the outskirts of London, opened in 1882 and closed in 1991. Since then it's been extremely popular with urban explorers as well as arsonists, who damaged the place so badly that most of it had to finally be torn down back in January. Which is a shame -- it was really something. Photographer Richard James took this impressive shot of the asylum chapel. More here.
Hellingly Hospital, also in England, has long been a popular site for UrbExers, and not only because of its name. From Wikipedia:
The hospital boasted its own railway line, the Hellingly Hospital Railway, used principally for transport of coal. This branch line led from the main line to the boilerhouse. The hospital also had a vast laundry, ball room, patients' shop, sewing rooms, nurses home, extensive grounds, and an advanced utilities network for its time, including a large boilerhouse and a water tower. It followed the compact arrow plan for the main hospital, with separate villas surrounding this. The majority of the hospital closed throughout 1994, however, and to this day much of the 25.4 hectare site stands derelict and extremely run down, after suffering repeated vandalism and multiple arson attacks. The hospital is popular with Urban Explorers, not because it has many hospital items remaining but because of its size, severe dereliction and its dilapidation.
There are endless photos of Hellingly to sort through online, but one of my favorites is this little number, by photographer Nick Wild.
Actually, he's got two that I love. Hellingly apparently has some of the most talented vandals in England prowling its halls. Wild used their handiwork to make some art of his own:
You might remember Oregon State Hospital from the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, where it was filmed. That legacy has undoubtedly contributed to its popularity as an UrbEx site. Several wings of the hospital are abandoned and set to be demolished (in fact, they may have been already). It's also where photographer David Maisel did a fascinating essay called Library of Dust, documenting the unclaimed ashes and urns of indigent patients, that have attained a state of rather beautiful decay over the years.
Denbigh Asylum in Wales (1848-1995) has an amazing facade, and an equally amazing abandoned interior. It's much prized by photographers and vandals alike, and there's even a Facebook page dedicated to keeping it standing. Howzey, who has many great UrbEx photos on Flickr, took this shot of its imposing exterior. His whole set can be found here.
Of the famous West Park Asylum Wikipedia has this to say:
The hospital was slowly run down from the mid 1990s, and by 2003 most of the hospital was closed and derelict. A few outer ward buildings and villas remain open today and are still used for psychiatric treatment. As the hospital is largely derelict, it is of increasing interest to urban explorers who visit for the sheer size of the hospital, and also for many hospital items still in situ, such as beds, kitchen equipment and personal items. A padded cell is also of interest to explorers.
There are many, many photos of West Park to be found online. I really like this one by Sophos9, who got creative with a couple dozen fire extinguishers found in an attic garret. More of this photographer's set is here.
Some UrbEx sites become famous for a certain room or a certain unusual feature. St. John's Asylum (another English one -- the country's full of 'em!) is undoubtedly famous for its staircase. James Arnold has taken a number of great photos of it. More are here.