Watch: Mysterious Footage from a 1950s Psychiatric Hospital

While much of the audio has been lost to history, the film reels within this time capsule still deliver some fascinating insights.

large reel
large reel / Derek Naber

In 2015, workers in Indianapolis unexpectedly dug up a time capsule from a 1950s psychiatric hospital. Buried on July 23, 1958, on the grounds of the Bahr Treatment Center—a mental health facility that was part of a state hospital that closed in the early ’90s—the capsule was discovered in the course of demolishing the old hospital to make room for a residential and business development. The capsule contained film reels featuring images of the hospital grounds, footage from the groundbreaking ceremonies, and a message for the future. 

Skip to about the 1:40 mark on the video, and two hospital officials begin to explain the center’s mission and predict how mental health treatment will change in the future. “We have spent much time attempting to foresee the future—the things that are going to be coming up in the way of treatment programs,” one says. “How well do you think we’ve solved the problems of the future?”

And then, frustratingly, the audio cuts out. What’s being said in these sections is likely lost forever. What kind of vintage medical predictions might they have been sharing? For more than a minute, their mouths move, but it’s impossible to tell what they’re saying. Then the audio begins again, and there’s a tantalizing moment of future prediction:

“For instance, we may some day—and only the people who open this time capsule will be able to say—we may go back to insulin shock, or the development of some other drug techniques ... and so forth.”

That speculation turned out to be way off base, as the treatment he’s referring to—insulin shock therapy—is no longer practiced in Western medicine. It was an early (and rather dangerous) treatment for schizophrenia that involved inducing comas with large doses of insulin.  

Beyond the six-minute film reel, there were a couple of others found as well, including this one, which marks the placement of a cornerstone in the building. However, these warped reels were damaged and don’t have any audio, so they don’t fill in the missing pieces from that larger film.

While those other predictions for the future of psychiatry may be lost for good, the time capsule delivers some fascinating insights into how mental health treatment was approached in the mid-20th century.

A version of this article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated for 2024.

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