Hospitals: the nexus point between life and death. The place into which people enter this world, and also their final exit. If only their walls could talk, what tales would they tell? Join paramedic and paranormal investigator Richard Estep as he draws back the veil to uncover some of the most fascinating (and sometimes chilling) stories of hospital hauntings from across the globe.
Here we take a look at The Danvers State Insane Asylum, Danvers, Massachusetts, featured in Chapter 12 of The World's Most Haunted Hospitals.
If you happened to be standing at the foot of Hathorne Hill in Danvers, Massachusetts, on a particularly dark and stormy night, you could quite easily be forgiven for thinking that you had stepped onto the set of a Gothic horror film of some sort. The four-story building that loomed menacingly above you on the hilltop would have made the perfect lair for a mad scientist in the mold of Victor Frankenstein, cackling maniacally in the candle-lit window of one of its turreted towers.
Originally known by the fonder name of “the castle on the hill,” Danvers went on to acquire a darker reputation as the years passed by. “The Haunted Castle” and “The Witches Castle” are just two of the nicknames given by the local residents to the huge edifice that holds such a prominent position watching over the entire area for miles around.
Why “The Witches Castle”? Peering backward through the mists of time, the keen student of history will soon discover that the town of Danvers once went by a different name: Salem Village. This is the same Salem Village that was to become the scene of one of the most brutal and terrifying episodes of American history, the 1692 Salem Witch Trials.
Here at the dawn of the 21st century, some Christians believe that Satan exists as a kind of abstract force for evil, working behind the scenes to achieve his nefarious ends. But to the pastoral folk of Salem Village at the close of the 17th century, the devil and his army of demons were believed to be very real; physical creatures who were thought to stalk the darkness, preying upon the unwary and always ready to attack the righteous if the mood should take them. Three hundred years ago, fire, brimstone, and damnation were at the forefront of the pious American citizen’s mind. There were no horror movies to serve as entertainment—the horror was thought to be very real, and lurking in their midst.
When we consider this atmosphere of constant fear, which served as a backdrop to everyday life, it should come as no surprise at all that the first rumors of witchcraft that were whispered by the townsfolk of Salem Village were spread with all the terrifying rapidity—and hunger for violence—of a raging wildfire. The match was struck by the increasingly bizarre behavior of two young girls, who took to throwing fits, hurling objects, screeching violently, and twisting their bodies into the most peculiar shapes. Though the village doctor examined the girls and confessed his puzzlement, it was not long before the symptoms began to take hold in some of the other women in Salem Village. (Historians have since put forth several possible explanations for the girls’ strange behavior: hallucinogenic chemicals.)
Seeking convenient scapegoats for the outbreak of unnatural maladies, the villagers soon began to point the finger at a trio of unpopular women, declaring them to be witches who were in league with the Devil and his horde of Satanic minions. As the allegations against the three women became increasingly outrageous—such as conducting sexual liaisons with demonic creatures—a number of townsfolk from Salem Village and the surrounding area rose up to challenge the accusers, only to be branded as witches themselves. These witches were firmly believed to be causing farmers’ crops to suffer blight, illnesses and maladies to befall their fellow villagers, and even causing people to die in some cases.
The inquisition had now begun to gather steam, and the arrests continued throughout the long, hot summer of 1692, now including local men as well as women. As juries began to find the defendants guilty, the first executions started to take place. Although still under the rule of the English crown, hysteria was now the true king of Salem Village. The most brutal and vicious forms of torture were employed in order to extract confessions until, half-crazed with the agonies inflicted upon them by their tormentors, the accused would confess to literally anything in order to make the pain stop.
Although Hollywood movies have firmly cemented the image of accused witches being burned at the stake into the public consciousness, the truth of the matter is that most were hanged. Of the 140 accused of witchcraft in Salem Village and the surrounding area, 19 would go to the gallows and pay the ultimate price after the hangman’s noose was tightened around their necks. One unfortunate soul, Giles Corey, flatly refused to declare his innocence or his guilt, failing to enter any plea whatsoever before the court. As the law of the time stated that a defendant who did not enter a plea could not be tried, the workaround used to prevent the presumably guilty defendant from escaping the clutches of justice was a barbaric practice known as pressing: Stripped naked, the accused was made to lay down on the floor with a solid wooden plank on top of him. Strong men would load a succession of heavy weights (usually boulders) on top of the wooden surface, until the accumulated weight was unbearably heavy. To make it worse, the poor man was placed on a starvation diet. The pressing went on until the victim either confessed to his crimes, or died.
It is practically impossible to imagine the agony endured by Giles Corey, already in his seventh decade of life, during the two days that he spent being pressed in an attempt to make him confess to practicing witchcraft. When his torturers came back repeatedly to try and extract a confession, the stubborn old man (contemporary accounts tell us that his eyes and tongue were bulging out of his face due to the pressure) simply demanded that they add more weight. Men even stood on top of the plank, adding their own body mass to that of the rocks, crushing his body into the earth. He died without ever making a confession.
Local legend has it that the apparition of Giles Corey is seen walking the graveyard on Howard Street, in the city of Salem (not to be confused with Salem Village, which is now Danvers) whenever a tragedy or disaster is due to befall the city. For example, the apparition of an old man was reported to be drifting through the cemetery at the end of June 1914. Shortly afterward, the Great Fire of Salem tore through the city, laying waste to almost 1,400 buildings.
The unfortunate Giles Corey was brutally “pressed” to death with heavy stones.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
By the spring of 1693, the hysteria subsided and it was all over. Restitution would ultimately be paid by the State of Massachusetts to those accused who had survived.
The State of Massachusetts did not formally apologize for the Salem Witch Trials until 1957—and even then, not all of the accused were named by the State. Finally, more than 300 years later, in 2001, the Governor of Massachusetts signed a resolution that declared all of those accused to be innocent, closing the book on one of the most tragic and shameful chapters of American history.
One of the key players in this horrific drama happened to be a zealous judge by the name of John Hathorne, a man who had little pity or mercy in his soul for the likes of those who were brought before him on charges of witchcraft. Appointed Chief Examiner of the witch trials, Hathorne was widely regarded as a cruel man, one who had already decided upon the guilt of the accused before they ever stepped foot before his bench. It speaks clearly of his character that, in the aftermath of the Salem witch trials, many of those who had taken part—whether willingly or not—offered up apologies and expressed remorse for what they had done. John Hathorne remained stubbornly unrepentant. Admittedly, some of Judge Hathorne’s negative image comes from his less than sympathetic portrayal in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, but even a cursory read of the Salem witch trial documents show that fiction did not fall far off the mark.
John Hathorne was the landowner of the hill in Salem Village that also bore his name, and built his home upon it in 1646. The Salem witches were executed upon the appropriately named Gallows Hill, and though Hathorne Hill is not actually Gallows Hill, what is known for sure is that the site of John Hathorne’s old house would be the very same ground upon which a haunted hospital would be built in later years: the Danvers State Hospital.
This $1.5 million hospital for the mentally ill took four years to build, finally opening its doors to receive new patients in 1878. Males and females each had their own dedicated wing of the asylum, and if a prisoner was considered to be severely disturbed—for which we can read “potentially violent or dangerous to themselves or others”—they were placed into the care of an especially dedicated wing.
The Danvers State Asylum was sufficiently big to merit its own dedicated power station to supply all of its electrical needs. Water was drafted in from a nearby pond. As the years passed, the complex grew in size—both above ground, and also below. A massive network of underground tunnels linked up most of the buildings, built on a “spoke and wheel” design layout (picture a cart wheel in your head), with the central hub being the main administration building known as the Kirkbride building. The Kirkbride style of architecture (named after the renowned and highly respected psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride) was extremely popular during the late 19th century, and many American insane asylums were built along similar lines—each wing was offset from its neighbor so that the residents got plenty of sunlight and fresh air, or so the theory went. The dank and cold tunnel network that interconnected these wings and accessory buildings was intended to keep the asylum functioning when the heavy snows of winter started to fall, potentially cutting Danvers State off from the outside world. Food, laundry, and the necessities of institutionalized life could all still be delivered underground.
The profession of mental health care reached a crisis point during the Depression era. Kirkbride facilities such as Danvers State were designed and built to accommodate no more than 500 to 600 patients, stretching to 700 at a pinch. But as the influx of mental patients showed no signs of slowing down, more than 2,000 were crammed into the cramped confines of this Massachusetts asylum. In what became an all too common story, the limited number of staff was simply unable to cope effectively with the sheer volume of overcrowding that was taking place. Stories of horrible “experimental” surgeries and other treatments lent the place an air of fear, so much so that author H.P. Lovecraft supposedly used Danvers State as his inspiration for the infamous Arkham Sanatorium in his horror fiction Cthulhu mythos.
Paranormal phenomena that spans the entire spectrum of activity has been reported at Danvers State over the course of its lifetime as a mental asylum; consider the apparition of a mature lady witnessed by the children of the hospital administrator in the attic of their home, for example. One of those children went on to suffer the terrifying experience of witnessing the sheets and comforter being dragged forcefully from her bed by some unseen force.
Doors throughout the asylum complex were seen to open and close, seemingly of their own accord. When Danvers State was abandoned, passers-by reported flickering lights in the vacant windows—though whether genuinely paranormal in nature, or caused by the multitude of ghost hunting teams that descended on the place, is impossible to say. Harder to explain are the accounts of disembodied footsteps, echoing through the building with no living person around to make them. While phantom footsteps are chilling enough, of even greater concern are the shouts, wails, and screams that have been heard issuing from thin air within the long-abandoned basements and tunnels at Danvers—perhaps a ghostly echo of the misery that once pervaded the asylum.
Nor were the remains of Danvers State Hospital without their ghostly apparitions. The most common sightings involved spectral patients, who have been witnessed both inside the building and walking through the grounds outside. Local folklore has it that the faces of some of the asylum’s poor, tormented souls are sometimes seen peering out from the windows of certain haunted rooms.
As a paranormal investigator with 30 years of experience investigating with The Rhode Island Paranormal Research Society under his belt, Andy Laird had witnessed some incredible sights when called in to investigate a haunting. Our investigations involved everything from the ridiculous to things nightmares are made of,” Andy says, “from debunking ‘paranormal activity’ as actually being everyday human experience, to the rare but extreme state of demonic possession.”
Although Andy officially retired from the field of paranormal investigation in 2013, he looks back upon the genesis of The Rhode Island Paranormal Research Society (and its inextricable association with the Danvers State Hospital) with absolute clarity. This isn’t only because of the memorable date (September 11, 1984), but because the whole thing began as the result of a bet. Andy takes up the story:
The Rhode Island Paranormal Research Society was founded on September 11, 1984, as the result of a wager between myself and three others. We were all college students and, except for myself at that time, highly interested in researching/investigating paranormal activity. This was long before the days when such activities was even close to being acceptable and were among a long list of social taboos. I was a hard core disbeliever in such things.
On September 10th, my friends Ray, Brenda, Tammy, and Bob and I got into a heated but friendly debate regarding ghosts. The debate resulted in a wager that either they would prove to me the existence of ghosts or they would not bring up the subject again: bring me to a place that was truly haunted. In other words, put up or shut up. The winner of the bet, officially being between Ray and I, would receive a case of Budweiser. Ray and the others looked at each other and said they knew of a place and were planning on going there that evening.An hour later we were on the grounds of the officially closed asylum and talking to a friend of Ray’s, a security guard there. After parking Ray's beat up Nova out of sight, Ray's friend opened the side door to a building that once housed the Excitable Wards.
I was creeped out just being in the powerless building and had an unshakable feeling of oppression the moment I stepped through the door. The building had been among the first to be decommissioned a while back. Paint and plaster chips riddled the floor, making our steps crackle with every step. Ray motioned for me to follow him up the stairwell while Tammy, Brenda, and Bob parted ways.
Ray and I ended up on the second floor where a heavy steel and wire door was partly open. In the hallway were rooms/cells, some with their padded doors open every 10 or so feet down the entire length of the hallway.
It had seemed like hours had passed when I observed an older man dressed in white patient's attire walk out of the cell three doors down on our left. The man suddenly stopped mid-stride, looked at me and then walked into a cell to my right, barely making it by the room’s door.
I said, laughing out loud, “You’re kidding me, right?”
“What the [bleep] are you talking about?” Ray replied.
I ran to the doorway and opened the door, fully expecting to find Ray's “ghost” and declare myself the winner of the wager. What I found was an empty cell and the man nowhere to be found. There was only one way in or out and nowhere to hide inside. The room was freezing cold in stark contrast to the very warm, even humid air in the hallway just feet away.
Ray stood in the doorway, looking at me very much genuinely confused by how I was acting. He denied seeing anything but me suddenly wigging out. It was then that it hit me; unlike ours, the man's footsteps didn't make any crackle or any other sound whatsoever.
On the way back home my friends wanted to hear all about my experience, but they eventually respected my being disturbed by it all, and let it be. Back home I eagerly shared the spoils of the bet and within a few hours The Rhode Island Paranormal Research Group was born, and a hardcore disbeliever was now a just as passionate a believer!
When we consider that the apparition of the patient looked directly at Andy, it seems that he encountered an intelligent haunting—one that was aware of his presence, being something more than a simple recording or imprint of a long-dead patient’s image upon the atmosphere of the building.
Andy and his team went on to investigate the entire complex at Danvers—not only the buildings still left standing above ground, but also the maze of tunnels that burrow through the earth beneath them. The phenomena that they encountered there included team members being shoved by an unseen force, team members followed by the echoing footsteps of an invisible stalker, and recording sounds of crying and even some rather angry threats on their tape recorders. Andy cites the crematorium as being one of the most active hotspots in the entire facility.
There are some places that, despite the activities of organizations seen on so-called reality television, are meant to be left alone,” Andy Laird concludes. “The psychiatric hospital once located in Danvers, Massachusetts, was absolutely one of those places. It was a place that took a chilling hold of you and, all too often, demanded a high price for the intrusion.”
He continued, “Having witnessed this first-hand, I often still refer to the Danvers Lunatic Asylum as a place that embodied the spider and the fly scenario. Never mind the buildings that made up the psychiatric hospital's complex, just entering the grounds was enough to give you that ominous chill of warning to smarten up and leave!”
As the years turned into decades, the funding for Danvers State Hospital started to dry up. One by one, like dominoes falling, the hospital administrators were forced to begin cutting back on beds and systematically closing down wards. By 1992, the final patients were gone and moved to other institutions across the state. Danvers State was abandoned, its hallways and rooms deserted and dark, left to slowly fade away.
The 2001 horror movie Session 9 would be filmed in and around Danvers, making effective use of the abandoned old asylum as the backdrop for a tale of psychological terror. Danvers would also serve as the inspiration for video games and novels, all with a distinctly spooky or macabre flavor. As its haunted reputation began to grow, the location began to attract other groups of paranormal researchers.
One such investigator who has wandered the interior of Danvers in search of answers is one of the stars of the SyFy Channel’s paranormal show Haunted Collector, Brian J. Cano. Brian was working with his team from the show SCARED! when I interviewed him in preparation for writing this book. I asked Brian what it actually felt like to walk those halls and tunnels. Was there an atmosphere—some remnant of the pain and misery that had been so prevalent at Danvers during its operational lifetime? Or were things calm and peaceful?
With any such place, one goes into it with an expectation—the locale is not unknown, it is the site of pain, confusion and suffering and death. Could it be that we brought those feelings with us? Yes. Perhaps we picked up on remnants of its former inhabitants. Perhaps it was both. The place was very quiet though. That being said, perhaps that allowed our own feelings about being there to dominate.”
Danvers was coming apart at the seams at the time of their visit, crumbling and rotting away. Brian and his colleagues were wary of the gaping holes in the ceilings and floorboards, treading carefully on the creaking wooden staircases as they made their way slowly into the building. Many of the rooms were in a state of near-collapse.
We came prepared—there were no close calls, but on every floor and in every room we had to be wary,” says Brian. “As the night went on, we got tired...it became harder to avoid danger spots. I’d say we were very lucky to have come out unscathed.”1
Nonetheless, things only became truly concerning once the crew tried to leave. It is a common practice of urban explorers to identify the rooms and corridors that they have been past, using a piece of chalk to mark the doors and walls with a cross or some other easily recognizable symbol. The SCARED! crew were no exception, leaving a trail of chalk in their wake like a lifeline, something that could be easily followed when it came time for the weary group to backtrack.
“The place was a maze and all the floors and hallways resembled each other. As our fatigue grew, so did our disorientation. In a place like that, chalk is part of Urban Exploration 101. But despite that, we still got lost on the way out. It seemed like our chalk was being removed from some key intersections. By whom, we never knew...”
Is there a rational explanation for the chalk disappearing? Short of there being an intruder in the building, I am hard-pressed to think of one that makes any sense, and neither can Brian. But another phenomenon that might at first seem quite creepy actually has a perfectly natural cause. Odd pockets of heat seemed to pop up frequently inside the old Danvers State Hospital, at one point following Brian and his team on their journey. A viewer of the show suggested that structural decay was causing a slow release and accumulation of gases inside the old building, and that as Brian’s team was moving throughout the place, the subsequently circulating air currents would carry the warmer gas pockets along with them.
As the former hospital site became increasingly dilapidated, the next step was depressingly inevitable—demolition. Despite the best efforts of those who wished to save the historic location (the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places) the wrecking balls soon began to batter the brick walls to the ground. Apartment buildings were constructed on the site, but they were gutted by a massive overnight fire that took hold in 2007. The Internet is awash with photographs of the inferno, which could be seen from many miles away.
The Danvers State Insane Asylum during the process of demolition.
Photo courtesy of Devlin Mannle, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
In the aftermath of the fire, the Luxury apartments were rebuilt, and at the time of this writing still stand on the site of the old Danvers State Hospital. The façade of the once-mighty main Kirkbride building still remains, having been given a significant facelift during the renovation process. But unbeknownst to most people, there is another remnant of the days when Danvers was a functioning mental institution, hidden away behind the trees on the perimeter of the apartment complex: a cemetery.
The human remains of several hundred (without excavating, it’s impossible to tell exactly how many) former patients of Danvers State lie at rest in a burial ground that is tucked discreetly out of sight and out of mind of the current inhabitants. Each and every inhabitant buried there was certified insane by the State of Massachusetts. Many of the graves bear no name at all, simply an anonymous-looking marker inscribed with a number.
One hopes that the tormented souls who resided within the brick walls of the Danvers State Hospital, whether they happened to be genuinely insane or were unjustly locked away from the eyes of everyday society, have now finally found peace.
Was the Danvers State Hospital genuinely one of the world’s most haunted hospitals? I put this question to Brian J. Cano.
“It’s my assertion that everywhere is haunted. Everything is energy—we are energy—and that which remains is everywhere. Certain places have a higher concentration of this energy and those are the places considered to be, ‘haunted.’ The events that occurred on the land before and during the tenure of the institution have added to that energy. I’ve gotten many reports from existing residents of the condos that strange things happen and I believe it is due to all that amassed energy...”2
Richard Estep is a paramedic and volunteer firefighter by day, and a paranormal investigator by night. He has spent the past two decades investigating claims of ghosts and hauntings on both sides of the Atlantic. Estep co-founded Boulder County Paranormal Research Society (BCPRS) and has published two other books on the paranormal including In Search of the Paranormal. Richard is a prolific speaker at British and American genre conventions, such as Dragon Con and the SF Ball, and has appeared in paranormal video segments for about.com and the documentary film The Ghosts of Elitch Theatre. The author will donate 10% of his royalties from this book to support The St. Baldrick's Foundation for pediatric cancer research. Estep lives in Boulder, Colorado.