Everyone has their “thing.” The horror content that freaks you the hell out. It’s sometimes the same stuff you find horribly intriguing. I’m usually bent toward the supernatural myself, and horror centering around haunted hospitals I find particularly terrifying and enthralling. The House on Haunted Hill, Shutter Island, Session 9, Gothika, Silent Hill, Batman’s Arkham Asylum… the list is pretty long. What do all these titles have in common? Victorian architecture, institutions, and something called the Kirkbride Plan.
A mid-19th century architectural plan, Kirkbrides were utilized primarily in the first state-run insane asylums. Idealized as a curative layout where patients are allowed privacy and peace, these massive institutions were more often characterized by long meandering halls that were difficult to navigate, underground tunnels, and richly imposing facades and towers. The first Kirkbride model was the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum (also known as Trenton Psychiatric Hospital), which was home to many of its own horrors and worthy of an article itself.
Now you may ask what all of this means to a horror fan. Quite a bit actually. This architectural style highly influences the themes and set stylings of many hospital, mental illness, and ghost based horror films. These old buildings seem to have a certain universal quality to them. They’re terrifying. And possibly the most recognizable and famous of these historic Kirkbrides is Danvers State Insane Asylum.
Danvers State Insane Asylum in Danvers, Massachusetts is the darling of the Kirbride plans. Built at the top of Hawthorne Hill in 1874, Danvers was designed to house the mentally ill and criminally insane for metropolitan Boston. Originally planned for a max capacity of 500 patients, Danvers at one time housed 2,000 and is widely thought to have been haunted. Prior to the hospital, Hawthorne Hill was the home of John Hawthorne, a judge during the infamous Salem Witch Trial. Danvers itself was the location of the original Salem Village and many of the events took place on around the hospital property and not modern day Salem. The property also boasted an elaborate tunnel system to all of the outlying buildings and two cemeteries. Since its close in 1992, most of the buildings at Danvers have been demolished to make way for an the Avalon Bay apartment complex. All that remain of the original hospital are the cemeteries under restoration, an unknown number of tunnels, and the facade of the main building which was utilized as the front of the apartments. Which is also rather creepy.
Danvers has also had quite the media career. The 2001 horror, Session 9, is centered around the fictional and strange happenings to a crew working the demolition of the hospital. Filmed on location, actor David Caruso claimed to have seen something pass his window while in the hospital. Most of the set dressings used in Session 9 were also actual to the building minus a metal tub, some rubber gloves, and a few meat hooks. The 1958 film Home Before Dark was also filmed at the hospital. I can’t help but draw comparisons between the 1999 House on Haunted Hill and the Danvers and Trenton hospitals.
There is a wealth of non-fiction reading available on Danvers as well as the novel Project 17 by Laurie Faria Stolarz. Faria Stolarz’s novel is a classic horror tale of a group of teens breaking into an insane asylum, specifically Danvers and the horrors they encounter therein.
In video games, the iconic Danvers facade makes an appearance in Painkiller in the level Asylum. Danvers is also thought to be the inspiration for the Arkham Sanatorium from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Thing on the Doorstep as well as the inspiration for Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Needless to say, Danvers State Insane Asylum has a hefty historical credential in our modern mind’s eye of mental institutions and all the potential horror they can contain. While Danvers no longer stands, its echo will reverberate through the horror genre for quite a long time.
Further, Non-Fiction Reading:
- Danvers State, Memoirs Of A Nurse In The Asylum By Angelina Szot and Barbara Stillwell
- The Eye of Danvers, A History of Danvers State Hospital By Michael Ramseur
- Nobody’s Child By Marie Balter and Richard Katz