urban explorers

In a Dream of Strange Cities #2: “Tannery Palace” prelude

As soon as we got over the shock of first seeing Tannery Palace, Crutch suggested I move the company van a few streets away. The factory/mansion complex was only a long stone’s throw from (redacted) Square and our local guide Hannah K— said she had seen a couple of army cops on patrol that morning.

Normally, I would have been miffed at having to do this while Crutch got to know our appealing new co-conspirator a little better. But the night before I let on that I had attended 4th and 5th grade at the St. Catherine Primary School around the way. I was curious to see this old haunt again, especially now after what I had just seen. How could it be that I had never, until today, seen or known about the outlandish Victorian owner’s residence that sat in the middle of the tannery—especially since my grandfather had worked there and I spent two years at a school that was only two blocks away?

The shuttered but otherwise well-preserved Tannery Palace was no place to park a van whose back-door logo promised adventures in “Dark Tourism.” I hopped in and drove over to the school and tucked it under an oak tree in a corner of the disused parking lot, close by the giant brick wall that formed the back of the Church of St. Catherine Laboure.

I wasn’t particularly old, just a man of a certain age, but it felt like an indiscernible black space separated those years from where I stood now. I looked over at the tall windows of my 4th grade classroom and got a blank stare in return. That did not stop some memories from leaking back. At recess, we used to throw an oversized Super Ball against this back wall. A pack of boys in white shirts and clip-on ties would scramble for the crazy bouncing rebound. A smaller number of girls in plaid skirts would work the perimeter away from the scrum, occasionally catching the more errant sideway bounces.

I started walking back, wondering how far along Hannah and Crutch were with prying away the weak-link plywood of the basement window that was to be our entry point to the mystery mansion. First though, I had to turn back to have a look at the church’s pointy steeple, an architectural detail that had popped up in my dreams at least a couple of times a year for decades. Many of the kids in my 5th grade class would compare the steeple to a witch’s hat, thus revealing the true nature of Catholicism. We were clever little buggers back then. For sport, we would discuss this theory just barely out of earshot of the nuns as they stood in groups of three or four in their white origami-type headgear.

Each sunny school day at the noon recess, at the signal which was the tannery’s blaring lunchtime horn, we would look up at the steeple to see “the witch’s eye.” This would be a glint of sunshine off the church bell seen through the slats of the tower. I stared one last time for a glimpse of this, but it was no use. It was late afternoon already; the moon was even rising. The church, the factory and a lot else around it was closed for good. There would be no supernatural eye to look down on this broken world that had cursed itself.

A prose sample from a work-in-progress, a (graphic?) novel called “The Ministry of Dark Tourism”

A “Pale Beyond” Postscript: The Haunting and Humane Photography of Christopher Payne

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Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
Photographs by Christopher Payne, Essay by Oliver Sacks (The MIT Press, 2009)

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Breezeway, Taunton State Hospital, Mass.

(All photos in this post are copyright to Christopher Payne, used under “fair use” provisions)

I felt very lucky to have had a chance last winter to see a nearby gallery show of the extraordinary work of New York-based Christopher Payne, maybe America’s foremost photographer of “disappearing histories” as the headline of a recent Payne interview called it. I was already familiar with his work via “Asylum”, since the coffee table book with its austere cover shot of a white straitjacket hanging on a pale blue wall caught my eye in Barnes & Noble a few years back. Payne shoots in traditional large-format film and makes digital C-prints from there. These sensitively-rendered images of eerily abandoned state hospitals are plenty impressive in the book but mind-blowing in a gallery, where some of the vertical prints were some four feet high.

Fascination with shuttered asylums, as well as the urban-explorer impulse with which it overlaps, has really taken off in the Internet Age, a phenomena I explored in my 3-part “The Pale Beyond” series (see it in the “Categories” section to the right or in “Related Posts” below). There are many different, and often excellent, websites featuring the work of people braver than myself who find their way into these abandoned buildings and come away with evocative photos that earn gushing praise from followers and lots of “oh-wow-that’s-creepy” reactions on the comments scroll.

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Danvers State Hospital in panorama

All that is fine. We’re a society in love with the macabre and the mysterious, and many of these buildings fit the bill. A lot of them were built in the Victorian era, with gothic spires that came to seem sinister once conditions there deteriorated. But Payne’s approach to this subject is different and refreshing. He was trained as an architect and had never visited a state hospital before 2002, when a friend who knew of his interest in industrial archaeology told him about Pilgrim State on Long Island, a 10,000-bed asylum on a 1,000-acre campus. By that date, Pilgrim was operating to a tiny fraction of its original capacity (while hundreds of others had fully closed). Payne in his foreword admits to being “dumbstruck” by the monumental scale and the landscaped setting; it was the start of a six-year project that would eventually lead him to dozens of these mammoth institutions.

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Weston State Hospital, West Virginia. If it weren’t for the bars on the window, you could almost mistake it for Downton Abbey. Payne’s methods did not generally include trespassing. Instead, he went through official channels and found that once he showed a sincere interest in the architecture and history of these properties, he was usually granted full access.

But Payne saw beyond “the superstitions and third-hand horror stories” that these places inspire and using his trained eye noted their “outward similarity to great resort hotels of the era.” A verdant setting and dignified atmosphere, along with occupational therapy and the arts, figured prominently in the planning of the early hospitals built in the latter part of the 1800s. Such institutions were often proudly self-sustaining and Payne has numerous views of on-site farms, greenhouses, vocational workshops, a fish hatchery, etc. There’s even a shot of a kitchen in Pennsylvania’s Danville State with five enormous vats that were solely used for making sauerkraut. This original idea of the therapeutic value of work and culture, and its palliative effect on mental illness, later when out of fashion.

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Noble Hall theater, Connecticut Valley State Hospital

Eventually psychotropic drugs came onto the scene, but as author/neurologist Oliver Sacks asserts in the book’s introduction, a well-intentioned notion of patient’s rights replaced the “normalizing” effect of the work that was now seen as exploitation and left them with little more to do than to watch television. The resulting warehouse effect left us with the “snakepit” image that most associate with state hospitals. Sacks’ essay, while certainly astute and filled with first-hand knowledge (he worked at Bronx State Hospital for 25 years), does seem a little rosy at time—for instance, there is no mention of the controversial (over)use of electroshock therapy. Still, the idea of these grand old asylums being a place where one could be both “mad and safe” is compelling considering the hasty deinstitutionalization that started in the 70s and 80s. The lack of sufficient transitional services—and medication that controlled the worst impulses of serious mental illness but left users unmotivated—burdened the U.S. with a large homeless population that later economic problems only exacerbated.

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The self-contained skyline of Danvers State at sundown: the day of wrecking ball was not far off.

The melancholy beauty of Payne’s photography, and his ability to sense the unlucky lives that played out there, are masterful from the first page to the poignant postscript of this amazing book. That closing section is a Payne-penned text and photographic record of the 2006 demolition of the iconic Danvers State Hospital, the model for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanitarium and later the Arkham Asylum of the Batman universe. (Only the façade of the main administration building was saved for the subsequent condo complex). Readers of the previous installments know of my focus on DSH—I grew up three miles away—and it turns out that Payne has a personal connection as well. He grew up in Boston and had relatives in Danvers. Whenever visiting them, he saw its hilltop profile as an “ancient, far-away castle” from the window of the family car driving down I-95. (The parallel and closer U.S. Route One passed directly below the slope of the hospital’s perimeter farmland). Payne writes of his reluctance to speak regretfully of the demolition to workers but they were not unsympathetic: they realize they are knocking down a historic and unique structure, one to be succeeded by “a place, just like any other.” As Payne puts it, “How ironic it was that so much care and effort was put into a structure intended solely for society’s outcasts.” Even keeping in mind the mistakes that followed, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a return to that kind of commitment to the more unfortunate among us anytime soon, if ever.

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Also recommended by Christopher Payne is North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City. Sitting amid strong East River cross-currents near Riker’s Island and Hell Gate, the island was long a site for hospitals and infirmaries (its most famous patient was Typhoid Mary)as well as the infamous 1904 General Slocum steamboat disaster, when a combination burning/sinking killed 1000 people. Payne’s vivid photographs of this long-uninhabited spit of land, depicts a sort of slow-motion battle between nature and the built environment.

North Brother Island

North Brother Island

The Pale Beyond, Part Three

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It’s been about ten months since part two of this series. In the long interval before this concluding entry, a long unfolding social problem has received more and more media coverage. A front-page headline last September in the Wall Street Journal summed it up rather neatly; “The New Asylums: Jails Swell with Mentally Ill.” The story tracked a pattern from the mass closings of outsized state hospitals in the 70s and 80s to the subsequent rise in the homeless population as many patients went from overcrowded (and sometimes abusive) facilities to no care at all. The ideal of a community-based middle way never really took hold and while advances in pharmaceuticals to treat psychological ailments have helped those with less severe cases, many others fell between the cracks during that process and in the years since. The situation just seems to get worse. Today, as I was getting set to put up this post, a major page-one report in the New York Times detailed the severe injuries suffered by 129 inmates at the hands of correctional staff at the huge Riker’s Island jail between the Bronx and Queens. A full 77 per cent of those inmates had been diagnosed with mental illness.

Obviously, this is a difficult problem and a tough one to get right. No one wants to go back to the warehousing asylums of old, where people could be committed for an indefinite stay on some flimsy pretense, like vagrancy or for being a troubled child that a parent could no longer deal with. But this downward spiral of insufficient mental health resources, underemployment, homelessness, drug abuse and petty crime invariably leading to incarceration is disheartening if not scandalous. Where’s the proper middle ground?

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I recently made a couple of visits to historic Tewksbury Hospital, the prominent Old Administration Building of which, seen at the top, was built in 1894 in bewitching Queen Anne style. It’s been continuously in operation since 40 years before that, first as an almshouse (Anne Sullivan lived there before becoming Helen Keller’s tutor and friend) and then used for the treatment and containment of contagious diseases. Although it was operated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and mental health care did figure in the mix throughout its history, it was never a state hospital in the way we would come to think of it—the overcrowded and malignant institutions on large campuses that have in their closed state become havens for urban explorers. But when one of the more infamous such places (Danvers State Hospital, as discussed in previous installments of this series) closed in 1992, the Mass. Dept. of Mental Health moved from there to Tewksbury and—along with the Dept. of Public Health—established the Public Health Museum there two years later.

The museum is tucked into one section of the Old Administration Building’s first level. This ground floor is a beautifully restored wood-paneled interior that the unfortunate people being admitted here never got to see, if a preserved sign near the front entrance is any indication.

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Much of the exhibit space is given over to showing the evolving history of methods for treatment of physical maladies, and you can see antique wheelchairs and an iron lung for real. But another room shows a similar backstory for mental health treatment. This will be the chilling highlight for many visitors. The curators, to their credit, do not shy away from showing patient treatments that nowadays would be considered barbaric or shocking. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have a mannequin strapped down to a bed to show any and all comers exactly what insulin-induced coma therapy looked like back in the day:

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Another interesting factoid I learned there: Danvers State once had a baseball team.
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You’re free to stroll the grounds at Tewksbury, which has an old formal gateway and other buildings of architectural interest. But it’s still an everyday working hospital. People ‘round my neck of the woods who want to get a feel for one of the classic creepy institutions can head south of Boston, where the isolated ghost town-sized Medfield State Hospital has been opened for people who want to have a walkabout. This is one of the few places I know that have done this, maybe as a co-opting measure for the hundreds of people who have seen these places as targets for infiltration. Of course, rules state that going inside the boarded buildings is strictly verboten. Still, it’s a great way for us urban-explorer dabblers to daytrip without worrying about getting nicked for trespassing. Now made safe for family excursions, I took along Ryan as my urban-explorer-in-training and lens-changing assistant.

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Although drastic methods like insulin or shock therapy may have been seen as necessary to control the worse-off patients, the power that comes with such authority still tempts abuse as we found out recently here in Massachusetts. Bridgewater State Hospital is site of Frederick’s Wiseman’s muckraking and groundbreaking 1967 documentary “Titicut Follies” (see Part 2 for more). It was reported in June that BSH was in danger of losing its national recognized hospital accreditation after it was found staff had significantly increased the use of isolation and strapping, even after the 2009 death of a patient during the application of restraints. Granted, Bridgewater is actually a medium-security prison that happens to house the most severely mentally-ill people in the state. But it also pointed out the thorny no-man’s land that exists between incarceration and the proper levels of mental health treatment. After a ban of “Titicut Follies” that lasted a quarter-century for “invading the privacy” of inmates (even though he had full clearances), Massachusetts courts finally allowed Wiseman to air his devastating expose of institutional abuse as long as he included a disclaimer at the end saying conditions have since approved at Bridgewater. The director’s one-sentence disclaimer, blankly using that very phrase, spoke volumes.

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Walking off the grounds at Medfield State, we caught view of the above. Who wrote this? Driving away, thoughts bounced around on different angles. Was it a mocking ex-inmate, a droll site worker, an urban explorer? There are certain people who get creeped out at the thought of these sites of suffering being converted into semi-affluent residential communities (possible sales blurb: “Nowadays, you would have to be crazy NOT to live here”) and the sign seemed to reflect that. That didn’t seem to affect folks who streamed into the old Danvers State property, re-purposed by Avalon Communities.

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“And over there is where they invented the full frontal lobotomy. Care for a swim?”

This spring I snuck onto the perimeter of the now-closed Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass. (see part 2), to visit a geographical feature that had always intrigued me but that I’ve never been able to classify. It began just off to the side of the Fernald Volunteer Center, a veritable Boo Radley house that despite its disrepair, always seemed vaguely occupied. During the time we lived on a street just across the way, I’d often turn my bike into a mowed section of field that dipped down below the level of Trapelo Road and continued for several hundred yards. I would pedal along a meandering path behind the also-closed daycare place, and through a wooded section that then opened up into a boulevard-wide lawn that undulated in sunny seclusion before returning to the gloomy main grounds, where once thousands of unfortunate (and usually quite young) patients lived. Until recently, even when there was only a couple of dozen patients left on the vast campus, someone dutifully mowed this obscure stretch of land on a regular basis. Thinking of the shaded sanatorium walks of old, I wondered if this had been a place where patients were brought to for a “country” walk. It would have been a brief respite—if it ever even happened—for a cruelly exploited class of luckless people who were otherwise liable to be the subjects of unconsented experiments: the children who were fed radioactive isotopes or autistic kids given doses of LSD for months on end. Soon this place will cover itself up, unseen and all but forgotten but leaving a lot of questions in the air about what’s left to do after all the hell holes are abandoned in place.

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Detropia (Doc of the Week #7)

Detropia

(Just caught another view of this film as it is the newest entry on PBS’ “Independent Lens” series. Check your local listings as they say and see a postscript I just added below with other Detroit-related items. Rick)

Detropia
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady—2011—91 minutes (Docurama DVD)

The fastest growing city in the world circa 1930 is left with 100,000 abandoned houses or empty lots less than a century later. A pioneer of heavy industry and worker empowerment is relegated to being the poster child for a national trend that saw fifty thousand factories close in ten years, leaving behind a permanently insecure labor force. The home of Motown and a mighty civic infrastructure reduced to the outward appearance of a fallen civilization. Few places illustrate the diminished American Dream better than Detroit. The documentary filmmaking team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (who also made the excellent “Jesus Camp”) grapple with this weighty subject with a blend of citizen testimonials and impressionistic visuals, gleaning both the ground-level personal perspective and the dreamlike aura of an oversized ghost town.

Soon after the opening lament by video blogger Crystal Starr, as she gazes at the Motor City skyline from the upper story window of an abandoned apartment building, the film gets right down in the business. United Auto Workers official George McGregor regales the interviewer with stories of past glories while driving to a union hall meeting where most of the chairs remain stacked in the background of the shot. The nearly depleted rank-and-file membership listen in disbelief as McGregor reads out the latest proposal by American Axle, a company already threatening to move its production out of the country. Faced with either accepting a pay package that will leave them with slightly better than fast-food wages, or seeing the same jobs shipped overseas with impunity, it’s hard to leave the scene without understanding why the American middle class seems as gutted as the deserted buildings we see in so many of “Detropia’s” establishing shots.

Elsewhere, we see a nightclub owner trying to hang onto his business in the face of plant closures and fretting at an auto show when he sees the Chinese poised to corner the electric car market; briefly meet a performance-art couple attracted to the city’s low housing costs; and hang out with some enterprising metal scavengers, picking at the carcass of a once-great metropolis and selling the scrap to a country that can use it (China again). For Mayor Dave Bing, the options for improving conditions in this broke city are few. Left with half the town that once was, Bing (a former Detroit Pistons basketball star) proposes consolidating the thinly-spread population—down to 700,000 from a mid-century high of 1.8 million—into higher-density areas while “re-purposing” vacant land for large-scale urban farming. This idea is met with skepticism at a tumultuous community meeting and by a trio of amused front-porch philosophers. It’s these regular folks that make “Detropia” as appealing as it is, counteracting the directors’ tendency for a grab-bag approach that can cause contextual drift. So even amid the ghostly greens and reds of nocturnal street scenes, or snippets of barely-introduced subjects like the African-American opera singer, there will soon be some level-headed resident, with that Motor City mix of gallows humor and dogged perseverance, to keep things grounded.

In the end, several of the subjects sneak their way into the city’s gargantuan Michigan Central Station, the long-vacant Beaux Arts masterpiece that as much as any one edifice symbolizes this epic fall from grace. While the strategic bailout of the auto industry engineered by President Obama offers a modicum hope, the outlook remains bleak. The city went under state receivership in early 2013 and Dave Bing decided not to run for re-election. While there may be no foreseeable turnaround for the city’s endemic woes, to treat this as a matter apart from us is inadvisable in the extreme. “When you see your neighbor going down, you have to think about yourself,” the club owner warns us in the waning moments of “Detropia,” adding “a fire unchecked will only take you out as well.” It is another reminder of America’s abandonment of a production-based society in favor of an economy dependent on a distracted consumerism many can’t afford and lorded over by esurient Wall Street CEOs rewarded for cutting workforces. Ewing and Grady are to be commended for making their accessible and heartfelt film on this discouraging subject.

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One thing I would have liked to seen a little more of in “Detropia” is the astonishing scale of both what was built there and the extent to which it has fallen to ruin. If you’re like me, then, check out the book “Detroit Disassembled”. I mean that literally. Check it out of the library if you can’t afford the hefty price tag, even if photographer Andrew Moore deserves every penny of it. This is one of the most extraordinary photo-essay coffee table books I’ve ever seen. Moore’s large-format camera peeks into every conceivable corner of what, through his lens, might as well be a lost ancient ruin. A melancholic paen to a faded nation of makers, the infrastructure and institutions that supported this industry-based system are now seen as losing a visceral battle to decay and the forces of nature. The dilapidation of catherdal-like assembly buildings, rococo theaters, technical schools, grand theaters and handsome apartment blocks may seem like an exaggerated and isolated example to some, but it leaves behind a sour taste nevertheless. It makes one think of the pipsqueak service economy we’re left with, 70% of which is dependent on consumer spending while at the same a huge percentage of workers are making the kind of wages that almost make indentured servitude an attractive alternative.

While I’m at it, I will also recommend the 4-minute film clip link below but don’t read the caption as it contains a spoiler alert, Documenatry Division.

Godfrey Reggio’s 2002 “Naqoyqasti”, the last of his trilogy that began with the trailblazing “Koyaanisqatsi” opens with that solemn tracking shot of the Michigan Central Station’s massive vaulted waiting room and once magisterial upper-floor offices, every window now smashed. Back on the ground, a close-up of the building’s mighty portico and entrance has a raging sea superimposed over it and the effect is of all of Western culture being pulled under.

The Pale Beyond (Part One)

The Pale Beyond Part 3 is Coming in June 2014

Danvers State

(The shuttered Danvers State Hospital in the late Nineties. Danvers State was once dubbed “the bad vibes capital of the Northeast” by the Boston Phoenix. I certainly felt it that day. Click on photos for larger view.)

To expand a little bit on the subject of this week’s selected documentary is difficult. But to expand on it “a lot of bit” (as my son used to say) is far easier. The topic of abandoned state-run institutions, and their distinctly spooky allure, has really taken off in the Internet age. The timing was perfect. Many such places, which warehoused society’s forgotten people in sprawling complexes of gothic-type structures, closed in the 1980s, in the age of Reagan-era budget cuts and a shift to community-based care in the treatment of people with mental and physical disabilities. The older state facilities had usually been built on leafy campuses on the margins of metropolitan areas and were soon infiltrated by members of the new urban explorer movement, an activity that combines thrill-seeking with amateur anthropology. Some of the participants were also talented photographers. Finding an audience, and each other, on websites like DarkPassage.com, these people gave a whole new meaning to the term “asylum seeker.”

In our age of autism awareness and 10K charity races for most major medical maladies, it’s fascinating to go back and see the lax standards that prevailed just a couple of generations ago. Willowbrook State School, featured in “Cropsey”, was known for living conditions that are hard to believe in today’s wised-up world. Robert F. Kennedy made a fact-finding visit there in 1965 while U.S. Senator from New York, famously referring to it as a “snake pit.” But his suggested improvements were slow in coming. Several years later, a guy named Geraldo Rivera first gained national attention when he brought a local news crew into the overcrowded facility, filming mentally disabled children, some naked, writhing on the floor in agony. (John Lennon and Yoko Ono saw the televised report and were moved to do a pair of benefit concerts—later released as “Live in New York City”—that were to be Lennon’s last full-length live shows). Even with these exposes, and further revelations by Staten Island newspapers, the last of Willowbrook’s residents were not moved out until 1987.

I grew up not far from one of the most infamous of such places. Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts was opened in 1878 and from my earliest days I remember it looming high above U.S. Route One on a dome-shaped hill surrounded by sloping farmland. Later in life I would find out that it inspired horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Asylum, which in turn was incorporated into the Batman universe. Interesting, as the place was one of many built on the idealized Kirkbride Plan. These imposing, gabled Victorian compounds had a staggered “bat-wing” layout that were meant to allow for maximum, beneficial sunshine for mentally-ill patients who were to be treated with new and enlightened methods.

Unfortunately, Danvers State became better known for electroshock and frontal lobotomies than for enlightenment. Again, overcrowding had a lot to do with the deteriorating conditions, as people with symptoms nowadays treatable with prescription drugs were shoehorned in with legitimately dangerous patients.

Growing up in West Peabody some four miles away, we kids amused ourselves with scare stories about escaped lunatics from the “Nut House” who made their way down the hill to the apocryphal Danvers Road, a shadowy lover’s lane. Thankfully, our tall tales of the unfortunate couples who parked there were more imaginative than our naming of the road.

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In 2000, I was working for Scout Productions in Boston as a location manager. One day, director Brad “Next Stop Wonderland” Anderson was in a pre-production meeting with a few others at a table near the desk where I was working. I had already heard something of the project that would become the 2001 asylum thriller “Session 9” and I took the liberty of chipping in an idea or two. That would have been a great movie to work on but I was a location scout and none was needed in this case. That’s because the entire movie was to be filmed at Danvers State. Anderson had taken advantage of an initiative by the Massachusetts Film Office to attract filmmakers by allowing free use of any abandoned state-run property. The plot concerned an asbestos-removal crew who get swept up in the evil spirits still radiating from the ruins. Although there was a fairly big star (David Caruso) in the cast, the real main attraction was obvious. From the aerial shots of its massive gothic outline, right down to the skin-crawling claustrophobia of its service tunnels, you just can’t get enough of this place. Although “Session 9” was hampered a bit by its under-developed narrative, it’s still a decent psychological thriller and a valuable time capsule since the site was redeveloped into generic-looking condos. At least the façade of the central section was kept, as seen here in a recent photo I took.
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While the behavior of some patients at these places was undoubtedly beyond the pale, the sad legacy of these state hospitals is that untold thousands were committed for reasons that would seem outrageous today (the proverbial “nervous condition” was oft-used). Cast off by unscrupulous or overwhelmed family members and ill-treated by the state, many ruined lives ended there unceremoniously. As a final indignity they often were buried on the grounds in plots marked only by a number.

Here’s my son surveying the spartan landscape of the patient’s cemetery at Danvers State.
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In the foreground is one of the recently installed memorial markers. The inscribed numbers are on small gravestones are set flush to the ground. Matching up the numbers to names is not very easy when closed-down institutions kept the records. There are efforts underway by surviving relatives to have the state do more to identify the deceased. But that’s another tangent of this topic, which has legs like few others. More of that in Part Two….

Cropsey (Doc of the Week #3)

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Cropsey
Joshua Zeman & Barbara Brancaccio–2011–84 minutes

Both Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio grew up on Staten Island in the 1970s when the Cropsey urban legend was well known. Cropsey was an all-purpose name given to alleged violent maniacs and was used by children wanting to put a scare into each other or by adults wanting to keep their kids out of the woods. The Cropsey fable was a familiar one up and down the Hudson River Valley but had special resonance around the central greenbelt of New York City’s outer-island borough, with its dense woods and disreputable state-run institutions.

In 1987, with the disappearance of a developmentally-disabled girl near the greenbelt, and further reports of other missing children, these flashlight-under-the-chin stories took on a genuinely scary aspect. Zeman and Brancaccio, both now filmmakers, return to their old haunts, so to speak, to investigate the chilling case of local drifter/creep Andre Rand. Rand was convicted for the girl’s abduction but not for her murder, even though her body was found in the woods near his makeshift encampment. They interview family members, search volunteers and law enforcement officials, most of who are convinced that Rand is responsible for the disappearance of the other missing children. An attempt is made to interview the prisoner himself, but after a series of increasingly bizarre letters sent from his Riker’s Island cell, the obtuse Rand elects to keep his own counsel.

Is Andre Rand the real Cropsey? The greater canvas on which this tragedy is painted is the greenbelt area itself. It had been home to a tuberculosis ward, a poor farm and the Willowbrook State School, a notorious institution that once housed, in the most appalling conditions imaginable, New York’s most severely mentally disabled children (Rand had once been employed there as an orderly). The ghostly abandoned hulk of the school, and the extensive tunnel system underneath it, still seem to echo with awful institutional memories. It is a perfect location for some real life scares as Zeman and Brancaccio decide it would be a great idea to grab their camera and tour the buildings at night alone.

“Cropsey” succeeds so well because it can work on different levels—as a crime story, a look at the bad karma that rebounds from societal abuses and for it’s built-in appeal for the urban explorer crowd or just those with fond memories of “The Blair Witch Project.” Underlying the whole film is a sense of the power of place in our lives, and the enigmatic hold it can have on people is shown on the faces of uneasy residents who find it hard to discern “the facts from the folklore.” Even in our self-absorbed electronic age, these feelings emanating out from the natural world still hold sway, as they have done since time immemorial. It is interesting to note the misgivings of a Native American tribe that inhabited Staten Island long before Dutch settlers arrived. They named it Aquehonga Monocknong—“the place of the bad woods.”