Friday, October 13, 2006

Homicides, Suicides, Accidents and Elopements

On a list of things I love, abandoned mental institutions rank high enough to justify putting me in one. A conversation with a co-worker this morning about the best places to go pumpkin picking in the tri-state area inevitably ended with me saying something like “It’s so cool! You can just walk around and look in all the buildings. But it’s not as cool as the one in Connecticut where they did the first lobotomy!”

It’s times like this when the words that manage to escape my mouth unfiltered congregate in front of me and judge me, like a class full of remedial eighth-graders, waiting for instruction on how not to fail.

At least it’s October, and Friday the 13th to boot, and I can claim the spookiness, superstition, and general ghoulishness of the day as the reason for bringing up my decidedly weird passion. The sad truth is that I would happily talk about abandoned mental institutions on any Friday, or any day at all, but I’m still the newest of my co-workers and perhaps it’s best not to turn on the crazy light just yet.

I think I love old asylums because I hate Halloween-style haunted houses. I hate them for the same reason I hate magicians: they function on my basic biological impulses and the assumption that I am stupid. I jumped because you were screaming and running at me, you know? Not because I think you’re a ghost, a fact confirmed by having seen your mask at the mall.

But an old nuthouse? That’s perfectly creepy. It was creepy when it was full of crazies, because, you know, there but for the grace of God, and so forth. It’s creepy now that it’s empty, because hey, what’s that in the shadow over there? And it’s supremely creepy when you consider there’s a cemetery on the premises where they buried abandoned crazies, who could maybe seek revenge from the beyond the grave as robed, slippered, unstable apparitions.

Being startled is no fun, but getting the chills is fantastic.

The institution in question is the Harlem Valley State Hospital in Wingdale, New York, a monstrous campus in the middle of nowhere that stretches down both sides of a deserted highway. I saw the place for the first time as a kid after buying pumpkins at a farm nearby, and eerie quiet is the thing I remember best. The sun was setting, the place was silent, my parents were talking about mental patients, and seeds were germinating in my brain that eventually flowered into a deep love for horror movies, Lifetime movies, the abnormal chapter of my Intro to Psych textbook, and also a brief period between sixth and seventh grade where I read every V.C. Andrews novel I could buy used for a quarter.

Lest I leave my office this evening without completely alienating the person I face for eight hours a day, I googled the hospital to see if I could find pictures to show my co-worker. No luck on current photographs (besides the one that inaugurated this very blog), but I did manage to find the 1926 Board of Directors Annual Report for the State of New York.

The fact that someone bothered to transcribe this and post it on the internet is both a comfort and a worry—thank God there are other people like me who want to read antique mental reports, but, you know, watch out, there are people out there who spend their time reading antique mental reports.

Anyway, this was my favorite part:

There were no homicides or suicides during this year. There were eight accidents—three of which resulted in fractures. One, the fourth metacarpal bone of the hand, another a fracture of the left wrist, and the third was a fracture of the right ulna. Thee other accidents were of a minor nature. A number of minor injuries to employees have been reported to the State Compensation Bureau.

There were five elopements during the year. Two of these patients were found shortly after their escape and returned to the hospital. The other three were not located and were placed on parole for a period of six months.

World peace, schmorld peace. The kind of thing I pray for is that the book of my life warrants a title as fantastic as “Homicides, Suicides, Accidents and Elopements.”

I kept hoping there would be a footnote or and endnote or something to flesh out the elopements, since the only thing more fascinating than lunatics are the people who spring lunatics from asylums to marry them, but, sadly, this is all I get. The report moves on to discuss the unusually high turnover rate among the staff. They cite “unsatisfactory living conditions” as the cause, but you can’t convince me it wasn’t something much more diabolical. Like schizophrenic killers, or ghosts, or, hope against all hope, the ghosts of schizophrenic killers.

Happy Friday the 13th, guys and ghouls. To celebrate, I, for one, intend to elope with a bipoltergeist.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are you dressing up as this halloween?

6:34 PM  
Blogger What'sHerFace said...

I don't know -- chances are, I won't actually need a costume, wherever I'm going. Lame(!) but true.

11:43 AM  

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