Massive mental hospitals, some of which once housed hundreds of thousands of patients, were the primary mode of treatment for those with mental illnesses for centuries.
But by the 1960s, asylums all over the US were closing down in reaction to reports of abuse and neglect, as well as the passage of new healthcare laws that emphasised a community-based treatment approach.
As a result, many formerly packed mental hospitals have been left standing totally vacant. Over the course of six years, photographer Christopher Payne travelled to 70 of these abandoned mental hospitals all over the US, getting exclusive tours inside each. The resulting photos are chilling, yet beautiful in their own way.
Business Insider talked with Payne about his photographic journey, now collected into a book titled “Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals.” Below, see his eerie photos of abandoned mental hospitals all over the US.
Courtney Verrill wrote an earlier version of this story.
Most of the hospitals Payne photographed housed thousands of people who suffered from severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. While a majority of the hospitals have been completely abandoned, some have remained partially open, such as Kankakee State Hospital, pictured below.
Payne got access to the hospitals by submitting formal requests to state mental-health departments. 'Once a few states granted access, all the others followed suit,' Payne told Business Insider. Oregon State Hospital, pictured here, was used as the set of the well-known film 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'
Many of the hospitals were eager to share their history. Payne got exclusive tours from people who used to work there. 'Many of the (former) employees had worked at the institutions for decades, as had their parents and grandparents before them, and they were proud of their work,' Payne said.
Terrell State Hospital opened in 1885 and was known as 'North Texas Hospital for the Insane' until 1925. Before it opened, there was only one psychiatric treatment facility in Texas, and it was located in Austin. That facility had become overcrowded, and patients were often confined to county jails until Terrell State Hospital opened.
For a number of these hospitals, Payne's photographs would be their final documentation before they were demolished. Yankton State Hospital, in South Dakota, was demolished in 2009 because of a lack of use and poor maintenance. Payne took this photo shortly before it was bulldozed.
Payne travelled to 30 different states, but he found that his favourite hospitals to photograph were in Massachusetts, where he grew up.
'Danvers State Hospital (pictured below) was a beautiful Victorian Gothic structure, located on top of a hill with sweeping vistas back to Boston,' he said. 'I remember catching glimpses of it as a child, from the highway below, and when it was demolished, I felt as though I had lost a part of myself.'
Payne claimed that the inside of the hospitals were typically not as mysterious as they appeared to be from the outside. 'No ghosts inhabited the hallways,' he said.
While he didn't run into any ghosts roaming the halls, walking around still triggered certain emotions, Payne said.
'The spaces conveyed their own emotion,' Payne said. 'A sadness for being abandoned so abruptly and standing empty for so long. Working alone in the buildings, I couldn't help but feel a certain intimacy with them.' Here, you can see an autopsy theatre where students would observe human anatomy or learn new surgical techniques.
Psychiatric hospitals do still exist, but long-term healthcare for mentally ill patients is very limited. As of last year, state-run institutions housed less than one-tenth of the number of patients they did in 1955, according to The Atlantic.
In 2015, a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that reopening a number of psychiatric asylums could in fact help the largely ignored population of mentally ill.
Payne wanted to avoid negative stereotypes surrounding the mentally ill while photographing the hospitals. 'In doing so, I hope my photographs convey the value these hospitals once had in society by showing how they functioned and by making palpable the architectural history we have lost,' Payne said.
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