Private Tour of the Abandoned Asylum
By Jeff Salter
I’ve had a LOT of frightening experiences in my six decades, and that doesn’t even count being scared to death by multiple horror movies (when I was much too young to watch them). One such spooky film – which you’ll need to remember later in this story – was Roger Corman’s scary 1961 version of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. [In the closing scene, Barbara Steele – locked inside an iron maiden – stares mutely as the film’s hero locks the dungeon’s iron door and emotes, “never to be opened again.”]
Keep that image of (fright film maven) Barbara Steele in your head for a bit.
Notwithstanding many cinematic chills, one real-life scary incident truly stands out: when I was transplanted from Louisiana to Iowa for my sophomore year of high school.
We moved to Iowa because my Dad had been hired as Protestant Chaplain at the [State] Mental Hospital in Mt. Pleasant. It was an expansive complex of buildings set on vast acreage which even included large fish ponds, a recently-functioning dairy operation, and a sizeable farm (which, at one time, provided food for the patients).
The Iowa Lunatic Asylum – first in the state – was constructed outside Mt. Pleasant in 1861, definitely during the “snake pit” era. Much of that building was lost to a fire in 1936. It was later called the Iowa [or State] Hospital for the Insane. When my Dad worked there, it was simply Mt. Pleasant Mental Hospital.
Our house, one of some half-dozen still standing on those grounds at that point, was on Asylum Drive … close enough to the wards that I could often hear a particularly distressed patient wail into the night … if my bedroom window was open.
The main complex of ‘new’ buildings – presumably built in the late 1930s (after the fire) – looked old even in the mid-1960s. Behind and to one side (as I recall) were the oldest buildings when I was there –– and I believe those empty structures were all that remained of the 1909 facilities.
I forget how it came about, but we set out on a tour of those old, abandoned wards one day in September 1965. It was Dad, my older brother, my younger sister, and me [not my Mom’s cup of tea]. I believe there were two locked wards, both multi-story, and both connected to the main complex by a covered, elevated walkway. The top floors were leaking badly and must have been open to the roof in places, because pigeons were everywhere. Just entering that ancient facility was a pretty somber experience, but examining the drab, small rooms was downright spooky.
The lower we went, the more dismal things appeared — especially spaces I assumed had been confinement rooms. In some of those small chambers, I saw spots on the walls where chains may have been anchored in darker days. We also found two leather restraint cuffs – with which forearms are overlapped and wrists secured … and both covered (from elbow to elbow) by a stiff leather ‘muff’. One had bloodstains on the outside. [This was presumably to protect distraught patients from harming themselves, but one can imagine other punishing reasons for such restraints.]
Every spot in that older section looked somber and horrific and I could only imagine what it must have been like to be confined there — how horrible to be an inmate in such a primitive asylum.
The basement was the darkest floor, since there was almost no daylight through the grimy, tiny barred windows. [In fact, there might not even have been any windows. When we got to this level, we probably had only the illumination from my Dad’s flashlight.]
The hair on the back of my neck was already standing and goose bumps covered my arms … merely from the oppressive atmosphere of this horrible place. The only sounds on that lowest level were our own footsteps among the scattered rubble … and occasional noises of large rodents in the walls or nearby rooms.
Suddenly, a faint, but unmistakable cry: “Help … Help.” Everybody froze. Or … I might have jumped 10 feet. Possibly both. I probably would have run to outdoor safety … if only I had remembered the correct way through that maze of corridors.
My heart still zapped a thousand beats a minute … when we (again) heard the same weak, anguished cry, “Help.”
In the imagination of this highly-spooked nearly-15-year-old, the actress Barbara Steele must surely have been incarcerated in this old asylum cellar, just waiting for her rescue!
I no longer remember who looked first, but logically it was my brother, nearly 18. I also peered through the cracks in the boarded up door … into that dark chamber from whence had come those plaintive cries for help.
Couldn’t see much of anything at first. Then a dark shape. A small form … moving toward the cracks in that door!
I’m sure I was only seconds from wetting my pants, when we finally saw the figure was only a tiny, undernourished kitten! With the kitten in sight, that plaintive cry for help was definitely a pitiful “meow.” But when you’re exploring a dark, abandoned asylum with a single dim flashlight, anything that ordinarily says ‘meow’ … surely does sound like it’s crying “Help!”
One thing I learned from this experience – which, I believe, has helped my writing – is that often what we expect to find … influences how we perceive sights, smells, and sounds. Yeah, even a kitten’s meow.
What’s one of your scariest experiences?
Did it stay scary … or turn out to be something silly?