Scared Silly

                              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 Incident
            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?

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About jeff7salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Eleven completed novels. "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- scheduled for April 2015 -- Dingbat Publishing. "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- scheduled for June 2015 -- TouchPoint Press. "The Duchess of Earl" -- scheduled for 2015 -- Dingbat Publishing. "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 -- Astraea Press. "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 -- screwball comedy -- Dingbat Publishing. "Hid Wounded Reb" -- part of the Somerset Series -- Aug. 2014 -- Astraea Press. "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- screwball comedy -- Dec. 2013 -- Dingbat Publishing. "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 -- Astraea Press "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" (comedic romance) -- Oct. 2012 -- Astraea Press. "The Overnighter's Secrets" (romantic suspense) -- May 2012 -- Astraea Press. Two novellas published so far (both by Astraea Press): "Don't Bet On It" -- April 2014 "Echo Taps" -- June 2013 Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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24 Responses to Scared Silly

  1. Tonya Kappes says:

    CREEPY!!! Um. . .I’m so boring. I hate the dark so I have never put myself in a scary situation. I’m a big ole baby!

    • jeff7salter says:

      Maybe so, Tonya. but I’ll bet those young teenaged boys of yours just LOVE doing spooky stuff like this.

  2. Lisa L Greer says:

    I’ve had a few scary experiences that I can’t explain away. Once I was home alone around age 15 and heard shattering glass. I looked around the house and didn’t find anything broken. My parents didn’t either when they returned. It was freaky. But that is the least scary of my experiences. ha.

  3. jbrayweber says:

    Oh, how I love stories like this. Thanks so much for sharing, Jeff.

    I’ve always had an interest in the creepy, in the places that make imaginations shiver. We had an old abandoned “nut house” in the town I lived. It wasn’t an insane asylum, like some tales offered. It was just an abandoned , very large, dare I say, plantation home. It was definitely high on the scare factor, situated back from the road, covered in overgrown brush, ancient trees, and prickly vines. The stories of the place abound, and of course, included someone going crazy and killing his entire family – none of which is true. Never the less, a boyfriend loved to take me there to scare the bejeebers out of me. Because of my active imagination, it worked every time. LOL!


    • jeff7salter says:

      LOL, Jenn. The think about teen-aged boys scaring their dates is — I’ll bet most of those boys were just as frightened as the girls were (though trying harder NOT to show it). I know I was … whenever I was playing the ‘cave man protector’ role (as a young buck). Ha.

    • jeff7salter says:

      BTW, Jenn. Not far from my house — as a kid growing up — was a large house just like the one you described. Way off the road, abandoned for decades, grounds grown up into a small forest. We never heard any particular stories of WHY it was haunted, but we knew that to be so … anyone could tell just by LOOKING at it. I went there many times and each time it was scary.

      • jbrayweber says:

        Gotta love those old scary houses. Sadly, the “nut House” was torn down to make way for a new development. Sigh…onto the scary cemeteries. Ha!

      • jeff7salter says:

        Speaking of cemeteries — our address is ____ Cemetery Road. And the cemetery, started in March of 1863, is about 500 ft from our house.

  4. Chris Bailey says:

    I like your insight about expectations! Even if you’re not writing thrillers, a little suspense now and then is important.

    • jeff7salter says:

      Absolutely, Chris. And suspense is even a very effective tool in things like comedy.
      Not to mention … romance.

  5. Anne Kemp says:

    My scariest? Well, I’ve had a few. The one that stands out most was seeing what I thought was a ghost standing at the end of my bed when I was a little girl then I did the little kid thing where you go to scream for your Mom and Dad and nothing came out. Literally a silent scream! Yep…brave girl, here.

    • jeff7salter says:

      Okay, Anne. You’ve got me hooked. What was it? A dream? Or something physical near your bed? Or … was it a spook?

  6. Laurie Ryan says:

    I’m with your Mom. I’d have stayed home. :) So…did you keep the kitten?

    • jeff7salter says:

      LOL, Laurie. That kitten quickly scooted back into the spooky bowels of that room from when it came. The door was locked and we weren’t about to go inside that dark space. I was still quite certain that Barbara Steele was in there !

  7. Sorry I didn’t get over here yesterday. It was a nutso day.

    This story is awesome. I’ve been in the old asylum in Williamsburg and it’s pretty creepy so I could “see” this story as I read it. You guys were brave to check it out and I think it’s great that it WAS a kitty and not Barbara!

  8. Sherry Gloag says:

    I remember managing to lock myself and a friend in a cupboard when i was just a kid, No one was around at the time and it was several hours before we managed to get that door open ourselves! Much prefer having doors open in any room I am in now. :-)

  9. Tonette says:

    We have an old, abandoned asylum in Louisville that is said to be one of the most haunted places. They have tours in October…yeah, for Halloween.I don’t think it’s a good idea. No,I have never been!

    • jeff7salter says:

      I’d like to see it, for comparison purposes, if nothing else. However:
      A. I would NOT go at night
      B. I would NOT go around Halloween.
      No point in thumbing my nose at the Haints.

  10. Pingback: THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM « Written in Blood

  11. Charles says:

    I (Jeff’s brother Charles) remember this exploratory visit very well! One of the spookiest events in our lives!

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