The history of mental asylums drove the movie industry to shoot films in abandoned asylums.
In movies, especially in Hollywood, abandoned asylums are depicted as scary places where the mentally ill are tortured or chained, making the asylum a haunted place. The word “asylum” came from early institutions, often connected to religion, that offered shelter and protection to the mentally ill. One of the oldest examples was Bethlem, which started in 1247 as part of the Priory of the New Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem in London.
Before asylums existed, people with mental illness or learning disabilities were mostly taken care of by their families. Those who couldn’t be kept at home often faced extreme poverty and had to beg for food and shelter. In the 1700s, a few private institutions were available for wealthy families to send their “mad” relatives for care discreetly. People experiencing poverty relied on local parishes, which sometimes provided charity-funded asylums, while others ended up in workhouses or prisons.
In the old days, psychiatric hospitals were closely connected to all hospitals in America. When the first public and private hospitals were established in the early 18th century, they recognized the importance of providing care and treatment for people with severe mental illnesses. Initially, these individuals would stay with their families and receive treatment at home, just like people with physical conditions. Their communities were accepting and understanding of their unusual thoughts and behaviors.
“Asylum Scandals” by Patricia Lubeck
In the book “Asylum Scandals,” Patricia Lubeck reveals the shocking truth about Minnesota’s asylums from 1867 to 1915. Using thorough research and firsthand accounts, Lubeck uncovers the disturbing things that happened at St. Peter State Hospital and Rochester State Hospital. The book presents real evidence from patients, families, workers, and media reports that witnessed the terrible conditions in these asylums.
Lubeck tells many stories of patients being mistreated, ignored, and given inhumane treatment. There were even cases of murder. What is incredibly distressing is that patients were often admitted based on suspicions of insanity without enough evidence to support those claims. The book shows how these institutions had terrible practices and lacked proper oversight. It highlights the urgent need for changes and better care standards.
Some Movies are set in real mental asylums.
Many movies are set in asylums, but not all films are in real ones. This list includes examples of movies that chose to use real asylums as locations, even though they may not accurately portray life and treatment in these institutions. These famous and less well-known movies spend a significant part of their story in actual asylums that were either still operating or had already closed. The asylum setting plays an essential role in these movies.
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Winona Ryder acquired the rights to Susanna Kaysen’s autobiography and collaborated with James Mangold to create a film adaptation. Ryder played a young woman diagnosed with a personality disorder and sent to an asylum. The film, renamed Claymoore Hospital, was shot at Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg State Hospital, an actual asylum that opened in 1851 and closed in 2006. The movie authentically portrays the period by utilizing the exact location. While some characters may conform to stereotypes, the film’s genuine feel comes from its connection to the site and attempt to humanize patients’ experiences instead of exploiting them.
Grave Encounters (2011)
Grave Encounters is a debut film by Colin and Stuart Ortiz about a fake team of ghost hunters who spend a night in an abandoned asylum for a TV show. The movie provides superficial scares with a tight story, eerie visuals, and characters who become more sympathetic as they face terrifying situations. The team uses typical tricks of such shows, like bribing a groundskeeper and faking reactions to ghosts. Real strange events start happening as the night progresses, creating a nightmarish scenario. Filming took place in a recently closed asylum in Canada, giving the movie a modern and less deteriorated look but still creating a creepy atmosphere.
Shutter Island (2010)
Martin Scorcese’s film, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel from 2003, combines elements of horror, psychological thriller, and police investigation. Two U.S. Marshals go to Shutter Island, a high-security psychiatric hospital called Ashecliffe. Their mission is to find an escaped murderer, but they uncover unexpected connections to the mysterious institution. While there was no actual asylum in a war fortification like depicted in the movie, the film accurately portrays the asylum’s interior and exterior, including features like the grounds and solariums. External shots were filmed at Medfield State Hospital in Massachusetts, blending with other locations and CGI to create the fictional asylum.