Disclaimer: E.C.P.S. does not condone the illegal and dangerous trespassing of any abandoned buildings.
Note: E.C.P.S. distinguishes between spiritual activity in a given location as either “spirited” or “haunted," with the latter implying more aggressive, potentially harmful energy.
Abandoned Psychiatric Hospitals: Their “Haunting” Histories Part 1
Despite the decades-long effort to sweep our country’s dark history of institutionalization under the rug, decaying psychiatric hospitals still stand, dotting the entire U.S. with rubble and mystery. Most often they loom in the quiet shadows on the outskirts of town, but sometimes even hide in plain sight. In fact, some pay rent to live in a former mental institution that has since been converted to luxury apartments. Considering the lack of information under the “history” tab on these properties’ websites, typically consisting only of a prominent 19th century architect name-drop and vague descriptors that create an air of prestige (one goes so far as to call it a former “retreat”), one has to wonder how aware the residents are of the former life their building once had.
As many of us know, the manner in which deinstitutionalization was carried out encouraged society to immediately turn a blind eye in an act of silent and collective forgetting - or at least pretending to. And, it’s been fairly successful, as even the thousands upon thousands of acres of American soil that these buildings still claim have remarkably not been enough to inspire public discussion larger than internet forums in certain corners of the web. Rather, behind closed doors development plans are made and increasingly executed to seal the fate of these structures in one final display of erasure.
However, conversational awareness about these buildings has been reignited in recent years within a particular niche: the paranormal. Why is that? What is it about these buildings that pulls so many people to explore them, hoping to catch evidence of supernatural activity? Why are they seemingly an inspiration for haunted attractions in October? Are they actually home to the spirits of former patients?
Probably the first explanation that comes to mind for many people as to why these places are thought to be spirited is that dark, unspoken history. The mistreatment and abuse that patients suffered at the hands of those who were supposed to ensure their safety and cherish their trust most is outside comprehension, and it certainly troubled those souls far beyond the reasons they were initially committed. It’s a long standing concept that those who lived painful lives aren’t always able to be at peace in death, and are bound to the place where they never received the resolution or justice they were owed.
The Mansfield Training School in Mansfield, CT, established in 1917 as a result of the merging of the Connecticut School for Imbeciles (yes, you read that right) in Lakeville, which was renamed the Connecticut Training School for the Feeble Minded (yup), with the Connecticut Colony for Epileptics, is one local example of a former institution within the state that’s rumored to contain paranormal activity for such reasons. Dr. George H. Knight, son and successor of the founder of the Lakeville school, was a strong and vocal advocate for the forced sterilization and isolation of those with disabilities, so the discriminatory nature of the facility’s functions was present early on. Like many psychiatric institutions at the time, the patient population skyrocketed above the determined maximum capacity by the hundreds, and overcrowding became a serious concern. Eventually, the school was closed in 1993 due to a 1978 lawsuit by family members concerned about the conditions and quality of care within the building.
Rumors of mistreatment occurring at the Mansfield Training School have circled for many years, and under the previously mentioned assumption that tortured souls cannot find eternal rest, this has inspired many to take serious risks in search of evidence that spirits are harbored there. There are claims of disembodied voices, shadow figures, children’s handprints appearing, and some say they’ve caught electronic voice phenomena (EVP).
I’ve noticed, however, that there seems to be another reason many view former psychiatric hospitals as haunted locations, believing that negative, oppressive or even evil energy resides there. This reason doesn’t so much have to do with the experiences patients were put through while there, but rather what brought (or forced) them to the hospital in the first place. Stigma against those with mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, personality disorders and more runs back far and deep in the fabric of our history. These people were committed largely due to the fact that their suffering was considered a threat and potential danger to society. Although research has since shown us that people who live with these mental health conditions are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, the stigmatizing assumptions are still alive today, particularly against illnesses that affect a drastically smaller percentage of the population than anxiety and depression do.
It’s interesting that this mindset, which seems to have evolved from a centuries old belief that mental illness is really the manifestation of demonic possession, prevails in the face of science and research.* Symptoms of these diagnoses such as hallucinations and delusions, mania, and lack of self-identity are unusual concepts for most of the population, and when it comes to approaching the unfamiliar, we’re usually led by either curiosity, or fear. The behaviors that some individuals with these diagnoses exhibit as a result of their symptoms are similarly considered apart from the “norm,” and can be startling to the average person. For example, pacing, disorganized speech, self-harm, and shouting. And although these behaviors are actually no indication whatsoever that one should fear for their own safety around that person, they’re usually avoided with a wide berth when walking past on the streets.
*I want to clarify that for the purposes of this post, I’m only referring to mainstream Western cultural interpretations, not the completely valid beliefs of cultures around the world.
The reality is, these people are more similar to the rest of us than we may realize. If you were stuck in a brain that showed you what appeared clearly to be real human beings right before your eyes attempting to harm you, you would most likely act in some ways that you may consider irrational as an onlooker. But when considering the reality being shown internally on a neurological level outside of control, it’s actually quite a rational response. I would go so far as to say that remaining perfectly calm, unless using therapeutic tools, would be more irrational.
Chances are also high that someone in your life whom you consider high functioning and capable would have been locked up in one of these institutions. Many women spent their entire lives institutionalized after being committed simply for menstruating, or for disagreeing with their husbands’ religious beliefs. A couple centuries before that, they could’ve been accused of witchcraft for the same things. So my question is, is our association of hauntings, frightening spirits, and demonic entities with these abandoned hospitals actually the most recently evolved form of an ancient stigma against people with mental illnesses? Is this common Western perspective simply human nature’s tendency to fear the unknown? Something unknown due to the lack of education and understanding of mental illnesses, especially during the period of institutionalization when mental ableism was at an all-time high? And therefore, even the medical language used to describe patients at the time was discriminatory?
I don’t have the answer, but it’s important and beneficial to reflect on what influences our beliefs, and whether stigma and prejudice are factors. We cannot help the world we were born into, thus we may unknowingly adopt outlooks rooted in something that actually doesn’t align with our core values. But we do have the power to unravel and reshape our perspectives to create a more positive and informed influence going forward.
Time will tell what happens to these cold, dilapidated structures, and whether or not the spotlight will finally be shone on them and their ugly histories. I personally hope to see educational opportunities created from them. Yet as things progress, it seems more likely they will continue to be remembered only as potential locations for future development plans, until they’re eventually crumbled by hurried, economically-driven human forces. In the meantime, if not already offering a new life with a swimming pool and yoga studio, they will continue to be slowly engulfed in the weeds and vines of nature’s powerful hold, reminding those who are tuned in of what is truly terrifying: the stories that should’ve been told which we will never know.
Mansfield training school records. (n.d.). CT State Library. Retrieved July 3, 2023, from
Ontario Human Rights Commission. (n.d.). Ableism, negative attitudes, stereotypes and
stigma. OHRC. https://rebrand.ly/5vb6z43
Pouba, K. & Tianen, A. (2006). Lunacy in the 19th century: Women’s admission to asylums in
United States of America. Oshkosh Scholar. Retrieved July 17, 2023 from
Subu, M., Holmes, D., Arumugam, A., Al-Yateem, A., Dias, J., Rahman, S., Waluyo, I., Ahmed,
F., & Abraham, F. (2022). Traditional, religious,and cultural perspectives on mental
illness: a qualitative study on casual beliefs and treatment use. International Journal of
Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 17(1).