THE EMPATHY ROOM
by Chris R. Morgan
October is the peak month for thrill seeking, or at least thrill seeking of a kind. And certainly for the fan of horror there is no better time. We are reminded of it through the instantaneous sprouting up of “haunted house” amusement parks the nation over. Every year, it seems, each one tries to outdo the other—and certainly themselves—in delivering the most visceral scares that blur the line between the cinematic and the real. Some places test the boundaries more than others. But for some even this is not sufficient for their needs. Inevitably even the most psychologically nimble of these roadside attractions have a very middlebrow appeal, leaving some thirsty for the desire to be frightened in a more authentic manner. And those with an added adventurous compulsion know precisely where to look.
In Brad Anderson’s elegantly economic 2001 cult horror film Session 9, a HAZMAT crew is hired to rid the long-closed Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts of its asbestos. Cash-strapped with a new baby and competing with other bids, the leader of the five-person crew (Peter Mullan) pledges to clean the 700,000 sq. ft. building in one week. As the film progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that that estimate will not be met for reasons other than lopsided logistics. I admit that’s a simplistic gloss, but Session 9, like most good horror films, is ever at the mercy of its atmospherics. And while this film has been little seen over 15 years, its few viewers hold it as an exceptional case, and not without justice.
Session 9 was filmed on location at the Danvers complex, or at least those few parts where it was safe to film. Anderson used this space very wisely, almost entirely relying on natural light and shadow to set his mood. One of the most memorable scenes has a nyctophobic crewmember frantically trying to outrun the encroaching darkness of an underground tunnel as each light behind him goes out. Though this was not the first horror film to be set in a mental health institution, this was one of several horror films that came in the wake of The Blair Witch Project’s innovative and effective use of natural and abandoned space within notable budget strictures. Yet even compared to both predcessor and successors, the film is an aesthetic marvel, not merely because it is not in the found footage mold, but because it seems to have studied most carefully how to reproduce the realistic gothic of “urban exploration” photography onto moving film.
Humanity is ever trying to work through its complex and not altogether rational relationship to place. Urban exploration is one of that tendency’s more popular outcomes, proliferating throughout the ‘00s as the internet was able to accommodate it more and more. In some ways it has been instrumental, such as in documenting the decline of the rust belt. The website Detroiturbex, for instance, applied it most powerfully when they took photos of an abandoned Detroit high school and fit photos from its yearbooks that matched the rooms they shot. But urban exploration sits in the cloudy limbo above hobby and just below legitimate art. Its aesthetic tics are fairly uniform with no individual luminaries readily standing out, save maybe some popular websites; from this the more critical designation “ruins porn” becomes clear. It is an obsessive’s medium, and it is nowhere more evident than in the attention it gives to abandoned mental health asylums.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, photographing asylums makes sense. These secluded eyesores of institutional uselessness practically beckon extensive, often haunting, documentation. And they are not without their teachable moments of an ongoing habit of overlapping social services with warehousing. Yet that is not quite the end that is achieved. While photographers, familiar with a building’s contours and dangers, may grasp its historical context, a good portion of their audience are likely not as privy, perhaps even willfully so. Whereas one can mildly despair at a dilapidated school or house, or become awed by the decay of a once-great factory, an asylum’s link to a specialized kind of suffering is more inclined to stir the imagination than sober reflection. While one could generously find wonder in channeling the creative prowess through the sighting of a single broken wheelchair, empty hydrotherapy tubs, or a legless doll, the overall effect is one of collective voyeurism and projection ex post facto.
Rigid moralist that I am, I have tried to lay blame on this phenomenon but with imprecise results. It’s difficult to scold a film as good as Session 9 and loop it in with the scores of far worse ones that have come in its wake. Calling for the ban, and even the limp criticizing, of “ghost hunting” shows, which only enable morbid fantasy, is a similarly foolish undertaking. There requires a certain dynamism in addressing the woefully learned lessons of mental illness, and of suffering generally. Indeed, using the models already in place, appropriating their means for markedly if not wildly different ends, will allow for such a redress to be undertaken. More to the point, we’ll be applying all of the existing models.
Last October, demolition for the Greystone Park Psychiatric Center was completed after six months. Built in 1876, it was the second mental health facility in the state of New Jersey, following the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum in Trenton, the overpopulation of which Greystone had been built to alleviate. Like Danvers and Trenton, it followed the unnervingly bat-like scheme of the Kirkibride model, though in the annals of asylum history, Greystone’s reputation is comparably mundane. Trenton, for instance, had been run for over 20 years by Dr. Henry Cotton, who believed mental illness was a physical symptom and racked up an egregious mortality rate performing unnecessary surgical removals of teeth, tonsils, spleens, colons, ovaries, etc. Greystone’s decline was a gradual and entirely predictable one, within 20 years of its opening, the hospital was overcrowded, and it remained so even as the complex was expanded to house patients in the thousands. A modern facility was built behind the old one, which finally closed in 2008.
As far as I know, no development proposal has been accepted, so assuming that there is still time, I’d like to propose my own: rebuild Greystone; brick for brick, acre for acre.
I admit this request is odd given that the push to preserve the original building so obviously failed, but what I propose is significantly distinct from mere preservation. It is not my intention to restore Greystone to its late Gothic glory, to have it stand frozen in time, syphoning the state purse, while people rent it out for weddings, play Kan Jam on its grounds, and/or “contemplate” its legacy. This country is full of museums and exhibitions dedicated to recalling the brutalities of the past. I am not interested in things that are no more, but things that are perpetual.
Just as there is a Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, there shall be a Greystone Empathy Center in Morris Plains. Like the former complex, Greystone will become a fully functioning, interactive center, but rather than with the fruits of the natural world and technology it will be with the fruits of human experience. Culture is not wanting in documentation of the institutionalized mentally ill: Titicut Follies, Children of Darkness, and Geraldo Rivera’s Willowbrook exposé are chief among them. But there is a difference between the clinical distance from which these films are watched and the clinical experience in which patrons of the Center will be immersed.
We cannot, of course, reproduce the effects of mental illness, but we can reproduce the schematics with which abnormal behavior has long been contained. Here one will not find recreations of brutal quackery, but instead the ever present habits of institutional indifference such as clerical incompetence, negligent quality of life, impossibly disproportionate workloads, treatment as discipline and convenience rather than rehabilitation, extended isolation, and all the psychological effects that flow from them. At any given time patrons will either experience this from the view of the patient or the caretaker, not unlike the Stanford prison experiment but with the institutional rot more or less built in.
But of course we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just one kind of experience. With this space we will expose visitors to the pain and power of others in all their variety. Indeed, each room in the new facility may contain a different situation where one’s experience, ethics, and emotional responses will be set aside in favor of new ones, whether that of a victim or a perpetrator, a figure of authority or its (willing or unwilling) subject. Our performative sources will be myriad: historical records and reports, theoretical works, the Stanford experiment, the Milgram experiment, the drama of Sarah Kane, The Twilight Zone, Model UN exercises, etc.
For those who ask how visitors will be attracted to the Greystone Empathy Center, the answer is clearly: the same way they are drawn to any other attraction. This works just as the roadside haunted houses work, which boast similarly extreme sensory onslaughts—Knott’s Berry Farm may have had to discontinue the “mental institution” portion of its own Halloween event, but that theme is surely being tried in smaller operations. The Center will no doubt appeal to these types of people and related adventurers who are looking to “level up” and to “intensify” the contours of their preset reality. That they will come away from it with a deeper, more nuanced, and uneasily forgettable understanding of social relationships, the burdens and blessings of power, the fragility of freedom, and the contingency of life is neither here nor there. It is certainly worth the price of admission, which will be fair but steady enough to not burden the pockets of the people.
(Image: still from Frederick Wiseman’s Titcut Follies.)