When I spent two summers in a program at Ellis Island, there were instances when we had to pass through the defunct places on the property—areas that weren’t open to the public. While I never walked through any distinctly cold spots or heard anyone speaking or knocking, there were distinct vibrations. Places that have seen surges of human life, in such a concentration, cannot remove the stamp of that humanity.
The same can be said for abandoned and haunted asylums and hospitals. These facilities, meant to assist people with mental illness and disabilities, often saw their patients mistreated at the hands of staff who didn’t fully understand their conditions, or didn’t care to understand. These individuals have left an indelible mark on the grounds and buildings of the asylums that they took refuge in. We’ve rounded up abandoned and haunted asylums that will chill even the most fearless of paranormal enthusiasts.
In the early 20th century, a group of revolutionary thinkers sought to change the way mentally and physically disabled people were treated. Letchworth Village seemed like a step in a new direction. The center encompassed 2,300 acres of property in the rolling hillside of Rockland County, New York. At the time, patients were classified into three types of "feeble-mindedness": "idiot", "imbecile", or "moron." Families sent loved ones to Letchworth with the hope that these individuals, including many children, would receive adequate care. Those who were usually cast out now had a home. Letchworth Village was a marvel for its time—until everything changed.
The institution was overcrowded quickly. It was home to about 1,200 by 1921, then about 4,000 by the 1950s—and a lack of funding ate away at the model facility, transforming it into a nightmare mental institution. What was supposed to be a peaceful, rehabilitative setting became chaotic, dangerous, and abusive.
In 1972, Geraldo Rivera shined a light on Letchworth Village in an in-depth report for ABC News. The facility eventually closed for good in 1996, and its abandoned asylum buildings slipped into disrepair—becoming a ghost town.
When Forest Haven Asylum opened in 1925, it was exactly that—a haven and refuge for those in need, surrounded by a lush forest. The asylum was built in Laurel, Maryland, and was open for mentally impaired individuals of any age. A surge in population forced staff to focus on maintaining order instead of rehabilitation. The problem continued to snowball to such an extent that many people who were not mentally challenged, but suffering other ailments (blindness, deafness, epilepsy, etc.) were thrown into the asylum and classified as slow or underdeveloped. And as Forest Haven became more and more understaffed, abuse began rippling through the system.
By the 1970s, claims of abuse were rampant. It was determined that many of Forest Haven’s “patients” did not belong there or were not impaired enough to warrant institutionalization. Abuse claims eventually became deaths. An untold number of patients died at Forest Haven—figures are estimated to be in the hundreds. Reportedly, the bodies of the deceased were whisked to a morgue in the basement before receiving a nameless burial on the grounds.
On October 14, 1991, Forest Haven’s doors were closed for good. The total death count in this abandoned asylum will never be known, due in part to the quick practice of hauling bodies to the morgue and then burying them en masse outside.
By the early 1930s, Norwich State Hospital and Connecticut’s General Hospital for the Insane were filled to capacity with patients. A new facility was necessary. By the mid-1930s, patients were moving into Fairfield State Hospital at an alarming rate. But in November of 1941 the first hints of darkness emerged. The sudden death of a patient prompted an autopsy, which revealed that the man had been severely beaten to death. Five employees were fired. Two of the attendants were convicted of manslaughter, and one of assault.
Patient abuse was suddenly in the spotlight. So too was the notion that employees were prone to bouts of drunkenness. Although Fairfield attempted to pivot into a drug and alcohol program, the hospital died a slow death. Finally in 1995, the facility was closed. Most of the hospital’s buildings are connected by concrete tunnels, which were primarily used to move patients back and forth in bad weather. Corpses were also transported this way. The buildings of the hospital are both closed and boarded up, although enterprising ghost hunters have found more than a few ways inside to explore this haunted asylum.
Its particularly brutal history has reportedly made Beechworth home to some of the most intense paranormal activity in the area. The Grevilla Wing was where patients waited for electro-shock therapy. Visitors today report that the area is icy cold.
There are a number of patients and doctors who some believe still wander the halls of this haunted asylum, even in death. One woman was pushed out the window because another patient wanted her cigarettes. The chilling vision of her body, lying where it fell from the window, has been seen by a number of visitors.
Once a patient was admitted to Beechworth (or any asylum of the era) it was nearly impossible to be discharged. Approximately one third of all patients who entered Victorian Australia's network of asylums never made it out alive. By the time the asylum closed its doors for good in 1995, numerous patients had died during its 128-year reign.
In 1895, the Illinois General Assembly passed a provision to establish the ominously-named Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane. In 1907, the hospital dropped the word "incurable" and became the Illinois General Hospital for the Insane. Then, in 1909, it traded all that in and become the Peoria State Hospital.
At its peak, the hospital housed around 2,800 patients. When its closure was announced only 20 years later, that number had dropped to 600. Peoria State Hospital was officially abandoned in 1973.
The Pennhurst State School and Asylum, originally called the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, was authorized for construction in 1903. When admitted, patients were classified physically as either "imbecile" or "insane"; classified mentally as "healthy" or "epileptic"; and classified dentally as having teeth either "good", "poor", or "treated." As time went on, the institution would be pressured to also house and hold immigrants, criminals, and orphans. It became the solution for ridding society of everyone they cruelly deemed “undesirable'.'
In 1968, a young reporter did a short TV series on Pennhurst, which was the first that most people had even heard of the institution. Allegations of abuse surfaced in the following years. It wasn’t until 1987, however, that the asylum was finally abandoned.
As of 2010, one building was partially reopened as the Pennhurst Asylum Haunted House. Some visitors claim to hear voices, shrieks, and murmurs of pain from former residents and inmates of the haunted asylum.
Built in 1874 and originally intended for tending to tuberculosis patients, Athens Lunatic Asylum housed patients far over its capacity for most of its functioning years. This overcrowding led to a degradation in the hospital's quality of care, until the staff eventually began outright abusing its patients.
Athens, also called the Ridges, is notable because of its infamous physician Dr. Walter Jackson. Dr. Jackson was a proponent of the transorbital lobotomy, calling it the cure-all for every mental illness. He performed over 200 lobotomies during his time there.
While there were hundreds of deaths while the hospital was open, the most famous is that of Margaret Schilling. She went missing while on the ward, and no one noticed—or likely cared. Over a month later, her body was found in a locked room in an abandoned part of the tuberculosis ward. Her body left a gruesome stain on the ward floor that can still be seen today.
The Trans-Allegheny hospital opened its doors in 1864, just in time to begin admitting soldiers from the Civil War. At the time, there was no formalized understanding of shellshock or post traumatic stress disorder. The doctors treated their understandably-traumatized patients by doling out lobotomies and implementing other brutal tactics.
During the century it was in operation, thousands of patients died. Most were buried in mass graves on the grounds. Its most famous patient, Charles Mason, lived there in the latter years of the hospital’s functioning. After decades of mistreatment and abuse, the Trans-Allegheny closed its doors in 1994. You can now visit the Trans-Allegheny with one of the tours of the haunted asylum—maybe don’t stay overnight, though.
On October 12, 1773, the first insane asylum in the United States opened its doors. Located in Williamsburg, Virginia, the “Publick Hospital” had been chartered three years prior. It was established “for the support and maintenance of Ideots, Lunaticks, and Other Persons of Unsound Minds” who, whether founded or not, were deemed threatening to society. Realistically, there was little actual support for these unfortunate people. Before the establishment of the hospital, mentally unstable individuals were actually judged by a jury rather than a doctor, and classified as a "criminal", a "lunatic", or an "idiot."
Inmates were restrained and "treated" with plunge baths, electric shocks, and bloodletting. On June 7, 1885, an electrical fire burned the asylum to the ground: it was replaced by what is today known as the Eastern State Hospital. The ghosts of the original asylum are still reported to haunt the property—specifically that of Dr. John Galt.
In 1841, Dr. Galt had taken over as the facility’s superintendent. His spirit is said to roam the hospital grounds at night, presumably in search of his mishandled patients. This haunted asylum also has reports of muffled voices and knocking on the walls, usually in the evenings and on weekends. On one occasion, a maintenance worker vehemently claimed to have seen the shadow of a wheelchair.
Central State Hospital is more than a lone abandoned insane asylum—it is a veritable ghost town, once consisting of nearly 200 structures spread across 2,000 acres outside of Milledgeville, Georgia. Doctors at Central State used numerous brutal treatments, including lobotomies, insulin shock therapy, and electro-convulsive therapy without sedation. Other procedures included isolation therapy, ice-cold baths, and, if all else failed, straitjackets.
The institution officially closed in 2010, though a few administrative buildings remained in operation. The majority of the once-stately Central State, however, now lies abandoned.
Rolling Hills Asylum, originally called "Genesee County Poor Farm," was created as a “poorhouse.” The term was used throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries to describe state-run compounds that housed orphans, the poor, petty criminals, the mentally ill, and anyone else deemed unfit for mainstream society. While such asylums were ostensibly created to protect the vulnerable, they often ended up marginalizing them further—residents were called “inmates,” regardless of their reason for living at the "poorhouse." Able-bodied inmates were forced to work the land, caring for animals and sustaining the community.
Many spent the remainder of their lives inside; there are up to 1,700 documented deaths at Rolling Hills, and likely many more that went unmentioned. Those who died were buried in unmarked graves on the property. Today, visitors can spend hours at the site, participating in various tours and exploring the once-populated farm. Many claim to experience various disturbing paranormal activity, ranging from disembodied voices and doors forced shut, to screams in the night and flickering shadow people.
Opened in 1876, Ontario’s Century Manor Insane Asylum was a beautiful facility for the region’s psychiatric patients. The building itself, built on a hill with a stunning view of Hamilton, was thought to calm the most troubled of minds. If the scenery didn’t do the trick (which it often did not), doctors frequently turned to shock therapy and lobotomies for treatment. Other procedures included salt rubs, morphine injections, and locking patients in a coffin-like crib.
Making a ghastly situation even worse was the tradition of Hamilton residents treating the asylum as entertainment. Locals often brought picnic baskets to the grounds and had a laugh at the behaviors of patients. Locals also knew to listen for the steam whistle alarm, which signaled the escape of a seriously ill individual, and served as a warning to usher playing children inside. The facility became a museum in the 1980s, and is now part of the Hamilton Ghost Tour circuit.
Opening in 1869, Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane was once the largest asylum in the United States, and was in operation until 1995. Part of the campus continues to operate as a New York State rehabilitation facility. Consequently, the unused portion of Willard was originally off-limits to the public. However, public interest in the site’s history, not to mention the desire to see if spirits still linger within, led officials to open the building once a year for tours.
Similar to the other abandoned intuitions on this list, the fate of many of Willard’s patients are unknown—though in 1995, some 400 patient suitcases were uncovered in the attic. Fair warning: the announcements of these yearly tours are often hard to track down for anyone living outside the Finger Lakes region.
Built in 1910, the 300-acre asylum once housed more than 2,000 patients. Designed on the then-popular “Echelon Plan” of asylum construction, the hospital was composed of wards, offices, and service rooms linked together by corridors. The result was a sprawling complex of interconnected buildings where one could walk for hours without ever stepping outside.
Despite several attempts at redevelopment, Severalls Hospital remains empty. Its ruins are a popular destination for urban explorers—though the area has been fenced off and is regularly patrolled by security. Such measures haven’t stopped intrepid travelers from making their way inside and emerging with photographs that are haunting, beautiful, and ominous in equal measure.
The Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, originally the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum, was founded in 1848 by mental health advocate Dorothea Lynde Dix. In 1907, Dr. Henry Cotton became the hospital’s medical director. Cotton seemed a fine fit for the forward-thinking facility. He instituted occupational therapy programs and eliminated mechanical restraints used to subdue patients. Unfortunately, Cotton’s barbaric approach to mental health soon turned the center into a hospital of horrors.
Cotton claimed to have achieved cure rates near 90 percent during his tenure–yet his death numbers were disturbingly high. What’s worse, many of his victims were dragged against their will into the operating room. While he died in 1933, remnants of Dr. Cotton’s practices continued well into the second half of the twentieth century. Eventually, the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital forsook his brutal methods and certain wings of the campus fell into abandonment.
In May of 1856, renowned English psychiatrist and photographer Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond delivered an astonishing lecture to the Royal Society of Medicine. His presentation was of a paper he had recently published, entitled “On the Application of Photography to the Physiognomic and Mental Phenomena of Insanity.” It advocated a strange new role for film in the burgeoning field of psychiatric medicine. By using a camera to capture the pained expressions of his female patients, so Dr. Diamond contended, he could identify and diagnose their mental disorders.
Diamond’s research stemmed from the pseudoscience of physiognomy–the belief that a person’s disposition is embedded in his or her physical appearance, especially the face. Diamond displayed the portraits of his patients at photographic exhibitions, as well, although the shows received mixed reviews. While his attempt to merge psychiatry with photography may have proved unsuccessful, his truly haunting images of sorrow and psychosis endure.
The Waverly Hills Sanatorium was once an incredibly active tuberculosis hospital, but after years of abandonment, it is now a chilling sight in Louisville, Kentucky. Those who worked at the sanatorium lived on site and were expected to forget about their lives outside of the hospital. The sanatorium had its own post office, zip code, water facility, and farm, making it an entirely self-contained compound.
Scores of people died in the sanatorium—one widely circulated estimate puts the number at a staggering 63,000, though the figure is likely far lower, around 5,500-6,500. In any case, many believe the spirits of these patients haunt the Waverly grounds to this day. Perhaps these spirits have unfinished business or are still tormented by the questionable procedures that tuberculosis patients underwent at the Waverly Hills Sanatorium.
Located just a few miles from downtown LA, Rancho Los Amigos was originally created in 1888 to assist people living in poverty. Here, they could work in exchange for care from the local government. Over time, the grounds were expanded and the space evolved into a hospital. Eventually, it grew to include a mental hospital. Though the hospital itself is still in use, it has moved to another location.
In the 1950s, it began to shut down its wards, including the mental hospital. Along the way, some gruesome secrets were discovered. In 2006, during a training exercise, Marines uncovered a freezer in the morgue. Inside, they found mummified amputated limbs and brain tissue samples that were left behind from when the hospital was abandoned.
Creedmoor Psychiatric opened in 1912 as the Farm Colony of Brooklyn State Hospital and is still running in Queens. There are some places that have been abandoned to rot: most notably, Building 25, which the hospital ceased using in 1975.
This ward gained its reputation from a series of reports documenting brutal treatments of patients. In the 1970s, rumors began to emerge about an abundance of patient abuse including rapes, murders, suicides, and beatings. In 1984, a nurse’s aid hit a patient in the throat with a blackjack. The man, Robert Venegas, was restrained in a straitjacket at the time, and died due to asphyxiation—the aide had crushed his throat.
Shortly after, the asylum was closed for good. Intrepid explorers still explore Building 25, which is now covered in pigeon excrement and filled with detritus from its former days—and maybe even a few ghosts.
Featured photo: Jon Butterworth / Unsplash