June 8, 2008 — Once it was a place where lobotomized maniacs shuffled in white slippers down never-ending corridors, the criminally insane drew caricatures of old victims on the walls with crayon stubs, and trembling lunatics gibbered alien syllables into slobber-drenched pillow cases. Now it’s a suburban luxury apartment complex complete with swimming pool, fitness center, and billiards lounge, all within easy commute of Boston. That’s right. The fact is the punch line.
The Danvers State Hospital in Danvers, MA, was completed in 1878 during the big sanitarium boom of that century. Apparently, the U.S. was suddenly producing mentally derailed individuals at an alarming rate. We desperately needed a place to put them, but the state of Georgia was already taken and reality television hadn’t been invented yet. Diligently scrutinizing our dictionaries, we came across the phrase “insane asylum,” and it seemed the perfect solution. All across the country, states began building asylums faster than the Amish raise barns. Many of these institutions, including Danvers, were constructed according to what was called the Kirkbride plan, after its originator, Dr. Thomas Kirkbride. His theory was that if you treated the insane well then they would get well. Or at least they would seem happy, and we wouldn’t feel as bad about their existence as reminders of the flawed genetics of our species. So these Kirkbride buildings were usually large, sprawling, architecturally interesting affairs that basically followed the same grandiose layout and were purposefully constructed in idyllic settings. Danvers was one such Kirkbride building.
Also known as the Danvers State Insane Asylum, Danvers had a central administration building with two staggered wings that made the entire construct seemed shaped like “a giant flying bat,” to quote a movie yet to be referenced. Danvers was red-bricked, many-gabled, and set like an evil queen’s castle on the crest of Hathorne Hill, a scenic hump of forested land within eye shot of Boston. At its most crowded, Danvers housed 2,400 inmates plus support staff, whose main jobs were to care for the inmates and to sometimes perform wacky experiments on them like shock treatment, hydrotherapy, prefrontal lobotomies, and whatever else was the latest fashion of the psychiatric community.
If that all sounds hard to fund, read on…um, to the next sentence. Eventually, the second law of thermodynamics set in for all these sanitariums, and the conditions of the Kirkbride asylums worsened due to budget cuts, the basic expense of keeping such expansive things running, and general overcrowding. Most of them shut down after a century or so. Danvers lasted until 1992, although it had been experiencing death spasms regularly over the preceding years.
For the next decade, Danvers sat decaying on Hathorne Hill like a stubborn, cancer-ridden vulture daring the state to put its crumbling interiors to some purpose other than as playground for urban explorers and fodder for local spook stories. Meanwhile, it grew to a new height of popularity over its sister establishments when the horror movie Session 9 was filmed within its rotting halls in the year 2000. To interject a pointless personal anecdote, I actually once caught a brief glimpse just over the treetops of Danvers’ highest spire during this period from the safe distance of a nearby Staples parking lot. I wanted to go nearer to see the whole thing, but the grounds were officially off limits and regularly patrolled by men with licenses to billy club, especially in the month of October, which was when I was in the area. People go nuts at Halloween, you know. Plus I’m chicken, no matter what the season.
A few years later in 2005, the Danvers State Hospital property, amid mildly frantic protests by preservationists, was finally sold to AvalonBay Communities, a real estate company that wanted to make the edifice a functioning and lucrative part of society. After much demolition, a large fire the cause of which was never determined, and more of those mildly frantic protests, the re-christened Avalon Danvers opened for business this year, or 2008, for those who don’t keep abreast of current events.
And just like that, a foreboding, danger-ridden property where trespassers used to be violated became a welcoming neighborhood with pristinely paved roads, evenly clipped grass, and helpful signs directing you right to the front door. I gladly accepted that invitation.
Of course, most of the original building and its outliers are now gone. The only thing really preserved was the façade of the iconic main building (the “head” of the bat). The rest were exactly what you’d think a group of new apartment buildings would look like. We drove around the entire circuit of Hathorne Circle, a road that loops around the property, without seeing anything of real interest that you couldn’t find in any other suburban klatch of mini-domiciles. It seemed like a nice place to live, honestly. The one aforementioned preserved bit is now referred to as the Kirkbride building, and even though I visited just before the official grand opening, it had already been fully tenanted. After seeing a few of those tenants enter and exit the building, we decided to go in ourselves. I was hoping it would just be an empty lobby in which we could just look around briefly and then leave, but of course there were attendants with brochures who asked if they could help us, and of course we pretended to be interested in renting an apartment on the premises. Which reminds me, I still need to finish the application. I usually follow through on my lies until they cease to become such.
But the place isn’t totally ignoring the fact that thousands of crazies insaned right there where its occupants now make home-made biscotti and watch prime-time game shows on their flat-screen televisions. Outside, a discreet distance from the front of the building, is a generic-looking memorial that I’m sure is manufactured in bulk by some wholesale retailer of memorials. Just flip through a catalogue, pick the model, and then personalize it with your own plaques. In this case, they hadn’t gotten around to affixing those plaques when I visited, so it was just a couple of benches and some angled blank stone. The only reason I really knew it was a memorial is because it was labeled as such on the apartment map outside the Kirkbride building. Some guy was sitting there in the memorial and reading a newspaper when I walked through it.
But now this story suddenly gets better (I thought I’d state it before your internal monologue did). There was one more relic of the original Danvers property that I had heard still existed, but I wasn’t sure. The cemetery of the dead Danvers insane. I know. Sounds like a badly translated Lucio Fulci film title. But just because they’re lunatics doesn’t mean they don’t die and need to be buried, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 700-800 of the unclaimed ones had been interred on the grounds throughout Danver’s history. That’s right. Unclaimed lunatic corpses. One more phrase to add to the “only on O.T.I.S.” lexicon.
Apparently, at some point, preservationists stumbled across the burial ground, which was off in the forest a ways and completely hidden in waist-high weeds and tangled undergrowth. The graves themselves were marked only by small stone pegs adorned with anonymous numbers instead of names. These causists got out their rakes and mowers, cleared the area, researched and replaced as many numbers as they could with names, and then erected a memorial in the middle of it. As part of the deal with the state, AvalonBay promised to upkeep the cemetery.
I knew the cemetery was far enough away from the apartments that it wouldn’t be immediately obvious that there was one on the premises (which is probably the big reason that AvalonBay had no problem with the existence of a hard-to-market cemetery of the dead insane within the confines of their cozy little habitat). I just wasn’t sure how far away it was. Here’s a bit of the relevant geography. In front of the Kirkbride building is a small parking lot, and then some landscaping, then Hathorne Circle, and then a sidewalk. The ground on the other side of that sidewalk slants down toward a forest. The cemetery was supposed to be somewhere in that forest. We paced along that perimeter sidewalk for a bit hoping we could see the cemetery through the foliage. We didn’t really want to go charging off down the hill and into the woods in the hopes of just lucking across it, even though the out-of-date Google satellite map that we had told us we might have to do just that. You see, the first time I was asked, “What are you doing here, sir?” instead of “What are you kids doing here?” is when I realized I was too old to be that guy anymore. Plus, chicken, remember? Turns out, though, that the cemetery is much easier to find than I was led to believe by the insubstantial crumb trail I followed on the Internet.
So here are officially the best directions on the Internet to get to it. If you’re facing the Kirkbride building, head right on the sidewalk through the memorial and all the short way to where the apartments stop and the condos begin. Downhill from the sidewalk is a small field at the end of which you can easily see the opening to the cemetery. I marked it for you on the accompanying Avalon Danvers map. Ignore the “You Are Here” part. You are not.
One of the reasons that the entrance to the cemetery is easy to see is that it’s marked by a large stone inscribed with the name “Danvers State Hospital Cemetery” and the subtitle, “The Echos They Left Behind”...which is the first time I’ve ever seen a corpse referred to as an echo, but not the first time that I’ve seen the word echoes misspelled.
And here I want to make another quick interjection before I start talking about this graveyard like it’s a regular cemetery. Keep foremost in mind that this is without dissimulation a cemetery full of the dead insane. And, hello, Gordy, I was standing above them. Who am I kidding? I was Thriller dancing above them. I find the macabre invigorating, and I’m only kind of ashamed of that.
Granted, it definitely doesn’t look like a cemetery of the dead insane. There are no old headstones set at jarring angles or broken-open mausoleums harboring ghouls or ex-patients who just can’t leave, and I didn’t see one giant rat. Instead, it was nicely kept, open, with a few trees, a low stone fence running along two sides, and polished stone plaques inlaid into the ground with the name and date range of the interred. In the center of the cemetery is a stone bench that faces a trio of stone markers with plaques listing all the names of the dead that the researchers (many of whom, according to the memorial, were ex-patients from Danvers) could find. Also, just inside the cemetery entrance is a black marble bench in memoriam to one of Danvers’ more famous patients, Marie Rose Balter, who after being released from Danvers after two decades of “residency,” later returned to serve as a staff member. She had a movie based on her life called Nobody’s Child, and this title is etched into the memorial because the best thing a person can do in life is have a movie made about them.
But if you’ve seen Session 9, you know the first thing I did once I entered the graveyard was to look for grave #444. It’s there, but only the number marks it, as apparently they couldn’t find who was buried there. In my mind, of course, it’ll always be Mary Hobbs. You’ll also remember that the graves here in the movie were marked with two-foot-tall concrete pillars topped with numbered hexagons instead of the stone pegs and slates that I’ve described here. I’m not sure what the story is on that. However, I did find those old headstones stacked on the edge of the woods that forms one of the boundaries of the cemetery. I didn’t find #444, which was featured in the movie, but I did find #455 and one that was broken after the “#44.” If that’s not the one from the movie, then I’m sure someone carted it off as a souvenir. In fact, more than a few of the metal numbers on the headstones had been pried free of the cement and were missing, I guess for the same reason. I didn’t do any looting like this...but not because of scruples; the bone structure in my hand is completely feminine, making any type of effort that requires hand strength on my part completely ineffectual.
All right. One last time. Cemetery of the dead insane. It’s out of my system now.
Ever since that one glimpse from the Staples parking lot (and the two-hour glimpse during Session 9), I’d been aching to visit Danvers. I have to admit, though, that if it wasn’t for the cemetery, seeing the place as a mere apartment complex would have just been yet another completely empty experience to add to my life...and I’m pretty full of empty at this point. Still, Danvers and I aren’t done yet. My next mission is to make friends with someone who lives at Avalon Danvers so that I can watch Session 9 on the precise spot where it was filmed. Consider this paragraph my public plea. If there ever was any opportunity for this website to make my life even a little bit better, it’s now. And it’s about time.
UPDATE: My life is now a little bit better. Check out ex-Danvers State Hospital, Revisited.