Avalon Danvers Apartments nee Danvers State Hospital

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 fa├žade 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.


  1. Love this! I was just at the cemetery yesterday...I grew up in Beverly and always wanted to find it. My mother in law...who just became a resident of Avalon...found it on a walk. Very interesting....now I am off to rent Session 9 to watch at her place!

  2. I loved that movie, even though it still terrifies me (and I haven't seen it since it was in theaters). I had no idea what became of that place until I found this blog. Fascinating.

  3. Hey, my family and I were at the cemetary today looking for #444 and we found it. we had watched session 9 yesterday and wanted to go and looked for #444. The creepy thing is was that it was the only one sticking up and it was half broken like in the movie but it still had all the numbers on it. it was at the bottom right hand side of the cemetary

  4. I worked as a security guard at the hospital in 2001-2002 working the night shift. My job was to drive around out side of the buildings and down to the grave yard to make sure people werent tresspassing. One of the biggest problems was that when they closed it down they just released alot of the people and some of them would still come back and hang out in the area cause to them that hospital was still home. It was scary working there because there were no lights at all so it was extreamly dark at night. After I watched Session 9 I didnt even want to work there anymore. I was very very upset when I heard it had been destroyed, it was so beautiful it was a masterpiece! I cant belive the state let them tear it down. Its a disgrace!

  5. "The dead insane" is disrespectful, poor phrasing, and poor usage. Grow up.

  6. To the person above me: geez, lighten up! LOL...if that's all you have to complain about I feel bad for you.

    This site is really interesting, keep up the good work!

  7. I landscape there, we mow/care for the cemetery. oddly enough ten years ago when I was in college I worked 1 night there ( 1 night) myself as security. The place blows my mind. Every time I go there I can not get that one night out of my mind. I know the mind can create things out of fear but the things I may have seen/heard or even created out of fear still haunt me. even though Avalon Bay tore the Kirkbride building apart and left the shell I still hare going inside! Whether one believes in a haunting or not I do and that place still to this day freaks me out. I would not live there and from what I hear a few (many) tenants feel them same way.

  8. Thank you for this post, now I am very anxious to go there for my rental appointment!

  9. "Unclaimed lunatic corpses"

    Best phrase I have read in quite a while. I'm going to try to use it in a conversation soon. I found your page after reading about Danvers on a website about abandoned places. I did see Session 9 when it was first released, and I do remember being freaked out, and not just because David Caruso was in it.

    Anyway, great webpage and I will be purchasing your book.

  10. We just moved here we love the place and I am rather picky, so put away what u read about the place having thin wall and so fourth it's s perfect place for the money! On the spooky side our dog who is known to pick up smells and be very protective of our family has had a few Radom barks and growls at corners of the rooms or will randomly get up at night and will follow something from wall to wall then to the ceiling. I have always been a believer but my husband no longer doubts my open mind! Oh ya and we are only a few weeks in with radom happenings!

  11. As I look out my window I can see right where the cemetery is. I visited it yesterday as I was wondering how many poor people where put into that Mental Hospital who were actually Sane? Being a victim of Domestic Abuse, your abuser can make you think you are crazy,hear things, see things or even your going out of your mind. Been admitted myself for reasons known now that I was the sane one. I can't help but think why? As I brushed all the dirt from the names I started to cry. What did they do to these poor people? And how many where here because of someone else? I laid on the Marble Bench and just felt the most peaceful I have felt in years. What was bothersome as I was leaving was seeing Baby Baker 1886. No date of birth or death just the year. How did baby Baker get here? Why was Baby Baker dead? No other Bakers were on the memorial so I wonder what happened to it's mother.
    As a survivor I wish to be buried there but I know it would never happen as I was not a patient here but somewhere else.

    1. You are right to ask your questions. I know, I was there at only 16 and I shouldnt have been. I have a lot of questions even as an adult.

  12. I went their last night at 10 o'clock my girlfriend lives there so she knew where it was. The walk there is pretty freaky because you dont know when it is coming up, then you see the rock and freak. I want to go back during the day and find baby bakers grave and grave 444. The craziest part is there is only one way in and out. So it is very creepy at night.

  13. A family member is buried there. I found her name on Find a Grave. I'm very thankful to the researchers that preserved her memory, her husband lost their son shortly after she passed away and he returned to Italy. The fact that she is buried here and some people view the site as a fun place to visit is insensitive and unsettling.

  14. Many of the "patients" or should I say inmates were incorrectly diagnosed and they saying was "if you arent' sick when you come in here you will be when you leave, IF YOU LEAVE"

  15. My uncle used to be a patient in one of the buildings during the late 1980's and my family would visit on a weekly basis so I have amazing memories of the grounds. It was always so dark even on the sunniest days and I remember as we would drive off there was a gated area with a statue I believe and I would just stare at it with vines and branches twirling around it as if it were keeping it's secrets. Great post. Brought back many memories.

  16. I have been doing research on my ancestors and found that my great, great grandfather was a patient at that hospital in 1910. His name is listed as an inmate and I could never find his death cert or when he died. I am going to visit and see if he is indeed buried in that cemetary?
    Thanks for this most informative article!

  17. You're kidding me with this right? Criminally insane? Lunatics? Do your research. Most of the patients there were forced there against their will and in the end, once the files were exposed and opened, most of them should not have ever been there to begin with. Your opening paragraph is lewd, insulting and clearly based on opinion and not fact at all.

  18. AGREED!!! Don't be disrespectful of the patients, yes many were insane but many were also sane and put there against their will for unjust reasons. Some people were just put there because they were old and couldn't live on their own and spent the rest of their lives there. Interesting article but the childish comments and jabs irritated the hell out of me. Grow up and actually do your research.

  19. I lived at Avalon for 6 months.
    the creepiest most scariest 6 months of my life; My girlfriend and I broke our lease to get out of there. Ask any resident what they have seen and smelled. Ghost are scarey but think about an insane ghost.

  20. Born in Danvers- writing a book (novel) featuring this place