ex-Danvers State Hospital, Revisited

September 10, 2008 — It was night-plus-clouds dark, and the tropical storm that had been moving steadily up the East Coast all weekend was fire-hosing whitewater rapids all over my windshield, rendering it almost opaque instead of just the usual dirty. The bald tires of my car were doing their best to achieve the only cool verb they could on the skim of water that covered the road, and my usual nightblindness that’s bad enough to kick in even during the day was making everything look like I was driving through hyperspace. I had as many appendages as I could spare on the wheel, and I was squinting to the point of flattened eyeballs and ejected contacts and hoping that none of the wavering red lights in front of me were brake lights.

I was happy. Here’s why.

I was on my way to watch a horror movie. More than that, I was on my way to watch a horror movie on the very spot where it was filmed. Even more than that, I was on my way to watch a horror movie on the very spot where it was filmed, which happened to in the past have been, in this order, an insane asylum and an abandoned insane asylum.

Not to date myself...to four days ago…but the tropical storm was named Hanna, and I was way happy she was visiting. Not because of the destruction, fear, death, and inconvenience that she was spreading, but because it set the perfect scene to watch a horror movie. At home, it’s a Pavlovian response for me. Thunder cracks, and I reach for a horror movie. This time the horror movie was pre-planned, and the storm was just a cereal box prize.

A few months ago, I wrote about my visit to Avalon Danvers Apartments, the current karmic incarnation of what was once Danvers Insane Asylum, in Danvers, MA. If you don’t feel like clicking that link, don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll be linking to the same article like crazy throughout this piece.

All you need to know so that we’re all on the same webpage here is that the apartment complex was once an insane asylum before becoming abandoned for about two decades, during which time they filmed the horror movie Session 9 within its decrepit confines, and then they (a different they) turned it into apartments and condos that opened just a few months back.

I subsequently visited the newly residentialed property to see the remnants of the original architecture and the old cemetery where they buried the dead insane and then wrote an article about the visit, which I ended with a pathetic appeal for an invite by any Danvers tenant who’d let me watch Session 9 at their place, thereby experiencing the discombobulating pleasure of watching a movie on the exact spot where it was filmed.

Turns out that pathetic Internet pleas get answered quicker than prayers to deities and cell phone calls at boring parties. And to my delight and horror, the answer was “Yes, come on over to my place,” which I realize is more or less what the spider said to the fly. So I set a date with my faceless future hosts, lied to my fiancée about them being old friends of mine, and then took that person whom I’m technically supposed to protect into a tropical storm and the lair of strangers armed only with a bottle of wine and a bag of Doritos.

By the time we arrived at Danvers, the rain had abated temporarily and with perfect timing. Surrounding the main Kirkbride building, whose impressive and towering façade is left over from its days as a sanitarium, was the most luscious bank of fog a borderline morbid person who was about to watch a horror movie could want. Even if our hosts turned out to have “The Saw is Family” engraved on all their cutlery, it might have been worth it for the glorious sight of peaked red brick rising through an aura of diffused light. Of course, you get to see the pictures of the moment without risking life, limb, and possible awkward situations with strangers.

Originally, the plan was to meet up with our hosts, Carole and Jaci, at the neutral location of the Kirkbride building itself to watch the movie in a common room with a 65-inch plasma screen that was one of the perks of living in a modern day apartment complex with all the amenities. Due to technical difficulties, though, we ended up in Jaci’s much more cozy apartment, which is located in the area that would have been encompassed by one of the sanitarium’s bat wings.

First, though, they took us on a tour of the inside of the Kirkbride building, which, if you’ll recall from my last visit, I was politely barred from doing by alert attendants. Turns out inside is a fitness center, a basketball court, a few posh common areas, plenty of people walking around in their socks (the area is technically their basement), and other nice but non-spooky stuff that made me happy we were watching the film in the privacy of an apartment.

Then we went back to said apartment to watch said film. Despite it being the marquee event of the evening, I’ll refrain from narrating this portion of the night, as it was exactly what you’d think: snacks, couches, and cracks on David Caruso. I sometimes use the word “surreal” to describe certain moments in my life, but the truth is, I’ve always only faked that feeling. I don’t know what it actually feels like. Watching Session 9 on the spot where it was filmed probably should have been surreal, so I’ll just assume it was. However, it was sometimes hard to connect the nice apartment in which I sat and the surrounding buildings and grounds that I had just walked through with the haunted derelict dominating the television screen.

Afterwards, we talked a bit, and they were gracious enough to let me photograph myself with their television freeze-framed on an overview shot of the old sanitarium (even going so far as to pretend it wasn’t a weird request), and then we parted. It was getting toward the witching hour, and while their night was fifteen minutes and a hygiene ritual away from a bed, I had a bit more to do before I left the property. I wanted to visit the cemetery of the dead insane...at midnight.

But I’d forgotten about the storm.

Even though earlier in the evening I loved how much Hanna had set the scene for me, I now hated her because she was still viciously pouring her wet heart out and seemingly ruining my opportunity to visit a cemetery of the dead insane...at midnight. We parked the car by the still unfinished Danvers Memorial and waited for the rain to stop so that I could trek down into the cemetery in the dark. For obvious reasons (my fiancée’s girlish footwear), I was going to be on my own for this one. Finally, impatient, I decided to brave the storm. And I use the term brave with only one connotation—that is, I went out into it.

Turns out those easy directions to the cemetery that I included in my last article are much harder to follow at night. I got turned around on more than one occasion, slogged through boot-high mud, ran through a field in the dark, fell down more than once just like those chased-but-not-chaste victims in horror movies aren’t supposed to, and came back to the car twice, bedraggled and horrific-looking, to give up before finally finding it. In fact, at one point, I was literally consoling myself with the fact that if I couldn’t say I’d visited a cemetery of the dead insane at midnight, I could at least boast to having run through an eerie overgrown field at midnight in a thunderstorm. In other words, I could boast to being absolutely stupid.

Anyway, I finally did find it, but only after my fiancée pointed to it from the dry safety of the car, “It’s right over there.”

So by the time I made it to the cemetery, I was so wretched and cold and wet and muddy and tired that it was impossible for me to be creeped out like I had been hoping to be. I wanted an undead murderous maniac straight from the bowels of the wet cemetery earth to put an end to my misery at that point.

Still, some good other than blurry rain-streaked photos and a dubitable accomplishment came out of this little post-movie excursion. On the way out, we stumbled across one of the few remaining artifacts featured in Session 9 that was left over from Danvers’ days as an insanium, a gazebo-like sitting area that opened into a covered set of wooden stairs. I had somehow missed this landmark on my first visit. That’s your last chance to use a link to the old article...unless you scroll up, I guess. In the darkness, the stairs seemed to descend into absolute void like the throat of some multi-dimensional monster. I didn’t bother corroborating that impression, though.

And that’s the story. I’m not sure what Carole and Jaci got out of the whole deal...other than the opportunity to see how utterly personality-less I am in person. Nevertheless, they can get whatever consolation they can get out of knowing that they fulfilled one of my more hastily conceived dreams. Thanks a lot, guys.


  1. I am currently sitting in my house in Brisbane Australia watching Session 9. I was fascinated by the building, IMDB'd it, and when googling the name stumbled upon your site. You sound like a complete nutcase in the most wonderful way, and there should be more blogs like this. You've made my night. Wish I'd been there, sounds like quite an experience. Helz, Brisbane, Australia

  2. Oh and if you want to see 2000 lobotomised maniacs stumbling around a lovely, historical building, mumbling to themselves, being wrestled to the ground by security and causing havoc all you need to do is buy a plane ticket to Brisbane and visit the Normanby Hotel. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Helz.

  3. I thought I was the only one who loved that movie and now I find that, not only am I not the wierdest person in the world, but someone else appreciates the fantastically freaky as much as I do. Excellent blog, which, instead of the usual mumbling, grammatically challenged drivel, was funny, well written and creepy. Quite an accomplishment.

    My husband and I are actually planning our trip to Danvers(we wanted Salem but Danvers is cheaper to stay in) this summer, I'd forgotten that the movie was done there, but the name had an ominous ring till I looked it up on the Internet. Now I know why I'm being drawn there...actually, it was a random thing but hey, you never know right?

  4. I've been contemplating returning to the Danvers area and heard that some developer had built apts on the old state hospital grounds. I'm seriously thinking of (possibly) renting there (nice area).

    I'd love to hear feedback from current/former tenants. How are the apts? Is the property well managed? Is it quiet/noisy...any other input w/b appreciated...best building to live it, etc.

  5. Seeing a movie at the filming location is what the Alamo Drafthouse does. It's called the Rolling Roadshow, and they bring a big (tens of feet tall) screen to see the movie on. I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre next to the house it was filmed in. They had shirts for sale that said "The Saw is Family". Your hosts had cutlery that said that, right? They invited you to a movie location to watch a movie, right?

    Strange. In a good way, but strange.

  6. I grew up in danvers with the Danvers state hospital looming out over my house. When I was kid, (i was born in 1965) there used to be escapes all the time and I remember the state and local police knocking on my folks home warning us to stay inside because of lunatic escapees from the hospital. I remember how scared I was of that place. When I got older, (teens), me and my friends used to sneak up there and we'd hear the screaming and see the patients up in their barred windows yelling at us. A few years later, the kirkbride was closed and we snuck in and did some of our own exploring, including the tunnels and that is one memory I'll never forget. It was like living my own session 9. The place is definately haunted and creepy beyond belief, I just can't understand why people would want to live up there.

  7. I work in hosptital built in 1870 and nearly abandon. Every unit except mine and one other have left for our new hospital. We will have to wait a year before moving. It is an eight storey building with three wings plus 4 other small bulidings connected by tunnels. We have 5 staff and 8 patients at night - that's it. Dsalucco I feel your pain.. I'm work at Session 9.

  8. I went there just the other day. I liked Session 9, but even before that movie came out there were rumors about the place. Living in Massachusetts its just one of those stories that you hear. It was pouring rain, like you might expect in a horror movie, and me and my brother had a difficult time locating it on our own. At one point we walked down the path beyond the gazebo and found some kind of silver candelabra laying in some leaves, and a stone marker that had its plating removed. The marker itself had been moved there. I have a photo of that. It's very odd.

    Anyway - we eventually checked the internet on our phones and found your directions which, actually are still the best on the internet right now. The "memorial" still has no plaques affixed to it, and I got the impression that it probably would never have any. Locating the cemetery in a near downpour was difficult, but from a certain angle the path suddenly became visible. It was cool to see, and I'm glad that people took the time to find out more about who was buried there, but what it really needs is a historical marker to let people know of it. The cemetery seems deliberately hidden away and Avalon Bay is likely all too happy to keep it that way. But I'm not so sure that it should remain as such.

  9. I live up in the Avalon and it's really an awesome place to live despite what is used to be... It's definetly not haunted and, I never even think of that due to the luxurious living.. it's really nice with nice tenants and, even their own security team that drives around (and they kinda think their cops) but, all in all it's a great place nice and safe and secure, quiet and awesome

  10. I find that house very interesting. It's kind of creepy to be there at night. Overall, I think it's nice.

    office space

  11. I was always told stories of a relative of mine that was in that hospital and that when she died had a large contusion on her head. I am not sure how she was related but my mother always told me that story. Back in the day when you "could" physically harm patients, I am sure there were many deaths caused by manhandlings. I had to drive by the hospital on my way to my grandmother's home. It was a beautiful building, no matter what it was built for. Not sure I could feel comfortable living there though.

  12. Stories abound on the hospital's past. Its architecture is remarkable as well.

  13. How terrible, I grew up in Massachusetts and when I was younger I would have loved to know about this institution. Now it's just a ghost of what it was having gone through remodeling AND a fire. Tragic, that's all I can say about it.

  14. As a case manager for the Department of Mental Health I had several patients who were hospitalized at Danvers Psychiatric Hospital. Visiting with them there was always interesting. It feels every bit as spooky on the inside as it looks on the outside. I have been lost in those undergroup tunnels on several occasions. I loved seeing Session 9. When I started the movie I had no idea that Danvers would be used but I recognized it right away. What a thrill to see it again.

  15. Should have just left the place alone. It was beautiful the way it was. Sad so very tragic for such history to be thrown away and demolished. Another reminder of how rich corporations ignore the voices of the many and profit from pure greed. No one cares about the abandoned.

  16. Worcester State Hospital also had the underground tunnels. My mother and my husband worked there and thought it was creepy.
    I will now have to watch Session 9, I had never heard of the movie.

  17. They can destroy the buildings but not what is underneath them. Hathorne Hill, where the asylum was built, has always been an epicenter of ill will, a kind of vortex where dark energy flourishes even long before Danvers State. One of the judges who condemned innocent women during the Salem witch trials was reputed to have lived up there. Seems the developers should have done their homework before disturbing a place like this, strange and inexplicable things are sure to follow.

  18. Really enjoyed your writing on this. We lived there for over a year, had the "Session 9" poster in our living room, the whole deal. Never experienced anything personally except a strange orb that showed up in a photograph of Rolf's marker in the cemetery. The most strange, evil and/or inexplicable things were perpetrated by Avalon, who does everything in its power to steal security deposits and screw the residents. We did hear plenty of stories about flying wine glasses in the Kirkbride and other strange events during the construction.

  19. I have gone thru some of the underground tunnels/flashlight. I had a friend who was a campus police officier. This was back in 1987. I remember every thing was painted this light green Color. Then I saw a lot of gernies. I do have other friends that have gone deeper in the tunnels and saw some horrible things like-fetuses in mason jars and brains in jars too. I'm sure this has been removed- I hope. Nothing weird happened to me while I was there-but I felt a lot of sorrow as I looked around- very very depressing place to spend your life in. I this the underground portion was used for electrical shock therapy. ALSO. Brain lobotomys were performed there as well.
    My father worked in the boiler rooms that used to supply heat to Dangers State Hospital. Back in the 1970's he was in the tunnel part and found an admission log book. In this book was information about:Name of pt/ personnel belongings (most men had pipes and pocket watches) most women checked in with a thumb thimble-needles for sewing and a set of scissors. The name of the person who was committing them and a short discription of strañge behavior. This admission book was all done with a hand dipped ink pen. At the end of this initional intake was done the patient was assigned a Dr.
    My father thinks this admission book dates back to when the facility was opened 1860's maybe give or take a few decades.
    I've also had friends that worked at Danvers State Hospital. Yes -there were very crazy sick people there-but the patients were not neglected and all. The grounds were beautifully maintained. At times I would drive there and eat my lunch because the view was breathtaking and to be honest it felt peaceful for me!!!!!! Some patients were allowed to be outside too (along with staff). That's my experience.

  20. RICK

  21. I have lived in Danvers all of my life. I am a nurse and in 1977 had to do a 20 week psych student rotation at Danvers State. We actually would escort patients in the tunnels by ourselves. It was poorly lit and creepy even then. I cannot believe they actually let us escort patients as student nurses. Of course they also had us stay in the locked units with murderers to do our rotation. The building itself was absolutely beautiful architecture and I was so sad that it was not preserved as the original building. I do not know why the old is not preserved instead of building new. Lawrence, MA is currently revitalizing the old mill buildings for business use without tearing down the original structure. The buildings are beautiful.

  22. I can remember as a kid my dad taking me up there to Danver's State, he worked there for 30 or more years. I would sit outside coloring and some of the patients would sit there with me and color as well. My dad was a security guard for years then he ended up working in maitnace as well. My mom also worked there for a few years and would tell us kids all kinds of stories.

  23. What a shame this was, destroying this beautiful piece of architecture. As a teenager I would spend many a summer nights with my friends investigating the underground tunnels. Shame on the state for allowing this to happen. It broke my heart when the Avalon was allowed to build there. When I went to do some work with a colleague of mine who owns an electric company my experience with the people that worked at the Avalon was horrible. They were rude to people inquiring about rental and just gave a real sense of not caring about people. Oh well, too bad. I will always have the wonderful memories of the great castle on the hill. My favorite was sleeping inside of one of the morgue drawers.

  24. i loved that building and the history it had.Being a zSalem resident and having a relative in the hospital it is strange to lookat the hill and not see that beautiful building.

  25. I grew up in near by Beverly and as the hospital was closing had a friend who worked security at night. On many occasions we conducted night time sorties to photograph and explore. There were still patients in some of the buildings so the night would be periodically punctuated by a horrific scream.

    The tunnels were hellish, something from Lovecraft (he did write about the hospital as the Arkham Asylum was to have been inspired by it), The despair one sensed deep within the catacombs was almost unbearable. Two levels underground. No windows. Curved ceilings. Iron doors....and no light.

    Having worked in an archaic insane asylum in another part of the country built around the same time as Danvers State I was witness to the deviations in humanity shuttered away in subterranean pockets. In transposing those memories to my explorations of Danvers State, it is still unnerving. I do not believe in the metaphysical or paranormal but this place was a missing circle from Dante's Inferno.