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.