Talking to Ghosts in Abandoned Mental Hospitals

fourth year mk manoylov

 photo by kelsey dabrowski

photo by kelsey dabrowski

Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you about my trespassing escapades, but hey-- call me crazy.

I’m from Milledgeville, Georgia, home of the infamous Central State Hospital. It was one of the world’s largest mental institutions, according to Atlanta Magazine.  Back in 1837, Georgia lawmakers authorized “lunatics, idiots, and epileptics” to be sent there. They’d send the crazies, homosexuals, and the --gasp!-- women who wore pants to that place.

And I, a humble vagina-owner in pants, a boy’s shirt and a boy haircut, broke in with two of my other friends in the dilapidated former art building, four stories of boarded-up windows and locked entrances.  

Well, we didn’t “break” in. We were able to walk right in through the open crawl space, up the basement, then through the main lobby. Not gonna lie, I was scared to see any ghost, spirit, or other malevolent creature in the night. It was 3am after all. I’d never been to a mental hospital, and I didn’t know what to expect. Thankfully we didn’t see any dead bodies, violent squatters, or demon-possessed creepy dolls, so that was good.

However, we did see some of the carts which, I assume, nurses pushed from room to room to give patients their medicine. And we saw the rooms: the normal rooms and solitary confinement rooms. The solitary confinement ones had a square window the size of your hand. Most were broken.

I stood in one of the solitary confinement rooms, twisting my phone flashlight onto tiles crushed to gravel, smelling in the heady, astringent musk of abandonment. There were no beds, no windows, just the husk of it all.

Our footsteps crunched along the sandy chunks of broken tile. The walls were clean --faded periwinkle blue and worn, but free from debris and graffiti for the most part. The vintage sanitation got to me: How easily people lost their freedom because they were gay, gender non-conforming, or just needed a little help no one could give them. I would have been sent there too, if I lived in Milledgeville 50 years ago. I’m thankful for how far we’ve come.

My friends and I walked out of the rooms and into the dark hallway. The quietness plugged my ears like cotton, and my head felt light from probably all the asbestos in the air.

“Hey,” my friend said, “I’m about to do a thing.” She stopped us in the middle of a hallway. “Turn off you’re flashlights,” she said.

We did so. It was pitch black, but I wasn’t afraid anymore. I was cozy in the cave of brokenness I could have become.

“If there are any spirits here,” my friend said, each of us stock still, “We mean no harm. But please, move a chair, turn on a light, make yourself known.”

I wanted to punch my friend for acting like we’re on Buzzfeed unsolved. But while I wanted the furniture to remain promptly in place, I, too, wanted a ghost to make themselves known. I wanted the ghost to say, “I’m still here! I’m still present! After all this time, they couldn’t erase me! I existed then and I exist now! Here I am! Here I am!”

But no chair moved. No light flickered on or off. It was as quiet now as it was before.

The people were really gone. I felt ashamed of my former fear. I thought the worst of these people when they were dead, just like other people had when they were alive. And, my god, how I wanted to go here because it looked fun. I wished the ghosts were there so I could at least say “I’m sorry.” But instead  I said, “We should go. It’s late.”

So my friends and I walked out the crawl space. I was pleased by the adventure, but that quietness, the cracked windows of the solitary confinement still cling to my chest.

I went to bed that night thinking of all the pants I owned.