Hollywood seems to think Massachusetts asylums are the scariest places on Earth. Here’s why they’re right.
When American Horror Story: Asylum debuted October 17 on FX, it was yet another show about moderately attractive people getting the crap scared out of them. But AHS's second season also boasts a completely new plot and a mostly new cast — all set in a fictitious 1960s Boston insane asylum.
It's not the first time a Boston-area asylum has ended up on the big screen (Shutter Island was filmed at Medfield State Hospital), but in terms of outright horror, it's tough to invent anything more messed up than what actually happened at Massachusetts's network of public mental hospitals. From Waltham's Fernald State School (where developmentally disabled boys were fed breakfasts laced with radioactive material as part of a 1940s MIT-led experiment) to the Belchertown State School (which closed in 1992 amid accusations of overcrowding, squalor, and patient abuse), our state's institutional memories are riddled with sordid tales of deplorable physical conditions, sexual misconduct, and cruelly unusual torture masquerading as "treatment."
Even in disrepair, these asylums still haunt our imaginations. The evocative contradictions between the buildings' majestic grandeur and their brooding decay permeates a pop-up photography exhibit this month at Zuzu in Cambridge by Jason Baker, whose book series "Abandoned" and "Urban Decay" document his explorations of New England's eeriest asylums.
And it's probably no surprise that, even as the rise of Big Pharma and privatized mental health care have spirited these institutions away, locals have grown up believing that many of these sites are haunted. They are: if not by ghosts, then by the twisted and shameful legacy of what happened in these places. We visited four of the most notorious abandoned hospitals in the state to get the backstories of what transpired within their walls . . . and the scoop on what is alleged to lurk in their ruins today.