For those of us who want to believe, hospitals are fertile ground for all sorts of otherworldly tales: Perhaps a patient witnesses a nurse strolling the halls in an anachronistic white dress and cap, or a loved one hears their family member say goodbye to them in a dream.
Of course, as Hollywood can attest, sometimes hospitals are home to darker lore. The trope of a labyrinth-like hellscape complete with disembodied voices, inexplicable power outages, and things that go bump in the night takes its cue from the past, as many of the most frightful things do.
The term "insane asylum," which is now outdated, is emblematic of an era when mental illness was horribly misunderstood. These asylums began with good intentions: Local governments could avoid the costs of caring for people in public hospitals by determining that they were mentally unwell. And while the number of patients in these hospitals skyrocketed across the United States, the hospitals' infrastructure began to buckle under the weight.
Unfortunately, in many cases, these people were "unwanted" or otherwise unable to be cared for by family members or the state. A high number of sanatorium patients were disabled and afraid, only to be mislabeled as violent and then neglected — or even punished.
In his book Shrinks: The Untold History of Psychiatry, Jeffrey A. Lieberman writes: "The purpose of the earliest mental institutions was neither treatment nor cure, but rather the enforced segregation of inmates from society. The mentally ill were considered social deviants or moral misfits suffering divine punishment for some inexcusable transgression."
One can imagine how much pain and terror resided in these buildings. According to veteran paranormal investigator Zak Bagans, principal host of Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures, this kind of traumatic energy can create both residual and traditional hauntings. Bagans explains here that locations of tragedy or violence are ideal for residual hauntings — when an event (or multiple events) "imprints itself on the atmosphere." Then, like a loop of film, the location plays back the traumatic events.
Traditional, or intelligent, hauntings, on the other hand, are when the spirits present are intelligent and can interact with their surroundings in real time. These types of hauntings, according to Bagans, are similarly created when a person is unable to "pass on" because of an emotional connection to the site, trauma, or unfinished business.
"The spirits may also linger because of emotions that tie them to the Earth, from anger to love," Bagans says. "In other cases, there is the chance that the spirit didn't even realize they had died. This may occur when a death is sudden or unexpected, like with an accident or a murder."
This explains why many historical asylums are rife with reports of the paranormal. Many abandoned hospitals across the United States allege hauntings — but which ones are the most haunted?
Waverly Hills Sanatorium
Located in southwestern Louisville/Jefferson County, Kentucky, the Waverly Hills Sanatorium is one of the most notable haunted hospitals in the world. It opened in 1910 as a two-story building meant to accommodate tuberculosis patients but soon grew to a vast five-story facility with its own zip code. Those who worked or were treated there (treatment typically included removing ribs or parts of the lung) were quarantined away from society and instead forced to become residents of the self-contained Waverly Hills community. Over 400 tuberculosis patients would live (and die) within its walls until its closure in 1961.
The Ghost Adventures team captured electronic voice phenomenon evidence in their episode and reported sightings of "shadow figures." Those at the hospital, both those going on the paranormal tours and the tour guides and volunteers themselves, report steady streams of activity. This often includes apparitions in photographs and sightings of doctor- and nurse-spirits walking in and out of the many rooms.
Tour guides nicknamed one of the spirits Timmy, who they believe is the presence of a young boy who often rolls items like balls down the hallway to groups of visitors. Another distinct spirit is a nurse who, in the 1930s, reportedly hung herself in one of the fifth-floor rooms. A lengthy history of experiences and evidence that continues to this day make Waverly Hills one of the most haunted hospitals and locations in the United States.
Rolling Hills Asylum
The Rolling Hills Asylum in East Bethany, New York, was originally the Genesee County Poor Farm, a poorhouse and self-sufficient farm established in 1826 for orphans, families in poverty, "the handicapped," the mentally unstable, and others who were disadvantaged. However, many of these residents had no family to claim them once they died and were buried on the property. Rolling Hills Asylum has over a thousand documented deaths but little, if any, marked graves, leading historians to believe that the building itself is surrounded by unmarked and unclaimed dead.
Featured on a slew of shows like Buzzfeed's Unsolved and SyFy's Ghost Hunters, Destination Fear, Ghost Adventures, and Haunted USA, Rolling Hills Asylum has become synonymous with paranormal investigation due to the wide array of documented evidence and encounters. Photos collected at Rolling Hills include moving apparitions, shadowy figures, orbs, unexplained streaks of light, and more. The building is currently still open for tours and other events.
Perhaps one of the most controversial locations on this list, the Pennhurst State School and Hospital (known today as Pennhurst Asylum) opened in 1908 in Spring City, Pennsylvania, as an institution for the mentally and physically disabled. At that time in the area, it was believed that those with disabilities were unfit for society and required custodial care. Most of Pennhurst's patients were children who suffered there in cramped, dirty living spaces until media investigations and court cases forced the hospital to close in 1981.
It is believed that the pain of those who suffered and died at Pennhurst still lingers. There are many reports of paranormal activity in the hospital, including disembodied voices and figures. The hospital was even the subject of the A&E special World's Biggest Ghost Hunt: Pennhurst Asylum, which involved a team of paranormal investigators locking themselves inside the hospital for 2 weeks.
Pennhurst's history of controversy continues today; the building is home to a haunted house attraction featuring actors and sets, which has been condemned for insensitivity by the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Notable for its architecture and construction, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is also known as the Weston State Hospital, located in Weston, West Virginia. Opened in 1864, the hospital — constructed of huge, staggered wings — was meant to house up to 250 mentally disabled patients. But in the 1950s, up to 2400 patients were recorded to be living there in crowded, poor conditions. The facility's deterioration and changes in the way mental health was approached forced its closure in 1994.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum has too many paranormal claims to keep track of and has also been featured on investigation shows like the other hospitals on this list. Psychics who have visited the grounds claim to feel numerous presences from various time periods, and tour guides have countless experiences coming face-to-face with solid-looking apparitions. One spirit who has been seen repeatedly is believed to be the presence of a young girl named Lily.
Taunton State Hospital
A psychiatric hospital established in 1894 in Taunton, Massachusetts, Taunton State Hospital was known as the State Lunatic Hospital at Taunton. Similar to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum's winged construction, the Taunton State Hospital followed what is called the Kirkbride Plan, which was a favored design system for mental hospitals. As the Taunton hospital grew, it expanded multiple times to eventually include over 40 different structures. At Taunton, those who were deemed mentally unstable or "disobedient" (this could range from PTSD and Alzheimer's to anxiety and postpartum depression) were essentially forgotten by society. "Cures" at Taunton included treatments like electric shock therapy and sound therapy. The notorious lobotomy was also used there during this era.
Taunton is shrouded in rumors of Satanic cults and the paranormal. It's not hard to understand why when you look at some of its inhabitants. Notable patients at Taunton included Anthony Santo, a man that had confessed to murdering his two cousins and an unrelated girl, and Jane Toppan, an American serial killer who was given the nickname "Jolly Jane." Toppan confessed to 31 murders, of which only 12 were confirmed. The main building of Taunton State Hospital was demolished in 2009, but some of its newer structures still remain.
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Lead image: Frank Polievka
Image 1: Ben Sanford
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Cite this: Jay Lankau. The Most Haunted Hospitals in America: Why Spirits Never Left - Medscape - Oct 29, 2021.