We’re All Mad Here

A Few of my favorite scares

It’s my favorite time of year again, but due to a whole lot of traveling I have been remiss at getting out some Halloween posts before the holiday is upon us!

I’ve mentioned before how horror movies reflect the anxieties of the times. Many of the best horror movies of the last ten years reveal a fear of surveillance and of being controlled by outside forces (no doubt a real and increasing worry in our society). If that’s what really scares us these days, then this post should be properly terrifying. Because what scares me most are events and situations that have actually taken place. Sometimes truth is more horrifying than fiction, and can stir our anxieties better than any story.

STATE Lunatic Asylum No. 2

It wasn’t that long ago, in the America of the 19th century, that perfectly innocent people were imprisoned, tortured, mangled, and sometimes killed (inadvertently), all “for their own good.” In fact the authorities who inflicted these punishments thought they were morally and intellectually superior to the people they tortured.

If you happen to be anywhere near Saint Joseph, Missouri this Halloween, make a trip to the “Glore Psychiatric Museum” and see the evidence for yourself. It’s one of the best “haunted houses” in the country for the sheer creepiness of the museum’s displays and artifacts, not to mention that the museum is the original psychiatric hospital itself, known during its operational days as “State Lunatic Asylum No. 2” (and probably really haunted!). The Asylum opened its doors to thousands of “patients” in 1874 and remained a house of horrors for one hundred years.

Many of these mentally ill or unstable folks had an uncooperative attitude towards the sadistic treatments they received at the hospital, causing unruly behavior which brought on more “treatment” to make patients more submissive and docile. The museum has  a showcase of clubs called “handmade tranquilizers” that were used to beat patients as recently as the 1950’s. Other treatments included wrapping a person from head to toe in a bag to force them to calm down, but which sometimes resulted in death by suffocation.

The display in this case, which I call “Barbie and the Original Ice Bucket Challenge” shows a woman bound hand and foot with a “doctor” pouring ice water on her head to make her submissive.

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Barbie and the Original Ice Bucket Challenge

Here’s a neat device called “O’Halloran’s Swing.” The patient was strapped in and swung around at a rate of one hundred revolutions per minute, driving blood to the brain and causing “intense anxiety, fear of suffocation, nausea, vomiting, urination, and sometimes brain hemorrhage.” The device was used on “obstinate” patients who “needed to be taught discipline.”

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O’Halloran’s Swing

Here’s the Tranquilizer Chair, a handy device that completely immobilized the patient while the doctor tortured him/her by cutting the arms with knives (bloodletting was believed to cleanse the body of toxins that contributed to insanity), placing the feet in scalding hot water, and applying ice packs to the head.

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Tranquilizer Chair

Then there was The Wheel. If a patient made the slightest motion, the wheel would begin to rotate, forcing the person inside to run as the wheel turned. A patient was typically imprisoned in the Wheel for 36 to 48 hours at a time. The reason was “to block the stream of erratic thoughts, and direct his attention toward the attainment of a definite goal.”

Most of the devices in the Glore Museum, like The Wheel, are reproductions. Guess who made this reproduction? The patients at the Woodson Children’s Psychiatric Hospital in their Vocational Education class, in 1992. Hmmmm. I hope those kids didn’t have to test it to make sure it worked just like the original.

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The Wheel, Glore Psychiatric Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri

 Message in a Bottle

Realize now, that you didn’t necessarily have to be mentally ill to end up in a place like this. If you had a family member who thought you were eccentric, this is where you could end up, forever. No trial. And if you protested? Well, you can see how they encouraged obedience.

Patients were allowed to engage in some normal activities to take the edge off their frustration and anger, though. Women spent time in weaving and embroidery. This framed cloth was embroidered by a schizophrenic woman, who painstakingly documented the rambling messages in her head. Perhaps she was trying to send a garbled letter to a would-be rescuer?

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Schizophrenic Embroidery

My favorite relic is the “TV Diary.”  In 1971, a  staff member saw a patient slip a piece of paper in a slot in the back of a TV set in the hospital ward. On inspection, the staff discovered over 500 papers stuffed inside the TV’s box. Some were letters, others seemed to be diary entries. In the writings the man complained the hospital was stealing his money and had hidden his “knowledge” away so that he could not escape. The story is haunting in its implications. A man, mentally disturbed and unable to help himself, believes he is imprisoned by malefactors (hospital staff) who are the very reason he cannot think clearly enough to free himself. The story strikes me as a grand metaphor for everything that was wrong with the 19th-20th century approach to treating the mentally ill. It isn’t clear if the man thought his writings were being mailed, or if he thought the TV would transmit them by some electronic means to someone who would hear his plea and come to his aid.

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TV Diary, Glore Psychiatric Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri

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