E.R. Vernor,
Haunted Asylums
(Schiffer, 2012)

There is something about the image of an abandoned insane asylum that strikes fear and dread in the heart like nothing else. Add in decaying buildings, unspeakable experiments and a ghost or two, and you've got the ingredients for a truly frightful read. Author E.R. Vernor, aka Corvis Nocturnum, has been a busy man. With speaking engagements, interviews and the 15 or so books he's written since 2005, I am glad he found time to pen his latest offering, Haunted Asylums. Prepare to take an indepth look at the history, horrors and hauntings of some of the world's most notorious asylums.

First and foremost, the photography in this book is stunning. Some of these photographs should be up for some sort of award. The external beauty of these majestic gothic and Victorian stone and brick structures belies their repulsive histories. The interiors of these buildings -- the peeling paint, the abandoned, rusted beds and equipment, dust-covered hydrotherapy tubs and nightmarish morgues and operating rooms -- are some of the most haunting images I have ever seen. These dilapidated walls speak of suffering, misery and desperation, the ghosts of which it is impossible to ignore, and these eerie photographs drive home the reality of it all with striking precision.

Vernor studies in detail the history of some of the worst aspects of many of these notorious "hospitals." Overcrowding was a serious issue. Often, thousands of patients were housed in facilities meant for several hundred. The patients often lived in filth, unclothed in some cases, with no means of cleaning themselves and no hot food. These poor souls suffered indignities such as forced sterilization, or eugenics (to keep "inferior genes" out of the human gene pool); experimental surgeries (such as lobotomies); insulin shock therapy (depriving the brain of sugar, hence inducing a "mind-awakening" coma); electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT (causing severe memory loss, confusion and delerium); fever cabinets (raising the body's temperature); cold water treatments, or ice baths (lowering the body's temperature); and experiments with various drugs such as metrazol, a convulsive drug with the unfortunate side effect of seizures so severe that more than one patient fractured his spine as a result. Vernor shines a very bright light on a very shameful past.

Strangely enough, Vernor keeps the ghostly aspect to a minimum, the focus being more on history. Tales range from a stain from the corpse of a murdered patient that cannot be cleaned to a long-term patient wailing against a tree at his own funeral. Ghost tales are mentioned in a majority of the accounts, but most are of the generic "witnesses have said..." variety. Unnamed people have heard screams, cries, ghostly voices and gurneys being wheeled about when there are none in the vicinity, but no personal eyewitnesses are interviewed. The author also makes note of some paranormal societies that have done investigations in several locations with some interesting results, but unfortunately we do not get any interviews with the professional investigators, either. Certainly, the experiences suffered in these institutions would be conducive to capturing a despairing soul, but without first-hand witnesses, we'll just have to make up our own minds as to how haunted these asylums really are. (I vote yes, and very.)

I ruminate about this book every time I set it down. This is a disturbing read, to say the least, and definitely not for the faint of heart. It's the stuff of nightmares. The research efforts poured into this tome are second to none -- complete, thorough and totally affecting. It's shocking, and most of us were unaware anything like this ever happened. One of the photographers in this book, Ken Schuler, is quoted as saying, "In what way we treat our mentally ill speaks volumes about our society as a whole." Treatment in this modern era is a far cry from the despicable past, but still, the past is always something to learn from.

book review by
Lee Lukaszewicz

2 March 2013

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