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number 5

A Night in Lunatic Hospital

by Gayle Snible

I started feeling boxed in, but there was no time to indulge my fear. I entered the crawlspace and moved as fast as I could. I’m short; I could squat and move without getting on my hands and knees; the taller people had to crawl. My husband was five feet ahead of me. There was no turning back now. Our red-gelled flashlights provided the only light. After several terrifying minutes, I saw Miss Dark Passage at the top of the stairs.

Miss Dark Passage congratulated me on getting through the crawlspace. She knew I was claustrophobic, and she had been concerned that I wouldn’t make it into the hospital without breaking down. She was happy for me; I’d been able to overcome one of my fears.

Dark Passage is a New York “urban exploration” society. My dad explores wilderness; he hikes canyons, climbs rocks, and fishes in streams. Urban explorers hike in abandoned subway tunnels, camp in deserted hospitals, and play hide & seek in cemeteries. It’s dangerous, and it’s illegal. But it’s fun, and the urban explorer gets an alternate view of the city and an adrenaline rush from exploring the urban unknown.

Dark Passage holds organized events that bring together many different types of people from all over the country – all wanting the opportunity to challenge the mainstream’s idea of “fun” and working together towards that ideal. It’s midnight on a Friday night, and I’m breaking into an abandoned mental hospital with approximately 40 other people. This is a very large-scale event for Dark Passage. We’re crawling in because we can’t use the front door. We’d be arrested if we were caught, and a security firm guards the place 24 hours a day.

Tonight’s event would involve play-acting and role-playing. Invitees would have the role of mental patients. My husband Ed and I were among the staff; we would be preparing an installation and interacting with the patients as they walked through parts of the hospital. This type of role-playing would bring focus to the group, and it would also make the night more challenging. Even our two amateur security teams – “Iron Fist” for the outside and “G.U.S.E.S.” on the inside – would remain in character.

I had visited the abandoned mental hospital the previous weekend to prepare for tonight’s event. Knowing my fears, I felt that I would be more comfortable performing in an area I had previously visited. This was my husband’s first time to the site. I found the institution’s decaying aesthetic breathtakingly beautiful, and I felt like I was showing Ed a seventh wonder. Paint was peeling off the walls and every surface seemed to have rough edges. Most of the furniture had been taken out when the patients left, but the odd piece remained (a thrashed bed frame, a battered glass cupboard, a rusted urinal). Lunatic Hospital had been closed seven years, but it looked like it had been closed longer.

There’s no electricity, as the place is abandoned. We were in the basement, and it was pitch black. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face unless I was shining my flashlight directly on it. I looked into the darkness behind me. Everything was scary once again.

Miss Dark Passage led us to the room in which we would be performing. I was immediately lost as she led us around corner after corner, turning right, turning left. The mental hospital was huge – 26 buildings, many linked by underground tunnels – and we would only be playing in about one-tenth of the accessible space.

Ed and I started to decorate the small musty room. We hung inflatable plastic eyeballs from the ceiling and turned on a battery-operated strobe light and metronome. There was broken glass on the debris-covered floor, and two glass cupboards attached to the wall; perhaps this room had been an infirmary in its day.

We wore thrift store bowties and pressed white shirts. Venetian half-masks completed our look. Ed’s gold mask had a large thin beaklike nose. It made him look tall and cruel. My black mask was rectangular. My eyes were barely visible behind it.

Ed’s character was the Evil Hypnotist, and he’d work on hypnotizing each patient – one at a time. I’d be his assistant Glub; my job would be to keep everyone disoriented but tractable. I’d researched my part and modeled it after Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

We had an hour to prepare before the first group of patients arrived. One patient wore a tiara and said her name was Diana. I told her that everybody was a princess. Another patient, a young girl, wore a lab coat, and I acknowledged her desire to be a doctor, “just like us”. She said that she had graduated from Harvard Medical. Some of the male patients insisted on playing with the inflatable eyeballs. One asked me if I wanted a shot of whiskey, but I chastised him for offering alcohol to a medical professional.

Our session was interrupted with news that two policemen had entered an adjoining building. We were told to turn off our lights and be quiet. I had worried that we would be caught and arrested by the police – even gassed or shot when they realized how many people were in the hospital. The police most likely would not understand our performance and I wondered anxiously what they would make of us. Student protesters had once been tear-gassed inside Lunatic Hospital (they felt the homeless should be permitted to move in). My irrational fears of being tear-gassed or shot were luckily dashed when the policemen left and the G.U.S.E.S. security team told us to continue the event.

Ed and I performed for (and with) two groups of patients. Afterwards, we walked out and over about fifty feet and saw another group’s performance space. We had been hearing noises from their location all night, and we were curious to see what they had done. Fellow Dark Passage members Ryan and Matt had taken over a hydrotherapy room and simulated drowning a patient. Their room had a completely different feel from ours; it was spacious, lit by dozens of candles, and there was graffiti everywhere. A little later, we saw one of our friends hanging from the ceiling as part of another installation, as some of the Dark Passage participants rocked him back & forth. I was on edge the entire time I watched.

Now was our opportunity to explore other areas of Lunatic Hospital. G.U.S.E.S. member Aaron led us on a walking tour. We went upstairs and walked in long hallways, played a rotting baby grand piano, and wandered what had been the institution’s cafeteria. It was getting easier to imagine the alive (and insane) people inhabiting the buildings.

We saw the large decaying auditorium in which thousands had been entertained over the years. The room was painted a light blue; it was downright cheerful, its ripped-out seats and vacant stage notwithstanding. We saw rooms that had obviously been used for solitary confinement and wondered what memories linger still in their former inhabitants’ minds. Some floors were bowed and ready to cave in; we avoided these, looking for safer ground.

Returning to the basement, we arrived at my favorite room in Lunatic Hospital: the laboratory. Dozens of amber bottles covered the counters. The small and large bottles were still filled with various liquids, but many of the labels were unreadable. Computers from the 70s lay dormant. Handwritten patient records were scattered on the floor and counters, along with directions telling how to care for and ship pituitary glands. I had spent time in the lab during my first visit, and I could have spent several uninterrupted hours there again. It was both fascinating and disturbing that these chemicals and records had not been removed from the site.

Water covered the floor of the tunnel we took to our last destination, the Lunatic Hospital morgue. (2,500 patients lived here at its population peak in the 1950s, so it’s not surprising that many also died here.) Ed immediately jumped onto a slab and asked to be pushed in (“and close the door”). Several others also did this: some meditated, some giggled. On a filthy and cluttered nearby table were test tube specimens of unknown germs – recklessly abandoned like the chemicals in the lab. I took a long hard inquisitive look at one, fearful of what it was and careful not to break the test tube.

It was four o’clock in the morning by now and daybreak was on the way. We waited for security team Iron Fist to give us the OK and we walked off of the deserted hospital’s grounds. During the three-hour drive back to the city I glowed in the emotional aftermath of this shared experience, an elation that came from confronting our fears and trusting strangers. Gradually I settled into the blues that came on as life drew closer mile by mile.

Gayle Snible is a freelance publicist and writer living in New York.

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