This weekend, I took advantage of the gorgeous early spring weather to do a little exploring—on the grounds of an abandoned mental institution. Before you start suggesting that I check myself in, hear me out. I have an affection for all things old, creaky, spooky, destroyed, dead, and/or ruined. Okay, that just makes me sound weirder.
Maybe it’s because I grew up next to a cemetery, literally: My grandmother’s headstone is just a hop over the fence that separates our lawn from our tiny town’s 18th century graveyard. I’ve always been fascinated with the past, particularly if it’s accompanied by a salacious story. And while I think older historical ruins (like Scotland’s Borders Abbeys) are cool, I adore more modern ruins, too.
You can imagine, then, my excitement at the prospect of getting a closer look at the ruins of the Belchertown State School.
Spread over some 800+ acres in western-central Massachusetts, the school actually has the unfortunate original moniker of the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded. The School “treated” patients coping with mental, and sometimes only physical, disabilities from 1922 to 1992, when it mercifully shut its doors for good. I say “mercifully” because there’s no doubt that patients were horribly abused here until at least the 1970s. I’ll spare you the details in this post, but you can read more about them here, as well as in the excellent book, I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes.
As you can sense from the photos, there’s a sad, slightly spooky atmosphere on the School grounds. But I also found it oddly peaceful. Although the area is marked by numerous “No Trespassing” signs, we saw joggers, people walking their dogs, and kids riding bikes. While I can’t condone trespassing, I will say that I suspect that the local police will leave you alone unless you are actively breaking into the sealed buildings. (I resisted temptation—and if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t admit it here!)
Scattered empties and juvenile graffiti aside, the School offers an intriguing peek at a bygone era—and at a period of mental-health treatment that’s best left in the past. We spied dilapidated office furniture, rusted-out file cabinets, booklets and paperwork from the ’70s and ’80s, and an old hospital bulletin board. It’s impossible to wander the grounds without thinking about the emotional and physical pain that people suffered here, and without hoping for a better future for everyone. And that’s what any type of ruins should do.
What modern ruins have you visited? Share your thoughts in a comment—and check out more of my pics at our Modern Ruins gallery.