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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > November/December 2019 > Haunted Asylums: Imagining Scary Ghosts

Haunted Asylums: Imagining Scary Ghosts

Joe Nickell, PhD, is CSI’s senior research fellow. He is author or editor of some forty books.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, the mentally ill—or those considered so—were kept in various settings, ranging from benign monasteries to “fools’ towers” where apparent madmen were housed. In London, the Priory of Saint Mary of Bethlehem evolved into a hospital (now six centuries old) that cared for the poor and aged and “lunatic.” Bethlehem, often shortened to Bethlem, yielded its derogatory nickname Bedlam. Synonymous with “madhouse” and “turmoil,” it became infamous for unenlightened “treatments” of the mentally ill.

The nineteenth century—coinciding with the development of alienism, now known as psychiatry—saw the increased growth of institutions intended for the housing and medical treatment of the “insane.” Treatments included pseudoscientific approaches such as phrenology and freezing baths and even the institutionalization of women, who could be committed by a male for simply being considered obstinate. In 1887, journalist Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, 1864–1922) skillfully feigned madness to be committed to New York’s Blackwell Island asylum. From that undercover role, she penned an exposé that sparked significant reforms (DeMain 2011).

To this background of the pathetic, the irrational, and the bizarre, add the otherworldly concept of ghosts, and we see why “haunted” asylums have be come popular visiting places. They particularly attract so-called ghost hunters—wielding equipment that does not detect ghosts but yields various glitches, interpreted with knowing looks as spirits. Such places also lure the general public, seeking what they expect to be spine-tingling thrills. I have investigated three of these, two accompanied by my wife, Diana, who, with tragic irony, is herself waging a valiant fight against dementia. Here is some of what I found.

Figure 1. Restored as a hotel, the old Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane is still popularly haunted. (Photo by Joe Nickell.)
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