So my friend Liz, whom I met while working in social services with many people who had become homeless as a result of Central State closing, asked if I wanted to attend a movie about the institution at the the IMAX theater downtown. I agreed.
For those of you who might not know, Central State was an “asylum” built in 1885 to house and “treat” the mentally ill and mentally disabled. It housed approximately 2,500 people, including some 50 or more children at times. It was almost completely razed in the 1970s when it was found to be structurally unsound, and eventually closed in the early '90s thanks to some federal funding issues as well as verified claims of abuse. I think most of us have an idea of what sorts of things go on behind the doors of places like this, especially what was possible in the earlier decades of its functioning, where administration, orderlies, and even doctors weren't properly trained and treated things like “hysteria,” depression, mental retardation, and women who had premarital sex with electro-shock therapy and heavy doses of Thorazine.
I knew nothing going in to the film but that it was made by a local filmmaker, Dan Hall, and that it – possibly – asserted that the buildings still standing were haunted. I caught on to this when I checked out the web site to purchase tickets. I figured what the hell, at least someone's out there investigating what happened to those poor people. Maybe they're just giving it that ooooh-it's-almost-Halloween-let's-watch-a-movie-about-the-mentally-ill-who-are-really-scary sort of vibe.
Boy, was I wrong.
I sat in shock for forty-five minutes in a sold out theater with people who apparently believe whole-heartedly in angels, god, ghosts, and the evil souls of (what they consider to be) the criminally insane coming back to blow cold air onto and choke anyone who might make the mistake of stumbling across the grounds. What surprised me at first was the cheesy, neon-green font that popped up on screen occasionally. Throughout the film we all got to witness (what I call) “modern horror movie effects” — the jerking camera shots, the fast forwarded footage, the really slowed down footage, and the sounds of saws or creaking doors with too much background bass. If this were truly a paranormal experience, why would I need to be egged on like that? I can be adequately freaked out by the presence of a shadow moving across the wall.
I'm not discounting the possibility that any of these people experienced something that they consider to be paranormal. In my lifetime I have had my share of the unexplained, causing the hair to stand up on my neck. Ghost stories really creep me out.
I am, however, incredibly disgusted that the entire premise of the film was that of “spirits” and “ghosts” of those who had been physically, psychologically, and mentally abused and tortured, neglected, starved, and beaten to death are now coming back to reveal themselves as “pressure” on someone's chest, a chill in the air, or floating orbs on a night-vision camera.
The filmmakers did an incredible, and insulting, disservice to the former residents of this institution. Some of those people were treated horribly. Rather than an investigative, revealing documentary that will show the Hoosiers who have lived among these patients – some of whom are undoubtedly related to former residents – for more than a hundred years, what really went on in those rooms, we learned nothing but that Dan Hall and his friend Sarah got the heeby-jeebies when they saw a wrinkled drape in a window and just had to make a film showing us the eerie goings-on at Central State.
Something they forgot to mention while trying to freak out the audience with herky-jerky footage of “Patient X” being interviewed in the shadows was that one of the buildings actually houses the Indiana Medical History Museum and there are actually people who work daily on the grounds tending to the police department's horses.
I can only hope that their psychic and team of paranormal investigators go back to somehow “cleanse” the buildings of these poor, tortured souls, rather than just trying to make the rooms in which they were shackled into a case of the chills for twelve bucks a pop. If any spirit haunts those grounds, Mr Hall, wouldn't it be more terrifying for us to learn why?
Update: While I was searching for a photo, I came across the following articles – one from Indiana Skeptics and one from the Indianapolis Star. There are also a plethora of web sites dedicated to including it as one of “Indiana's Haunted Places” if you care to search. Interesting. Or not. You decide.