Man at His Best

Photographer Matt Van der Velde Spent The Last Few Years Photographing Former Asylums Throughout The United States

There's something about abandoned asylums that excites a morbid curiosity in most people.

BY LYNDSEY MATTHEWS | Oct 11, 2016 | Arts

Photography by Matt Van der Velde

There's something about abandoned asylums that excites a morbid curiosity in most people. Whether it's fictionalised accounts like American Horror Story: Asylum or the fact that most of these places were rarely seen by anyone who wasn't a patient, physician, or employee, we can't seem to get enough of these haunting locales.

While many would be too nervous to enter the abandoned remains of these mysterious buildings, Matt Van der Velde, a photographer from Canada, spent the last few years exploring nearly 30 former asylums throughout the United States. Here, he shared a few photos with us from his upcoming book Abandoned Asylums, which comes out November 15.

As a past member of the Canadian Forces infantry, Van der Velde is no stranger to dealing with the effects of mental illness and depression. "Exploring and photographing these former institutions offered me solace in seeing first hand how far we've come, and how far we have to go in both the treatment of mental illness, and the stigmas attached," he said.

Originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic, the Pennhurst State School & Hospital was closed in 1987 after nearly a century of controversy surrounding inhumane conditions and patient neglect.

Entering into these places, Van der Velde said he never truly knew what to expect. "Some places are incredibly empty and others are filled to the brim with old equipment, hospital records, and objects from the time in which they were active," he explained.

This is the autopsy theatre and morgue where Dr. Walter Freeman—the "Father of the Lobotomy"—did his work.

In one asylum, Van der Velde came across a room full of luggage—leftovers of personal belongings that patients would bring with them but were often just placed into storage by the hospital staff.

In his explorations, he's also come across plenty of bio-hazardous material including test tubes of blood samples, brain samples encased in wax, and bodily fluids on microscope slides. Here, he photographed one asylum's antique wooden morgue fridge.

Van der Velde hopes that by sharing his images of these off-limits places he will help preserve many of these historical buildings that are left to decay and eventually be demolished.

"As a society, the worst thing for us to do is erase their existence completely and pretend this era in mental health treatment never existed," Van der Velde said. "It is counter-productive to the battles against stigma, and certainly sends us a step backward in our understanding of mental health.”

Since patients were discouraged from staying in their rooms during the day, many of these asylums had recreational areas like this abandoned bowling alley seen here.

Celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Zelda Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, and Rosemary Kennedy sought treatment at the luxurious private mental hospital seen here.

Unlike in American Horror Story: Asylum, hydrotherapy tubs like these were one of the more humane forms of treatments at these institutions.

Because of privacy concerns and the stigma surrounding mental health, patients at these asylums were typically buried anonymously.

This cemetery, where 5,776 patients were buried in anonymity, has been severely neglected in the years since it closed.

From 1946 to 1953, Harvard University and MIT conducted a secret experiment on the absorption of minerals at this institution that treated children and young adults by adding radioactive tracers to their breakfast oatmeal. The victims received almost USD2 million in compensation after a 1998 court settlement.

While many of these "Asylums for the Chronic Insane" have great architectural value they've been left to rot.

In order to shoot at most of these abandoned asylums, Van der Velde had to obtain permission from the government or property owners. 

Taking these photos wasn't simple. "Asbestos, mould, lead paint, and collapsing floors are something I always exercise the utmost caution around," Van der Velde said.

However, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia is open to the public for historical tours—they've even restored one ward to appear as it would have in the mid-to-late 1800s.

The New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica is also occasionally opened to the public for tours. It was one of the first institutions of its kind in the United States when it opened in 1843.

To see more of Abandoned Asylums you can pre-order it through Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

From: Popular Mechanics