The other day I stood at the camera angle of this hallway, which was even creepier and darker than it looks (the iPhone has a decent flash). To say the walls were crumbling would be an understatement; where the drywall wasn’t buckled or missing, it was eerily melted away. No light came from the rooms off the hallway because most had no windows, and those that did were crossed with heavy iron bars. This was not a place where people had been kept happily.
The door glowed curiously at the far end of the hall, and I went toward it like the person in a horror movie, that person who makes you scream at the screen, No! Don’t go there! But I’d been in 10 buildings like this already that morning and I was curious about the light source which, judging by the shape of the building, was not outdoors. Plus, something strange was hanging from the door.
I had worked hard to get access to this eerie historic place, part of the research I suspected would lead to my second novel. Even after I got a permit, I could only visit with chaperones from the Park Service. But once we arrived, we traveled in a loose pack and I was free to wander, guided by gentle suggestions —“the second floor staircase isn’t really advisable from the looks of the crumbling ceiling, but it’s up to you” — and by my own common sense.
I reached the end of the hall and gingerly pushed open the door.The room was bathed in natural light. That strange thing hanging from the door was in fact a long, wide sliver of wood from the door itself, as if cut by a potato peeler, then warped and bleached from years of rain. How that even happens, I have no idea.
The light flowed in from the opposite wall of windows—broken, like all the windows here—which opened onto a sort of covered porch in a courtyard. But it was hard to tell what it was, because the porch above had thoroughly collapsed in a heap of splintered disintegrating wood. The remaining roof boards bloomed thick with ivy and grass. From a window above, a waterfall of vines flowed outward from some source inside the building.
Once upon a time, people lived here, I thought. Real people, either victims of contagious disease, or people suffering addiction or mental illness and kept under restraints. They lived in airless rooms behind thick doors with rusting bolts, many of them against their will, alone with their demons. They had no civil rights. They were held because they were perceived as a menace to public health, and likely because they had few resources, or few people to speak on their behalf.
As I stood at this window there was a sound from upstairs, like someone kicking a stone across the floor.
But I was alone in the building. None of the park service personnel had come in; they were having an impromptu meeting outside about reforestation of native trees.
“Hello?” I called. “Who’s there?” Because that’s what the script says you should say in these situations.
There was no answer of course, because raccoons or falling bits of wall or 100-year-old ghosts of inmates cannot answer. I turned and walked all casual-like back through the door with potato-peel wood, then broke into a casual-like trot to get the hell out of there.
I hate the contrived shock-terror of horror movies. I hate haunted houses; I didn’t even like the spooky castle at Disney World. But I love going out of my comfort zone in real life, stepping well beyond the kitchen where I make lunches every morning and zip them into neat bags with superheros on the front. As a mother of five children under 11, I’m not lacking for excitement. There are broken dishes and broken-down SUVs, pets that eat the wrong thing and have to go to emergency vet in the night, children who jump the wrong way and have go to the ER in the night. But that’s excitement of a different kind.
The thing I don’t encounter often is the truly unusual adrenaline rush I used to get as a travel writer doing things that go slightly wrong outside the realm of ordinary time. The zipline ecotour through a Canadian mountain, where the harness clip snags on a line high over a frothy river. The muy fuente horse from a stable in Spain that gallops pell-mell through the olive orchard instead of a countryside stroll. The tour of an antebellum home in Alabama, where I heard an persistent buzz in my ear as if some unseen person were whispering to me. Many of the best, most memorable and challenging things happen beyond the margins of our comfort zone. And much of the best fodder for writing.
I walked as fast as I could without embarrassing myself out of the building and into the relative safety of the forest, where poison ivy blanketed the ground and hung in loose vines from the trees. About 50 yards ahead, the Parks personnel still stood clustered in conversation. Behind them was another institutional building already well into a century of neglect, its door riddled with recent bullets from someone’s illicit target practice.
There’s a story there, I thought. There’s a story everywhere I turn in this place, which was so hard to reach through the tangle of child-care arrangements, but so worth the effort. And as I thought it, my shoe nudged a rusted machete lying in ivy.