The Beautiful Horrors Of Abandoned Asylums

Mental health institutions were once all-too-common in the US and elsewhere, but hundreds of asylums throughout the United States are now abandoned, left to decay. Photographer Christopher Payne has spent seven years visiting 70 state hospitals in 30 states to document this era of American history.

From the mid-nineteenth century, institutionalising people with mental health issues became commonplace. By the early twentieth century, more than 250 institutions were built throughout the United States and in 1948 they housed more than half a million patients. Against common belief, Payne said the buildings were a part of civic pride, designed by famous architects and physicians working with noble intentions.

“One must not be too romantic about madness, or the madhouses in which the insane were confined.” – Oliver Sacks

Many of these buildings were abandoned abruptly in the 1960s when attitudes towards mental health changed and a modern movement in deinstitutionalisation came to the fore. They were left as if people were planning to return the next day, but never did. Payne gained permission to access the abandoned sites, sometimes even receiving tours from veteran employees. He said, “Through their recollections, the empty spaces came back to life, reminding me how much we’ve lost on the way towards ‘progress.’”


Hudson River State Hospital. Photos © Christopher Payne

Shooting on a 4×5 inch large format film camera, Payne spent hours inside each location, alone and undisturbed. “Working this way is a slow, deliberate process but it seemed to fit the meditative quality of the empty spaces. I couldn’t help but feel a certain intimacy with them, and a strong sense of protectorship and responsibility as, perhaps, their final documenter.” He found the inside of the buildings were less mysterious than they appeared on the outside “…and yet, the spaces conveyed their own emotion, a sadness at having been abandoned so abruptly and having stood empty for so long.“

Payne describes the rooms filled with personal effects as particularly moving, especially the bathroom containing a cupboard of toothbrushes with names clearly printed on the handle. Included in this was the seemingly innocuous image Payne took of a room with filled of copper containers. The room, however, is called the ‘Library of Dust’ and is full of unclaimed cremation urns. In the image you can clearly see the labels reading ‘Oregon State Hospital’ with identification numbers taped to the shelves highlighting how so many people were forgotten, abandoned, just as the buildings were.


‘Library of Dust’ – Oregon State Hospital. Photos © Christopher Payne

The fact that so much was left behind was not a surprise to Payne. He said, “As hospitals downsized, it was easiest for hospital staff to leave things in place and close the door, thinking perhaps, that they would return some day.” It was not uncommon, he explained, for contents to be consolidated in a single room, such as a former dining hall or gymnasium. “On rare occasions, I found perfectly preserved time capsules, like a shoe shop or operating room, that looked as if the occupants had just left,” Payne said.

The book Payne wrote containing the photographs Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals opened with an essay by Dr. Oliver Sacks. The famed neurologist is known for his work on treating those with mental illnesses and books including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. Payne described the experience of working with Sacks as one of the highlights of his career. “He wrote me two wonderful letters on his old typewriter, with notes and corrections, as if we were having an intimate conversation. I had the opportunity to sit with him twice, first to review my photographs, and then when the book came out. He poured over each page with the curiosity of a child—and the insight of a genius,” he said.


Autopsy Theatre – St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Photos © Christopher Payne

As Oliver Sacks eloquently summed up the series when he said, “There is, under the manias and grandiosities and fantasies and hallucinations, an immeasurably deep sadness about mental illness, a sadness that is reflected in the often grandiose but melancholy architecture of the old state hospitals. As Christopher Payne’s photographs attest, their ruins, desolate today in a different way, offer a mute and heartbreaking testimony both to the pain of those with severe mental illness and to the once-heroic structures that were built to try to assuage that pain.”

To see more of Christopher Payne’s work you can visit his website or Facebook page.

Cover photo Photos © Christopher Payne. All images used with permission


Photos © Christopher Payne