When that airy but not-so-distant music came drifting in on the thick evening breeze, we all froze. Chills like it wasn’t June, but December. The tune was upbeat with a female singer, but echoing through the vacant buildings around us, it rang of dread and menace. Moments ago, the only sound had been the glass shards crunching between our sneakers and the cement floor. But now… Now…
Why would anyone else be out here, and why in hell would they be listening to adult contemporary?
There are lots of reasons not to be exploring the abandoned Forest Haven Mental Health Center. Lots of things that could make our visit dangerous. I’d run through a thorough list of possibilities with my companions even before we left DC – decay that could cause instability in a structure that’s been abandoned for twenty years; guards charged with confronting trespassers on what is, in fact, government property; homeless persons seeking shelter. Homeless persons who could behave irrationally or even violently if surprised in their solitude… And just for the superstitious amongst us, I added the threat of torment and torture at the malevolent whims of retarded lost souls.
But Katy Perry emanating distinctly from everywhere and nowhere all at once didn’t seem to fit any threat on that list. Our hearts pounded like heavy metal drummers. We waited for a bit. Then decided to proceed, but our exploration was considerably more subdued from that point on.
I don’t even remember when the music stopped. After a while, we just didn’t notice it anymore, and it was gone. That’s the closest thing to a ghost story that I have to share from my first visit to Forest Haven Mental Health Center, which was shut down by court order in 1991 on charges of systemic negligence.
That gets to the heart of the real horror. It is not some music, which is embarrassingly Scooby-Doo when you get right down to it. For me, urban exploration is a lark. I can leave any time I want. I can go home when this place gets to be too much. Or when it gets dark, and I get too scared.
The most severely mentally disabled residents of the District – the patients of Forest Haven – had nowhere else to go. They couldn’t run back through the woods to their waiting car. They had no alternatives, and until the very end, too few champions. And they most definitely had something to be scared of. On January 12, 1990, The Washington Post offered the vaguest glimpse into what went wrong at Forest Haven, writing, “A 31-year-old male resident of Forest Haven, the District’s center for mentally retarded adults, died Wednesday, becoming at least the sixth resident to die at the Laurel facility since May.”
One digitally-retrieved death in a long string of men and women who died here. Abandoned, in a sense, long before the building. I don’t know who that man was, but I might be able to figure it out by rifling through the patient files that still lay strewn about the floors of Forest Haven.
The tall windows here have all been blasted out, probably by vandals. The furniture remains, covered in dust, mildew, and glass. Some of it is banal office equipment, but other items are shocking in their bluntness – man-sized metal cribs, rolling hospital beds, something that could either be used for dental procedures or for electroshock therapy…
It’s an adventure when you first get here, in spite of – and maybe even because of – that haunting music. It feels like a Hollywood movie where you see enough blood to make you squirm, but never enough to truly be disgusted. But if you let it, this building affords you who dare to enter it the opportunity to really reflect on the meaning of the word horror… on the abuse and neglect of the weakest among us.
Walking from room to room, you get the feeling that you are last survivor of some horrible, cataclysmic conflict, one which resulted in the utter annihilation of mankind and all his decency. That you are alone at the end of civilization. It could have been atomic bombs that shattered these windows and burnt this building to a charred ruin. But it wasn’t. Whatever happened here was more subtle than that, even if it was no less evil.
Though if this was civilization, you wouldn’t be too upset to be left behind.
DCinruins: A Descriptive Guide published by Insignificant Press.
The Trouble They’ve Seen: The Forest Haven Story. (Documentary)