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 Top 40?
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 a 1991 court order on charges of systemic abuse and negligence.
And 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 to stick around.
The mentally disabled residents of the District – the patients of Forest Haven – had nowhere else to go when things got dark. This was home, whether they liked it or not. Or prison. Unlike me, they couldn’t run back through the woods to the safety of a 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 a glimpse into what went wrong at Forest Haven, reporting, “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.”
If you let it, though, this building affords those who dare to enter it the opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of horror – the way that we treat weakest among us.
The way that we treat the weakest among us…
I’ve heard it said that that is one way you can judge a man’s character, so why not a whole society’s?
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 what civilization had to offer, you wouldn’t be too upset at its passing.
Abandoned Washington DC by Thomas Kenning