Elle Kuse (Nonfiction)

The South Carolina State Hospital

People think there’s ghosts in the walls and demons in our souls. Places are “haunted” by mad spirits, malicious in nature and driven by spite. Why are these spirits shunned? If they really did exist, are they really to blame for the hauntings of decrepit buildings, the fear struck into your heart as you look upon rotting wood and missing brick and see a shadow of cruelty in the form of a past legend?

Before advances in psychology and medicine, most mental illnesses were seen as punishments from God or just plain immorality. Many people were sent to jail, shunned for their differences, but a “lucky” few were taken care of by their families. For most of history this seemed to be the case, but as Europe developed, the idea of institutions made for housing the

“mentally insane” was normalized. With the concept of asylums for the mentally ill in the 1700s and 1800s becoming more accepted, America also began investing in these institutions. These hospitals had a reputation for being dangerous places (History of Psychiatric Hospitals).

Even those who suffered from mild forms of more common mental illnesses were sometimes sent to these “lunatic asylums”. While early society believed asylums were a form of a hospital to promote recovery, some people admitted to these asylums were mistreated, usually kept still with intense restraints and isolation. There’s many remnants of these mental hospitals around the world. In America, one tends to stick out: Columbia, South Carolina’s historic landmark, The South Carolina State Hospital.

Look past these decrepit walls

These rotting floorboards and empty halls

Spirits lie in wait, you think, but perhaps it’s only legend

Located in Columbia’s Bull Street

District, the former South Carolina Lunatic

Asylum stands abandoned. Now called the

“South Carolina State Hospital”, the historic asylum was founded in 1821, though it’s first patient was only admitted seven years later. Throughout history it’s served as a home for many of the mentally ill, specifically Civil War veterans suffering from PTSD. It’s known for being one of the oldest surviving mental hospitals of its kind, despite it’s decrepit nature.

Like many other abandoned asylums, people have snuck into the building, further putting it to ruin with graffiti. Most of these intruders came to the building to see if it really was haunted, or just to seek thrills. The site was officially abandoned in 2015, but had fallen into disrepair beforehand. During September of 2020, the historical site’s Babcock building caught on fire, causing more damage to the property and even leaving a few firefighters injured. This was the second time the building had caught fire this decade, the most recent incident being in 2018.

Some will say it was the will of past residents haunting the building’s halls. I’d rather think it was a sign from some god trying to burn away the past. Really, there’s no significance to those fires. It’s only nature’s doing, and maybe that’s the best way to go about these things. Trying to pin the occurrences on the supernatural only serves to deepen the stigma associated with those who are mentally ill.

With the Babcock Building almost in ruins, it’s now planned to be renovated into a series of apartments by the Hughes Incorporation, located in Greenville. Construction will be done in 2022 (Abandoned Southeast).

I wonder who, if anyone, will live there. Will they be driven away by the “spirits” that seem to haunt every asylum? Is it that scary to be near the remnants of a hospital for the mentally ill? Does their fear come from the poor treatment of those past patients, or some stigma against the people who lived there?

Perhaps I shouldn’t judge. I wouldn’t want to live there, in truth.

While most asylums have the reputation for being poorly kept and at times abusive, it’s more complicated than it seems on the surface. Images of people being isolated and restrained in straight jackets is only halfway true. Some Asylums were founded under the belief that residents could be cured with rewards for “good” behavior (History of Psychiatric Hospitals). These places were still called madhouses, “lunatic” asylums, and were known for putting patients that had minor illnesses with more intense patients (The History of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). Yet the South Carolina State Hospital, despite helping the state later learn how to make effective and humane decisions when creating new mental institutions, did have a history of patient attacks and suicides, as well as less humane treatments such as electroshock therapy (Buchheit). Still, it’s hard to think about how many families would leave their relatives here without any visits.

So maybe, the real mistreatment those in asylums faced came from society itself, rather than the conditions of the hospitals they were placed in. Who can really say? Even with the scientific and medical breakthroughs that have happened in the modern era, it seems that people who don’t follow the neurological norm are still shunned. They might not be forced into hospitals and kept in restraints, and the mistreatment they face today comes in a different form: pure ignorance. From those with the mildest anxiety disorders to people who suffer from the most painful hallucinations, it seems they still face mistreatment, just as their ancestors did.

It’s hard to imagine what it was like to be there, whether through the eyes of a trespasser, doctor, or patient. In truth, I’d rather not think of something so gloomy. I definitely don’t want to think about being one of the “ghosts”–rather, a memory– that haunts the halls.

Maybe these places are haunted. But not by ghost. Instead, they’re haunted by those who search for malice in tortured spirits, those who jump to conclusions while being ignorant of the truth. Whatever the case, is it not best to move on? To accept change?

Let us learn from the past and accept a brighter future.

Works Cited

Abandoned Southeast. “Babcock Building.” Abandoned Southeast, 14 Sept. 2020, https://abandonedsoutheast.com/2017/12/05/state-hospital-for-the-insane/. Buchheit, William. The South Carolina State Hospital: Stories from Bull Street. The History Press, 2020.

Craft, Susan. “History of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health.” Changing Minds, Opening Doors: A South Carolina Perspective on Mental Health Care, 1996, https://scdmh.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/HistoryofSCDMH.pdf.

“Diseases of the Mind: Highlights of American Psychiatry through 1900 – Early Psychiatric Hospitals and Asylums.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 18 Jan. 2017, https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/diseases/early.html.

“History of Psychiatric Hospitals.” • Nursing, History, and Health Care • Penn Nursing, https://www.nursing.upenn.edu/nhhc/nurses-institutions-caring/history-of-psychiatric-hospitals/.

Mailonline, Simon Holmes For. “Abandoned South Carolina Lunatic Asylum Where Civil

War Veterans Were Treated for PTSD.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 30 Nov. 2016, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3985462/Inside-South-Carolina-Lunatic-AsylumCivil-War-veterans-treated-PTSD-building-abandoned-left-crumble.html.

McCandless, Peter. “South Carolina Lunatic Asylum / State Hospital.” South Carolina Encyclopedia, University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies, 12 Oct. 2016, https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/south-carolina-lunatic-asylum-state-hospital/.

Staff, WACH. “Columbia Firefighters Battlie Massive Fire at Historic Babcock Building.” WACH, WACH, 13 Sept. 2020, https://wach.com/news/local/firefighters-battling-massive-fire-at-babcock-building. The History of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, http://www.ocdhistory.net/nutshell/asylums.html. “Home.” Hughes Commercial Properties, 15 Mar. 2021, https://www.hughescommercial.com/.

Photos courtesy of Caters News Agency.