The Abandoned “Asylum” As Horror Setting
By Mark Matthews
In the underground tunnels below Northville Psychiatric Hospital, the mood swings of the mentally ill are manipulated by a roque psychiatrist, transforming them into manic, savage beasts who seek justice by the light of the full moon.
Incredibly excited to announce my new novel, The Hobgoblins of Little Minds is now available for presale in both kindle and paperback. Publication date is less than 90 days from now. Thunderstorm Books will also be issuing a limited edition hardcover, coming soon.
Cover art by Vincent Chong. Vincent has done covers for Stephen King, Joe Hill, and Josh Malerman, among others. The cover is being revealed this week for the first time.
The novel rewrites the Werewolf mythos and takes place largely inside the abandoned Northville Psychiatric hospital, a legendary compound not far from my house. It’s a sprawling facility with multiple buildings connected by a maze of tunnels passing underneath. The building opened in 1952, closed in 2003, and for 16 years it was a prime spot for spelunkers and trespassers before it was demolished. Check out pictures below, all of them from the location.
In many ways, The Hobgoblin of Little Minds is historical horror for its depiction of a real setting and within true events (though I’m no Alma Katsu, the master of historical horror). The facility was state of the art when it opened in the 1950s, and was home to as many as 2000 patients. The Governor of Michigan overhauled mental health treatment and closed the facility, and the novel imagines the psychiatrist who runs the hospital, trying to get patients ready to leave.
How do you prepare for hundreds of patients leaving out when your facility closes, some who have been there for 20 years? Well, one option is to experiment on them to see if you can make them more prepared. As cliché as that sounds, I took great pains to avoid the cliches that come with featuring psychiatric facilities. The novel treats mental illness with sincerity, and is based on research and years of my experience in the field of behavioral health. The word ‘asylum’ is never actually used.
There is certainly verity in how this setting is presented, including the dark tunnels connecting the various buildings, the morgue, the theater, the barber shop and bowling alley. The facility was a designated bomb shelter for the community during the height of the bomb scare era. As is depicted in the novel, locals called the surrounding area “The Evil Woods,” a name derived from the Evil Dead films and created by Michigan native Sam Raimi.
The city of Northville built numerous state facilities on their land, including this hospital, and I was amazed when I realized that an adolescent psychiatric facility called Hawthorne Center, still open and running, was built on the same parcel of land under a two mile walk away. I liken it to Helen finding the identical Cabrini Green apartment complex across the highway in Candyman.
While writing this work, I parked at Hawthorne Center in the very spot where the main character, Kori Persephone Driscoe, parks her Toyota before walking through the evil woods to Northville Psychiatric. The facility has its own heartbeat, with such trauma trapped inside, and it was the last place that Kori Persephones Driscoe’s dad was treated before he disappeared. Kori adventures into the abandoned facility looking for solace, and traces of his memory, but what she finds instead is something you will have to read the book to find out.
Asylums as a setting are their own trope works. Halloween starts with Michael Myers escaping from one. A whole universe was created in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The horror movie Eloise is based on the abandoned facility in Michigan just miles away. Session 9, Shutter Island, American Horror Story. It’s of the most used settings in all dark works.
What happens inside those locked doors? What if someone like me, who mostly seems sane, (right?) gets locked inside? Or perhaps worse, what happens if those who are dangerous and insane and supposed to be locked inside escape out?
As part of my research, I read Nightmare Factories: The Asylum in the American Imagination, by Troy Rondinone, a fascinating deep dive into the history of using such facilities in movies and novels. With amazing insight, the book traces the evolution asylums in art and media, from Poe and Stoker to current horror.
Not only is the setting a trope, but the familiar scenes inside the asylum. The dayroom where patients gather and are humiliated or plot their escapades, the basement were secret things happen, long sad corridors. The ECT or lobotomy rooms. The poor conditions and extreme dysfunction, the evil genius or mad scientist who runs it all.
You’ll find a taste of nearly all of this inside the Hobgoblin of Little Minds.
I really feel that emotions and memories inside any room gather, like psychic energy, tiny mist that sticks like grease on the wall over an oft-used stove, until the walls are painted with the trauma and anguish, the hopes and dreams of the patients inside.
I invite you to take a look. Presale is offered at a discount, and publication dates just 90 days away.
About the Author
Mark Matthews is a graduate of the University of Michigan and a licensed professional counselor who has worked in behavioral health for over 20 years. He is the author of On the Lips of Children, All Smoke Rises, and Milk-Blood, as well as the editor of Lullabies for Suffering and Garden of Fiends. His newest novel, The Hobgoblin of Little Minds, is expected February,2021. Reach him at WickedRunPress@gmail.com