Visiting a haunting history

Photographer captures abandoned mental hospitals

The New Hampshire State Hospital
Photo by Ralena Gordon

When people find out that Ralena Gordon spends her time photographing abandoned mental institutions, often the first question they ask is about ghosts.

The old hospitals are haunting, she agrees, but mostly sad.

“My desire was to sort of remove that stigma that was attached to these places. Yes, they’re haunting, they’re spooky and they’re big, they’re architecturally stunning,” she says. “I’ve definitely had experiences that have thrown me off and it makes me believe the spiritual realm of this place. But it’s more tragic. You feel sadness more than the scariness of it.”

Gordon’s first visits to an abandoned mental hospital were like so many other people’s — she went to get a little scared. But as she was finishing her bachelor’s degree at Goddard College in Vermont in 2007, the Nederland native started photographing them as a part of a senior project. She took photos of eight institutions for that project, but was met with enough questions about her work she decided she was on to something that needed to be explored further.

Now, she’s photographed 56 of them, in 28 states. She started by trespassing on the grounds, photographing only the building exteriors. At this point, she works where she can get approved access, and superintendents will open the doors or staff will give her guided tours. Her photos show a similar move from voyeuristic shots through leaves and branches to more intimate images, quiet and familiar. She works alone and yes, she says, sometimes it’s kind of spooky, but the initial shock of what she finds in these abandoned places has mostly worn off.

What lingers is the sense of tragedy that surrounds the way the mentally ill are treated in America. As she dug more into the history of the buildings, reading books and newspaper reports, she unearthed stories about the institutionalization of people for everything from being a menopausal woman to being an immigrant with foreign customs that looked, well, crazy.

“It’s a sad history. There’s a ton of misunderstanding of mental illness,” she says. “There were a lot of experimental treatments that were done inside these places that look more like torture than care, and it’s all part of the history.”

The remaining emptied buildings, all built before the 1920s, are huge, their architectural touches often startlingly graceful and ornate, considering they were meant to house a population that people wanted shut out of sight. Demolishing the buildings, which are often riddled with asbestos, would demand funding from an already financially strapped system. So, as the decades have rattled by, they’ve been reclaimed by plants and wild animals. Walls of brick have become walls of creeping vines interrupted only by a door to a dark interior, where paint curls away from the walls and stray furniture lingers in empty rooms.

“There’s just so much stuff inside of them,” Gordon says. “It’s as if people just got up and left, like, calendars still on the floor and patient records and things that should have been taken care of but weren’t.”

She doesn’t move these items, and works quickly to capture what she finds in the few hours she has access to the building. She’ll emerge with as many as 600 photos. Her visits are squeezed into two- or three-week trips in which she loops through a corner of the country. She’s been back to only a couple of them. Mostly, there hasn’t been time to revisit the institutions she’s already photographed. The work to get photos to represent institutions in every region of the country is a continual project that still consumes all available time and money.

Though she’s often faced with low light, she says a flash ruins the feel, and there often isn’t time or space to set up a tripod.

“It’s a good challenge. It forces you to be creative,” she says.

Some of the hundreds of former institutions around the country are being or have been repurposed, turned into jails or schools. A couple in the Midwest are shopping centers. Some have been demolished. Some will simply languish until more affordable forces than a demolition crew take them down.

As her work has gone deeper, she’s met with former employees and former patients of these institutions to record their stories. She’s started putting together a Ken Burns-style documentary to record their stories.

“People just want to be heard,” she says. “A lot of them came from families where they’ve never had an outlet.”

One in four adults over 18 is afflicted with some form of mental illness, from anxiety to depression to schizophrenia. With mental illness being so prevalent, she says, it’s just not something we can afford to ignore.

“Institutions may not have been the answer, but is the alternative better?” she asks.

A fundraiser Oct. 26 at which she’ll sell images and screen a teaser of the documentary will support her ongoing travel to visit these institutions and work on collecting interviews.

The Empty Places: America’s Historic Mental Institutions Fundraiser and special documentary-in-progress screening is at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26 at Salto Coffee Works, 112 E. 2nd St., Nederland. Visit