It’s not just the morbid and macabre horror movie ambiance of abandoned psychiatric facilities that makes them so haunting and fascinating; it’s the shadows of the people who often lived their entire lives there. Toothbrushes hanging on hooks, bedding still wadded on cots, wheelchairs and patient records are stark reminders of the humanity that once existed between these walls. Photographer Jeremy Harris has documented many of the structures still standing in a series called ‘Abandoned American Asylums: The Moral Architecture of the Nineteenth Century.’
Harris has been sneaking into abandoned asylums since 2005 to take his photos. The series includes just about everything you’d expect: peeling paint, foreboding hallways and a whole lot of rusting metal. But there are also faded murals, grand theaters and bowling alleys.
In the 19th century, a large number of people – whether seriously mentally ill or not – were institutionalized against their will, often left in hospitals their entire lives without visits from family. At the time, mental illness was often thought of as a moral or spiritual failing. Circumstances improved by the 20th century, in most facilities.
Mother Jones produced a video about the photo project. You can also read more about early psychiatric hospitals and asylums at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and see the rest of the photos at Jeremy Harris’ website.