Last summer, Joe Jordan, an asbestos demolition contractor, bought the Weston Hospital in West Virginia, which is registered as a national historic landmark.
He has renamed it the "Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum," which was its name in another era. Constructed in 1864 as a psychiatric hospital, it housed more than 2,000 patients at its peak. It was closed in 1994.
The Associated Press (AP) has reported that Jordan is trying to revive the property by offering tours and other "attractions." The planned attractions include a "Hospital of Horrors" at Halloween season, a "Nightmare Before Christmas" tour, as well as "Psycho Path" dirt bike races on the 307 acre complex.
StigmaBusters are outraged that the stigmatizing name has been resurrected and that the hospital, where many people once suffered, will be used as the setting for entertainment, featuring violent stereotypes and disparaging language.
Like many of you may be right now, I was initially outraged! However, after spending the last hour looking over the old hospital's website, my outrage has mellowed from a boil to a simmer. The situation is a bit more complex than it initially appears.
This building is quite historic and apparently was a centerpiece of the community for most of its 130 years. I am a big fan of historic buildings, and this one looks beautiful! It is a gigantic, stone hospital. Like so many others around the nation, it was closed in the 1990's and has since fallen into disrepair due to the huge expense required to maintain it. It was on the demolition block when it was purchased at auction by Mr. Jordan.
The website appears to positively focus on the history of the hospital, it's architecture, and it's economic impact on the local community over its 130-year lifespan. Some of the tour guests have commented on the site that the tour was done respectfully and actually highlighted the suffering of the mentally ill patients. I don't even have a problem with them resurrecting the old, stigma-laden, stereotypical name as long as it is historically accurate and done in the name of preservation.
The problem is, with scheduled fundraising activities including 20 hours of "Hospital of Horrors" tours before Halloween and something called the "Nightmare Before Christmas" on December 23rd, determining whether or not the name change is purely preservation-driven is difficult. (Note: It's also been reported that the upcoming truck races scheduled on the hospital grounds were to be called the "psycho path" races, but the hospital web site only refers to them as the "Mud Bog" races.)
So there are more complexities here than it appears at first blush. Many of the comments on the website are either totally supportive of Mr. Jordan, and unfortunately dismissive of the concerns of the mental health community, or they contemptuously blast Mr. Jordan's "ignorance" and dismiss any potential positive impact of his undertaking. I think the reality lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Preserving a beautiful, historic building is laudable, maybe even altruistic, especially when that building has been instrumental to the community's economic survival. Mr. Jordan has an opportunity to use a unique and spectacular platform to attract and educate people about the history and reality of mental illness. Imagine how powerful that tour could be if it incorporated personal statements from the doctors, nurses, patients and family members associated with the institution. (Have you ever been to Alcatraz or Ellis Island? Aren't those audio tours more educational and memorable because they include the actual experiences and voices of the guards, prisoners, and immigrants who were there?) Heck, what a great opportunity for Mr. Jordan to employ some people with mental illness as tour guides. There's no better way to change people's ideas about a stigmatized, stereotyped group than to have them come face-to-face with each other. I'd volunteer to give tours if I lived anywhere near the place! The opportunity for enlightenment is great.
Unfortunately, it appears the financial stresses of such a massive undertaking and/or Mr. Jordan's lack of knowledge or concern for the mentally ill have led to poor fundraising choices. It is unfortunate and maddening that he and his supporters cannot comprehend why holding a "Hospital of Horrors" tour in a mental health hospital is offensive. I can't comprehend why they can't comprehend that! That's frightening. Let's hold it at a cancer hospital where guests can stick their fingers into darkened containers of real tumors and experience the side effects of chemotherapy firsthand. How about having the horror tour at a rehab hospital for spinal cord and brain injury where guests could be temporarily paralyzed, blinded, or rendered mute and then asked to negotiate a staircase, busy street corner, or answer the telephone. Ha! Ha! Ha! What a hoot! Oh, does that sound outrageous, insensitive? Exactly.
Think about it. Nightmare Before Christmas? Hospital of Horrors? Those titles would not work at the cancer institute or the rehab center. If they weren't based on stigma and stereotypes, those titles wouldn't work at all. They only work in a former mental institution because they are based on the stereotype that mentally ill people are violent, murderous, and scary. It is a powerful, pervasive stereotype, and that stigma is what makes these ill-conceived tours and programs appealing and profitable.
So I commend you, Mr. Jordan, for standing up and using your own funds to save an important, historically significant building. But I also urge you, Mr. Jordan, to use your creative mind to develop alternative methods to raise funds for your undertaking. Hold a dance or a costume party. How about inviting locals to use your grounds for proms, weddings, family reunions, or flea markets. Are you requesting outside assistance? Perhaps you could set up your website to accept donations. Please, Mr. Jordan, out of compassion for those of us living with mental illness, and certainly out of respect for those spirits with whom you now mingle, please reconsider your fundraising decisions. I look forward to visiting your beautiful site soon.