October 25, 2019 | Feature
stone walls and complicated spaces
a history of the dexter asylum
When thinking of scary spots on Brown’s campus, the Nelson Fitness Center and its surrounding sports complex probably aren’t the first places that come to mind.
Sure, the Nelson’s barre and spin classes can be harrowing, and most would agree the disappearing weights are particularly spooky, but at least there is a sound explanation for that—selfish patrons. However, the history of the property tells a darker story. Where the Nelson and other sports buildings now stand, there was once an asylum.
According to the Rhode Island Historical Society Archives, the Dexter Asylum was completed in 1828 after the land was gifted to the city of Providence by a wealthy resident, Ebenezer Knight Dexter, upon his death. Originally meant to be a facility to care for Providence’s most vulnerable (both those with mental illness and those living in poverty), the Dexter Asylum provided a service absent in the city. It was built with good intentions, but the Dexter Asylum, like many similar institutions of the time, faced periods of overcrowding and maintained spartan conditions (brutal by today’s standards).
According to the Rhode Island Historical Society documentation, visitors were only permitted once every three weeks, and evening meals often consisted of only bread and tea. Fraternizing between men and women was forbidden, and if residents missed a meal, they didn’t eat. Most of Dexter’s residents were destitute and would have otherwise been living on the street, so it was Ebenezer Dexter’s trust, along with city money, that covered the majority of the facility’s costs. Still, residents had to work for their food at the asylum’s farm. In 1843, one observer noted that about a quarter of the asylum’s population was “insane,” but treatments for mental illness were lacking. Instead, the asylum compensated by confining people living with mental illness to “maniac cells.”
Over time, the asylum became outdated, but the property it sat on became more valuable. After years of litigation, the city reneged on Ebenezer Dexter’s wishes and sought alternative uses for the land. The asylum was finally closed in 1957 after 129 years of operation when Brown University bought the land to build a gymnasium.
There’s not much left of the asylum, which, based on photos in the Library of Congress, looked like a drab version of a French chateau. All that remains is the large wall that used to enclose the complex. Made of stone and no longer surrounding the whole complex, the barrier once kept those living in the asylum apart from the outside world. Although the closure of asylums like Dexter may have signaled a positive change in society’s perception of mental health, asylums and mental hospitals are still the backdrops of scary movies. They serve as places of cultural horror, and many of those still existing today, such as conversion centers, provide no legitimate psychiatric help. However, when mental hospitals were first constructed in the United States, they were some of the most expensive buildings in the country. They were often built to mimic mansions in an effort to make their residents feel more at home, according to Southern Connecticut State University History Professor Troy Rondinone, author of Nightmare Factories: Asylums in the American Imagination.
In addition to being well-constructed, many asylums were the only places offering a living space for people who were poor or mentally ill, people who otherwise might have had nowhere else to live.
Despite the asylum being a theoretical place of safety, in practice it was often something very different. Asylums “have always had a scary element,” Rondinone says. “‘Asylum’ is a good word, it means a place of refuge; but by the end of the 1800s, doctors started calling asylums ‘hospitals’ simply because the word asylum had so many negative connotations by then that they were seen as places where people were unfairly locked up and tortured.”
By the 20th century, a majority of asylums were overcrowded and underfunded.
Undercover reporting by journalist Nellie Bly revealed conditions much worse than those at Dexter. In some asylums, attendants were abusive, treatments were extreme, and, at times, harmful to those whom they were supposed to help. The American mental hospital population ultimately peaked in 1955 with over half a million individuals institutionalized.
After this point, there was a swift downturn. The invention of more antipsychotic drugs, the acknowledgement that institutions were too great of a public expense to sustain, and media coverage of some of the asylums’ atrocities finally catalyzed deinstitutionalization.
Pushback from pop culture resisted this mid-20th century outcry against the horrors of asylums. Two of the most popular media depictions of the asylum are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the original Halloween, released in 1975 and 1978 respectively. They show asylums as places people went to go mad and paint mental patients as people to be feared.
“When [Halloween] came out . . . people were expressing concern that released mental hospital patients were going to wreak havoc, they’re going to commit violent crimes on the streets. And so, kind of at the height of that fear we get a movie about a mental patient wreaking havoc on the streets in his own community,” Rondinone says.
Since the 1970s, the asylum has continued to be the backdrop for scary tales in literature, in movies, and on television. The Fox TV show American Horror Story created a whole season set in a malevolent asylum, where the devil himself presides.
A significant portion of haunted tourism has also stemmed from and perpetuated the fear of asylums. Teenagers have long been exploring abandoned buildings to scare themselves—more recently for macabre Instagram shoots. Even adults can partake in the “fun” and rationalize this asylum-interest by visiting museums and sites of the paranormal. During his research, Rondinone says he stayed in the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia for a night, and unsurprisingly, found exactly zero ghosts.
While not a household name like Trans Allegheny, the Dexter Asylum may have its own connection to the transformation of the asylum from haven to hell. One of the horror genre’s most prominent authors—H.P. Lovecraft—lived just blocks away from its walls. Perhaps inspired by his experience with Dexter, he had a large role in the inclusion of asylums in the genre.
Lovecraft is a horror and science-fiction icon today, although he was not widely known in his time, and his legacy permeates modern pop culture (having influenced works like The Shining and Batman, according to the The New York Times). Lovecraft was born and raised in Providence and often frequented Brown’s campus to use its libraries, despite never attending college himself.
Beyond simply living physically near the Dexter Asylum, Lovecraft had his own vendetta against asylums. Both of Lovecraft’s parents died in Butler Mental Hospital in Providence. (Before Butler was constructed, the burden of mental health care in Providence fell solely on Dexter.)
Lovecraft’s novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, tells the story of a wealthy young man from Providence gone missing from an asylum. Dexter was a common name, but its use could be linked to the Dexter Asylum he must have been acquainted with.
Although “the pop cultural asylum is in dialogue with real places,” and there are parts of asylums that were indeed horrific, “it says more about us as a society that asylums are now a part of our scary stories,” according to Rondinone.
“When we think about mental hospitals as being scary places, we should look at our own hang-ups and prejudices about mental illness and the people that suffer from it,” Rondinone says. After all, the horrible descriptions of asylums are often equally critical and diminutive towards the people inside them. Rondinone also points out that while asylums and mental hospitals are places where abuses and terrible things occurred, these things happen in nursing homes too. Why don’t we have more scary stories set in nursing homes? (And no, The Visit, a movie about possessed grandparents, doesn’t count).
“We kind of create our own monsters in America,” Rondinone says, and the asylum has become one of them.
For me, a scary movie and book buff, I find Rondinone’s theory realistic, but hard to swallow. Why is the thing we are scared of always “the other”? And how can we reconcile that our feelings about what we are scared of often say more about us than the “scary” things and people themselves?
I can confess that I love haunted stories about things that go bump in the dark, magic and murders, and yes, even asylums. American Horror Story is one of my favorite shows, and Asylum was a pretty great season; it even had its own Nellie Bly character (played by Sarah Paulsen) who sneaks into the asylum and reveals its deepest secrets to ultimately shut it down.
While it’s fun to be scared, it’s also important to think critically about the scary stories we hear, and, truthfully, about all the stories in our lives.
In that sense, maybe it’s a good thing that only Dexter’s walls exist: an unsuitable relic for a ghost story but a strong reminder of our past.