Danvers Site: Lore & Gore
By Robert Buckley
The Sunday Boston Herald, October 29, 2007
IA spooky building with a tragic past set atop a hill with its own nefarious history: that was Danvers State Hospital. The hospital is gone now, but Hathorne Hill remains. Is it haunted ground? Paranormalists believe it is.
DANVERS - Hathorne Hill, which now supports a luxury rental community, partially completed, and an adult condo community, under construction, was once crowned by the eerie Gothic spires of Danvers State Hospital - known in its time as a lunatic asylum.
Long considered one of the most haunted sites in America, the hill was the scene of a ferocious fire in April that destroyed buildings under contruction by its new owner, and raised the eyebrows of people who believe elements remain from the site's ghastly history.
But could it be truly haunted?
Christian Day, a prominent member of nearby Salem's lively and occasionally volatile paranormal community, says it definitely is, but not in the way most people would assume.
"When we say a place is haunted, it's not necessarily by ghosts," Day says, although the self-described clairvoyant adds that he believes at least a handful of spirits roams the ill-starred hill.
"Every place where there is human activity, energy is left behind from the lives that are lived there," he said. "So, a place is not so much haunted by the dead, but by the living."
A frequent visitor to New Orleans, Day tells of neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina that pulse with the energy left by fearful and despairing residents who were forced to flee their homes. Yet few if any deaths were actually recorded in those areas.
"But you can feel it," Day says.
Day explains the more intense the human emotions, the more intense and lasting the energy. He has taken part in a paranormal investigation of Hathorne Hill and attests to what he considers a powerful "vibe." He said it only makes sense because of the long sad history of the people who suffered and despaired there.
He offers a theory that the energy that suffuses the hill may be at the root of the April fire. But he declares emphatically, "The people who live up there now have nothing to worry about. It isn't mad at them."
But he says it demands respect.
REFLECTIONS OF PAST LIVES
"What we're talking about is the Spirit of Place, and that comes from the lives that were lived in that place," Day said. "Other cultures have recognized this and what seems paranormal to us is just business as usual in other older cultures. People respected the Spirit of Place and paid tributes to it."
He said in the unlikely event he would ever be hired as a paranormal consultant by the developer of Hathorne Hill, he would recommend they build a "nice memorial" that conspicuously honors what existed before and not downplay the past. He suggests residents make small but genuine gestures.
"Leave some flowers at the cemeteries sometime. Show that those people are not forgotten and their memory is honored."
A colleague of Day, self-styled witch and medium Leanne Marrama, noted that no one was injured in the fire, and that intense as it was, it did not damage occupied homes.
"See, that fire was about someone's grandma getting mad; she was saying I'm here, pay attention to me."
As far as living in a haunted place, Day says you can build there, live there, raise families there. But you have to respect the Spirit of Place. "That's what it's all about: respect."
It's a notion shared by author-historian Michael Ramseur, Danvers town archvist Richard Trask and preservationist John Archer, who worked with Trask to try to preserve as much of the old facility as possible.
WHAT TO BELIEVE?
Trask doesn't necessarily believe in a paranormal energy. "I believe buildings are neutral, even if they have a sad history. I think people become affected by the history they already know."
He agrees history should be respected, but doesn't believe in this case it was well-served.
Archer and Ramseur both use the word "obsession" to describe their own long-held fascination with Hathorne Hill and the old state hospital.
Ramseur says "I was seized by the spirit of the place." A spirit that guided his extensive research, produced his books and today inspires his art, strikingly capturing the feel of the old "Haunted Palace," the title of his recently released book.
Scott Dale, a spokesman for AvalonBay, the developer that is building a luxury rental community where the horror-stricken hospital once stood, categorically refused to comment on the company's preservation efforts atop the hill, except to confirm what has already been reported.
"Those aspects are part of the history of the site and not the present," Dale said, "and I will not comment on them."
As for Day's and Maramma's take on the April fire, Dale said, "I won't comment on the sensational aspects. These questions have been asked; our record has been covered in previous print reports. I won't comment on them now."
A recent visit to the site found signage for the site's memorial, a table-like overlook on a curve of the perimeter road. Apparently still a work in progress, it is not engraved, nor does it bear a plaque. No signage indicates the location of the patient cemeteries, but construction is ongoing.
Completed buildings are named for great American authors, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Steinbeck, but none so far appear to bear the name of H.P. Lovecraft, who is thought to have fashioned his own fictional asylum after the Danvers facility.
A NEW CHAPTER
Trask said he believes AvalonBay will honor its commitment to maintain the cemeteries and provide access, as well as complete the memorial, but it is little comfort to the loss of what he considered an architectural and historic gem, for which a designation as a National Historic District offered it no protection.
One thing Trask and Archer, Ramseur and Day and Marrama agree on is that a new chapter has opened in the hill's story. And Day says the people who live and will live atop the hill will add to the Spirit of Place, as the joys, triumphs, tribulations and occasional sorrows that attend ordinary mortal lives accumulate there.
During the last week of September, the state fire marshal and the Danvers fire department jointly released the report on the investigation of the April fire. No cause could be determined; no point of origin could be found.
So, is Hathorne Hill really haunted? You might as well ask if Ground Zero in New York City is haunted, or if Gettysburg and Antietam are haunted, or if the grounds that lie beneath what were Treblinka and Auschwitz are haunted.
Perhaps that question turns on something as simple as this: Maybe HAUNTED is just another word for HALLOWED.
** This is the second of two parts. In yesterday's installment, the asylum's history was explored. Go to bostonherald.com to see that article and images of Danvers State Hospital by artist and author Michael Ramseur.
Subscribe to The Scarlet Letter!
Get monthly updates for Festival of the Dead, HEX, OMEN, and Salem Witch Walk!