Friday, June 10, 2016

Life Exceeds Art: The Horror Of The Abandoned Hospital

I've mentioned the idea of Abandoned Hospital Syndrome in passing before. This is the tendency to take a specific setting - like, well, an abandoned hospital - and hang some formulaic set pieces off of it and trying to pass it off as horror. When done well, a setting like this can be really powerful. Buildings left to decay are spooky to begin with, making the building larger gives it a monolithic quality, and I think when the building was one intended for the treatment and care of illness, there's something almost profane in its dilapidation. Hospitals are supposed to be safe and clean, so it's almost a desecration. Session 9 is an excellent example - a huge mental hospital left to rot, long shadowy corridors, bygone apparatus, a legacy of misery and death. In the hands of its skilled director, you don't even need special effects, really. Just some lingering shots, barely-glimpsed movement, and understated sound effects. On the other, you have lazier attempts like The Sick House, which is basically a slasher film with some vague nods to the idea of disease, set in an abandoned hospital without any real rationale other than "this ghost was a doctor," in the hopes that the setting will somehow confer a feeling of dread that the hackneyed story and clumsy direction don't earn. And those are only two examples. Hospitals - especially, though not exclusively, mental hospitals - are a staple setting. If you couldn't tell, I think they're a little overdone.

This point, then, is thrown into sharp relief when I read something like this photo essay about Charity Hospital in New Orleans...

Charity was a huge - look at the size of the building - teaching hospital. Over 2500 beds. It served New Orleans' poorest citizens. And then when Katrina hit, and the levees failed, Charity lost power, and its lower levels flooded. Evacuation was not forthcoming. No power, no air conditioning (in Louisiana, in August), scarce supplies, and a building full of the sick, the injured, the dying, the dead. I mean, forget glib zombie movies, if you want to see what post-apocalypse would look like, just watch any documentary about the effects of Katrina and the failure of the levees on New Orleans. No souped-up cars, no goofy-looking bands of raiders. Just lots of people scared, starving, dying in the dark. 

And now, because of business interests, a corrupt and inefficient city government, and bureaucracy, the rotting hulk of Charity hospital sits in New Orleans. Going on eleven years now, it sits there, rotting, abandoned. A mute testament to the worst week ever in the hospital's history 

See, you don't need the ghosts of serial killer plague doctors. You don't even need the ghosts of former mental patients. The real world is sometimes worse. Is often worse. The problems of people, struggling against the forces of nature, or poverty, carry a raw desperation that no masked murderer can match. One of the most frightening things I've ever watched was a dramatic reenactment of the accident at Chernobyl, the fear on the faces of the engineers, the people who went into the basement of the reactor, condemning themselves to death within seconds. The people who swam into lethally radioactive water, blind, with limited oxygen, to fix broken coolant valves. They were real.

When Charity Hospital flooded, so did their basement morgue, and all the bodies came floating to the surface. They had to be collected and stacked in the stairwells, in the damp and the August heat.

Just imagine that - wading through chest-deep or deeper water in the dark, gathering the corpses. That's not fiction. That's not make-believe. Someone in the world we inhabit, right here in the middle of the United States, in the 21st century, had to do that.

What ghost can compare, then, to the ones with which these people will always live?