There are few local haunts that send chills down your spine like Western State Hospital—also known as the abandoned insane asylum off Interstate 81. It turns out that the horrific depictions of insane asylums in movies and shows are actually not too far off from the truth.
Looming atop a peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Western State Hospital is located in Staunton, Virginia. After passing this abandoned building countless times, I decided to dig into its history, and what I discovered is truly ghastly. Originally called Western State Lunatic Asylum, the government-sanctioned facility received its first patient in 1828. Dr. Stribling, the first hospital director, believed in moral and medical therapy, which entailed healing through human relationships. He taught his staff to encourage mental patients to find vocations, hobbies, exercises, and to engage in fun activities.
However, Dr. Stribling represented the silver lining of Western State Hospital’s gruesome past. In 1905, renowned physician Dr. DeJarnette became the new hospital director. As a fierce advocate of eugenics, he wrote a poem, which included the stanza:
This is the law of Mendel,
And often he maken it plain,
Defectives will breed defectives,
And the insane breed insane.
Oh why do we allow these people
To breed back to the monkey’s nest,
To increase our country’s burdens
When we should only breed the best?
DeJarnette facilitated the sterilization of hundreds of his patients who he deemed “unfit” to reproduce. One could get sterilized for being poor, unintelligent, mentally unstable, or promiscuous. Basically, if you weren’t of a certain skin color, social class, or mental state, you were at risk of undergoing a forced sterilization.
Not only did DeJarnette enforce sterilization, he also administered electroshock therapy, lobotomies, isolation, and physical restraints. Imagine being strapped down and shocked until you have a seizure or picture doctors plucking at nerves behind your eyes while you’re still conscious. This was the every day life for patients at Western State Hospital. Thus, the asylum morphed from a haven of healing to a decrepit ward where despicable practices were implemented. Sterilization and these unethical “therapies” continued to grow in popularity after World War II and even after Americans witnessed the devastating genocide as a result of the eugenics movement propagated by the Nazis.
In the 1970s, Western State Hospital was converted to a penitentiary and residence for children with extreme behavioral disorders. By 2002, the city of Staunton finally boarded up the building with the hopes of renovating it into condominiums, offices, and a shopping mall. However, the abandoned insane asylum still looms among the Blue Ridge Mountains casting a shadow that whispers of unspeakable horrors.
Walk along the grounds or crawl through a hole into the building, and you will still discover black handprints scattered across the walls, boxes of teeth, hospital beds, and solitary confinement rooms. And who knows, you might just find some old crusted wires used in electroshock therapy or the medical tools used to scrape behind patients’ eyes.
So beware JMU students, Dr. DeJarnette may still lurk the hallways waiting for his next patient—his next victim—his next…you.