Mark Leslie and Rhonda Parrish, Haunted Hospitals: Eerie Tales about Hospitals, Sanatoriums, and Other Institutions (Dundurn, 2017), 220 pages.
When Rhonda Parrish moved in next to the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta – reputed to be the most haunted building in the city – the seeds were sown for this book. From there, it took just a brief conversation between Parrish and Mark Leslie, author of Creepy Capital and Tomes of Terror, for the two writers to team up on Haunted Hospitals: Eerie Tales about Hospitals, Sanatoriums, and Other Institutions.
As Parrish notes in her introduction, “Day after day the most extreme of human experiences play out within the walls of hospitals. The most intense emotions are experienced again and again. Birth. Death. Trauma. Suffering.” It’s little wonder, then, that so many stories of paranormal happenings are tied to these institutions.
This nonfiction book is a compendium of stories drawn from interviews, forum and website posts, books of ghost stories, and videos from shows like Ghost Hunters. It is clear that Parrish and Leslie (both curious skeptics) cast their net wide and did a lot of research to bring some of the most notable and chilling tales from haunted hospitals, asylums, as well as prisons that housed the criminally insane.
These stories span two hundred years and come from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore and Italy, and in many ways feel like a ghost tour you might take on vacation or in your own city around Halloween. Some tales are quite involved and Parrish’s talents as a speculative fiction writer are on full display. You can imagine strolling through the streets of Montreal to the student residence repurposed from a hospital/orphanage where over fifty children burned to death in 1918. You can picture navigating mazes of tunnels beneath sprawling institutions, past the body chutes and the basement rooms where especially unruly patients might be shackled in earlier times. Other entries are more like quick stops along the way, a short blurb in a haunted guidebook (this is especially the case with the ‘Prisons’ section at the end of the book).
As with ghost tours, Haunted Hospitals, is also a great ‘gateway drug’ for those of us interested in history, medical ethics, and how societies have viewed and treated physical and mental illness. It offers good historical context and facts about the buildings as well, and touches on controversies around redevelopment, urban planning, and whether people should use these institutions for haunted tours and other ‘terror lite’ experiences.
Parrish and Leslie challenge us to imagine what it’s like for cities and institutions overwhelmed by tuberculosis, Spanish Flu and the plague to deal in a humane manner with patients. And while they dedicate the book to medical professionals who devote their lives to healing, they face issues of overcrowding, neglect, and patient abuse head on, as well as allegations of medical research and experimentation.
There were two stories, however, where more digging and contextualization (and a bit less sensationalism) was needed. First, the tale of ‘Nurse Emmie’ at Rolling Hills Asylum, a purported member of a ‘satanic coven’, seems to lean heavily on the 1990s-era hysteria over satanic cults that proved to be mostly unfounded. Second, the transcribed 1935 news story of Dr. H.E. Zimmerly in Pennsylvania is problematic. If you have some background on the history of women’s reproductive health, it sounds very much like he was simply performing abortions – illegal at the time – for poor young women with nowhere safer to turn. These were terrifying, of course, but in a different way than the story might have intended.
Like haunted tours of these hospitals and the communities that surround them, it’s tricky to balance the entertainment factor of creepy stories with the history and deeper meanings within them. Generally, Parrish and Leslie do a good job walking this line, giving us the chills we crave while educating us about changing ideas of medical care, criminalization, and mental illness.
This is a fun and thoughtful book, and anyone interested in medicine mixed with the paranormal will find stories to stimulate the imagination – and give you goosebumps.
If you’d like to go deeper into the subject of haunted buildings in the United States, and get a bit more of an academic bent on the topic, I recommend you check out Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey.
Want to know more about the complex history and legacy of the Charles Camsell Hospital? Please visit www.ghostsofcamsell.ca, my blog on the topic.