Kings Park Psychiatric Center’s Building 93

The ruins of the Kings Park Psychiatric Centre on Long Island are often referred to as the ideal location for a horror film, and indeed, numerous have been filmed here. Today’s horror heroes are exploring the abandoned asylum cells, not the ones that Poe and Lovecraft’s narrators wrote from. The insane hospital is appearing more often in our terrifying films, TV programmes, literature and urban legends as closed facilities throughout the United States degenerate, swiftly becoming associated with malevolent spirits, evil physicians and violent mental patients. But even while we may take pleasure in the “thrill of the shudder” when remembering these locations, we should be careful to avoid perpetuating the stigma of mental illness and omitting the complex history of American institutions.

Looms and partially woven carpets were still present in a craft area on the main level.
Looms and partially woven carpets were still present in a craft area on the main level. (Prints are offered)

Kings County Asylum was founded in 1885 by the city of Brooklyn before the five boroughs were combined. It was created as a self-sufficient community where people were assigned to cultivating crops and cattle to sustain the large campus. The work was considered to be therapeutic, keeping people busy and focused while lowering expenditures. Kings Park was originally built as a collection of cottages to avoid the high rise asylum concept, which was already considered as cruel. However, when demand increased and New York City’s population grew rapidly during the 1930s, the organisation was forced to build Building 93, a 13-story skyscraper whose design was startlingly similar to what it had aimed to avoid, in 1939. With over 100 buildings, including power plants, fire stations, staff housing, hospitals, recreation centres, piggeries, and cow barns, Kings Park at its height in the 1950s housed over 9,000 people who were divided by gender, age, temperament, and physical limitations.

When patients were transferred to pilgrim, beds could have been lowered lower.
When the final inhabitants of Kings Park were transferred to the neighbouring Pilgrim State in 1996, beds may have been moved down.

abandoned furniture on the bottom level.
On the ground level, there was equipment and furniture still there.

Kings Park was renowned for keeping on the leading edge of psychological research throughout its existence, earning it a reputation as a pioneer and supporter of a number of novel treatments and interventions that ultimately contributed to the institution’s demise. With limited treatment options other than psychotherapy and the pervasive use of restraints and incarceration, the psychological community was in a desperate situation in the first half of the 20th century, struggling to care for an increasing number of mentally ill people. Two revolutionary—yet crude—procedures emerged in the 1940s, giving clinicians for the first time practical methods to handle seriously disturbed individuals.

When medical professionals saw that depressed epileptic patients’ moods improved after a seizure, shock treatment was developed. By administering insulin or using electricity to trigger a seizure, the method tried to recreate these advantages. As it is presently recognised, electroconvulsive therapy is still regarded as a successful treatment and has even had a comeback. But compared to what patients had to go through in the 1940s, modern anaesthesia is significantly more sophisticated, and the length and physical consequences of seizures can be precisely controlled. Patients might convulse for up to fifteen minutes at a time while strapped fully aware to a hospital bed, often with enough force to shatter and fracture bones. After being confined to an asylum, a patient had no right to agree to or object to these operations, and shock therapy was often used as a form of discipline to maintain order among disruptive patients.

An early transorbital lobotomy schematic.

One of the more hideous treatments used at the time is the lobotomy, which is being used today. It was a straightforward technique in which the pre-frontal cortex’s connections to the rest of the brain were severed by inserting a metal instrument into the hollow of the skull via the eye socket. It was a crude and cruel procedure that completely erased the memories of those who had been lobotomized. Lobotomized patients could have been better referred to as zombies—extremely aggressive and troubled residents would be made permanently docile, inert, and simple to manage. While advocates of the treatment referred to these outcomes as a “second childhood,” they were really more aptly characterised as zombies. Even in its day, it was a contentious idea, but in 1949, its original proponents were given the Nobel Peace Prize for their finding.

A 1960s antipsychotic drug advertising.

The emergence of potent antipsychotic drugs in the middle of the 1950s heralded the end of both these drastic tactics and the institution system as a whole. Residents who had previously been thought to be hopeless were now able to control their mental condition and live on their own. As a result, there was a significant change in institutions throughout the nation, going from acute overcrowding to almost complete abandonment as the deinstitutionalization wave swept across the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Although the ruling class was eager to put this unpleasant time in history behind them (and decrease financing from state budgets), it’s possible that they went overboard. There is still a sizeable number of persons with serious mental problems for whom the existing treatments are useless, even if medication has made it feasible for the majority of them to operate on their own. Reputable group homes for those with mental illnesses are hard to come by and out of reach for those without a strong support network. Today, many people with serious mental illnesses live on the streets, and an increasing number wind up behind bars, without having enough access to high-quality psychiatric treatment. Kings Park still exists as a reminder of a bygone age, but the issue it was designed to solve has not been resolved.

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