Into the Asylum
In 2014 I met up with 5 strangers on the edge of Laurel, Maryland. It was late October; the day was grey, and the brown leaves had fallen to the ground, leaving the trees naked and exposed to the elements. The temperature hovered in the high 40s, and a cold wind blew through the trees. Each of these strangers, including myself, wore a uniform or dark colors or earth tones, with the sole intention of not being seen. We were about to explore Forest Haven, one of nation's deadliest asylums.
We parked on the side of a highway, near Moose Café, but not too close, because rumors had spread that the owners of the Moose didn’t enjoy trespassers parking in their lot but not patronizing the restaurant. After introductions, I only remember 3 of the people I met that day. First there was Jen, who was in her mid 50s. She had a strong build, and demeanor of seriousness you don’t come across often. She seemed weather worn, and she was quick to explain to me that the trip to the asylum was extremely coveted among urban explorers, and that we risked arrest by making the journey. Then there was David, who was an avid explorer and professional photographer. He was the only other person my age there. There was a third man who was much older and was very serious about his photographs, almost obnoxiously so. I don't recall the others.
The five of us climbed up a steep, muddy embankment about 50 feet north of Moose Café. There was no trail, we just knew to head west until we hit a desolate, one lane road, the guard’s patrol route. The asylum we were about to enter had been abandoned in 1991, however, there were neighbors that remained. On the same tract of land was a high security juvenile detention facility. Security from the juvenile detention facility patrolled for trespassers, of which we were 6. The road was empty, and across the way was an open loading dock, which would be our point of entry to the asylum’s twenty two building complex. The five of us sprinted across the road, knowing that once we were in, we would be hidden inside, and our journey could begin in earnest.
Forest Haven Asylum was founded in 1925, and was a hidden prison for mentally handicapped individuals. Hundreds of people died there. At one point, there were two social workers for 1,300 patients. Former DC Mayor Vincent Gray visited the site when it was active, and remembered as the "the most de-humanizing thing [he] had ever seen." An employee for the Development Disabilities Authority admitted "congress only built forest haven in order to exile people in with mental retardation from the nation's capital." After decades of deaths, abuses, and lawsuits, the asylum shuttered its doors in 1991. Shoes, computers, medical records, and other flotsam were left as they were one fateful day nearly thirty years ago.
Disturbing remnants of the past still haunt the asylum. The crematorium, where the dead were turned to ashes, left us in silence. But it wasn’t those things that made my neck hair stand on edge. It was the remnants of the children. Small shoes gathered in a pile in the middle of a shower. Toys and craft supplies left on tables with children’s decorations peeling off a nearby wall. The building that had held the teenagers was in better condition than many of the others, and we were unpleasantly surprised to find a homeless person had created a makeshift residence in one of the old offices, crafting a bed out of found bottles and newspapers. Fortunately, we did not meet him or her in person.
All told, the six of us spent over six hours exploring the rooms, offices, and medical facilities. We saw the guards making their rounds from within the buildings, our adrenaline peaking at the sounds of faraway engines. Fascination, awe, fear, disgust, and wonder coursed through my veins, often mixing into a confusion array of feelings and thoughts. After fully exploring nine of the most interesting buildings, we made our laborious exit back to the loading dock where we entered, making sure we stayed hidden. Silently. The experience was sullen. Knowing that innocent lives were hidden, destroyed, and systematically experimented at the site we had just visited. In my three years in DC, my visit to Forest Haven is still seared in my mind as the most unique and haunting experience.
You can learn more about Forest Haven's history here.