This past weekend a couple my friends and I indulged in the common Halloween-centered festivities, which consisted of eating food laden with sucrose, watching movies that inspire hypertension and lastly, attending a tour where over-eager men and women surprised us while wearing scary costumes. However, this weekend, rather than visiting the all-too-common haunted house, we decided to indulge ourselves in something more nerve-racking instead — we visited Radford’s notorious haunted asylum, St. Albans.
After we had agreed to patronize the former asylum, but before we actually left, I had hesitated — the idea of participating in anything that might stigmatize people with mental illnesses seemed wrong. Regardless, the plans were set, and we traveled to Radford. St. Albans Asylum is now a part of Carilion, the local health care organization based in Roanoke. The gorgeous buildings that the asylum formerly occupied still sit on a hill, which overlooks Radford’s main bridge. While it has obviously deteriorated, the antique, brick building is still in good shape.
Even at night, when the establishment was surrounded by protestors, cops, media and goofy patrons, the buildings look gorgeous and — maybe it’s just me — serene. I still imagine the asylum to have been a calm place when it was used, and even on days when the place is abandoned, I think it would seem tranquil, rather than sinister.
The aura that surrounded the asylum that night, however, was very different. First, my ethical concerns were reinforced when I saw a small, but dedicated, line of protestors occupying the sidewalk in front of the asylum. The only readable sign I saw was one that spelled “Respect” in bold, colorful letters. While they by no means convinced me to abandon the tourist attraction and join in, their dedication is admirable.
After passing the protestors and parking, we made our way to the front of the exhibit. What I saw at the front of the two buildings was — and I hate to use this adjective condescendingly — distinctly American. After a brisk walk up the hill, patrons attending the haunted asylum would witness a scene akin to a carnival. Vendors were set up selling Pepsi products and snacks. Next to them was another vendor selling T-shirts.
One obnoxiously displayed the word “Asylum”, featuring an image of the now cliche scary girl, holding an even scarier doll. Another T-shirt was just as trendy, saying, “St. Albans Sanatorium: One Crazy Place!” with blood splatter behind the text. Most of the patrons enjoyed all of the products offered.
The crowd was also very diverse. Those attending varied from kids decked out in attire belonging to a Tim Burton film — along with matching face paint — while other gentlemen wore plaid shirts, tight jeans and occupied the wait time by indulging in dip tobacco. For the diversity of opinions and cliques, everyone was respectful and patient, which was more difficult than usual because of the freezing cold.
After we purchased our tickets — I whimpered once I pondered that I may have just given my money to those who would sooner install a roller coaster in the asylum than maintain it — we hobbled to our place in line and awaited our entrance into one of the two buildings.