There’s a haunted psychiatric ward in Northport, Alabama where I love to go and play. Located pretty far up McFarland Boulevard near the old hospital is a tiny little church. Some say devil worshipers go there, but us college students find it a great place to park so that we can wander over the train tracks and through the woods to Bryce’s front lawn. Sometimes police officers stay near both the front and back entrances so people like me can’t go exploring (but the place is void of “no trespassing” signs, so I figure it isn’t necessarily against the law). Thankfully I see no cop cars this time as I pull up to the church and step out of my Volvo to begin this evening’s adventure down the overgrown, rusted train tracks to the path that leads to the old hospital.
In about an hour, my best friend Liam, who also enjoys spending copious amounts of time chilling at this spot, is meeting me here with his trusty dog Scout. Scout’s a mut with big brown spots on her face and back. She’s named after Scout from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and she definitely lives up to her namesake. Until they arrive, however, I’m left to my own reconnaissance.
Clouds cover the sun as I walk over pine needles and avoid mud puddles. It’s about five o’clock now and the middle of February. The air is thin and chilly. The wind whistles quickly around my face. The light grows dim, and the path becomes more difficult to see as the canopy of trees thickens around me. An ominous feeling runs through my spine and my hairs stand on end. This place is beautiful, but boy is it creepy.
I notice an old dried up well in the underbrush to my left. A little further down the path, the towers of the furnace rise eerily through the trees whose branches have found its way through the brick as if to hold the building hostage to the earth underneath it. I had only been inside the furnace once before, and, today, I decide against exploring it again. So much foul play was committed in that building that I knew that nothing good could come from spending too much alone time there. Inside, there is a tiny storage room where old cans of lubricant (probably used to oil the cogs in the machine that ran the furnace), torn and tattered notebooks, rusted tools, and mice and squirrel nests can be found. The basement of the furnace, which can only be reached from a single outside entrance, is deeply flooded from years of rain and water leakage from the ceiling above. There is no way for the water to escape or dry up because of the moisture that always lingers in the air there. The rusted gas lines and water pipes lying around look almost like the rest of the sticks and fallen branches around them. Nature is beginning to consume the entire place.
As I get closer, I can see the hospital in the distance standing tall and looming over the roundabout driveway. Old Bryce (or the Jemison Center as it is accurately named) was opened in the early 19th century, a few decades after the actual Bryce Hospital (which is located directly next to the University of Alabama’s campus). The hospital is named after Peter Bryce, an acclaimed psychiatrist from South Carolina and the hospital’s first superintendant.
The Tuscaloosa Paranormal website says that the state of Alabama purchased a country home from a man named Mims Jemison after the Civil War. It was then turned into the second installment of Bryce hospital, which did, in fact, house the black patients due to overcrowding in the main hospital and also due to segregation. It has been said that because of the lack of funding in Alabama for mental health institutions, these patients had to be “self-sufficient by making their own clothes and working the fields for food and cotton.” Some rumors say that some of the patients weren’t really mentally unstable and only lived here due to difficult times after the ending of slavery.
In the 1970’s the state of Alabama reformed its mental health laws to add protection against the evils of what was then known as “modern” psychiatry. The changes were due in part to journalist Paul Davis’ comments on the Jemison Center’s wretched conditions. He says, “Human feces were caked on the toilets and walls; urine saturated the aging oak floors; many beds lacked linen; some patients slept on floors. Archaic shower stalls had cracked and spewing shower heads. One tiny shower closet served 131 male patients; the 75 women patients also had but one shower. Most of the patients at Jemison were highly tranquilized and had not been bathed in days. All appeared to lack any semblance of treatment. The stench was almost unbearable.”
Around me, I can sense lingering feelings that hold the pains and hardships that were suffered here. One of the main reasons I love this place is the history behind it. It holds a kind of evil that isn’t necessarily unwelcoming. Rather, to me, it is more inviting than a child’s birthday party simply because of my love for the macabre.
Finally, I arrive at the circular drive at the front. Two cotton fields frame either side of the main drive. The front doors are hanging on their hinges; all paint stripped from their surfaces. Graffiti litters the intimidatingly tall pillars and every other bare space to draw. I stand extremely still, almost breathless, looking carefully up towards every window of each of the three stories of the building – I think I was hoping to see something move, but alas, there was no one but me. My breathing grows heavier as I begin to walk closer to the door, but something stops me from going inside – the darkness there was engulfing and threatening. I wanted to go in so badly, but I knew it would be a much wiser choice to wait on Liam.
I turn around to face the driveway and examine the cotton fields from afar, which during this time of year are cottonless, brown, and dry. I walk up to the plants and gently touch their brittle stems. I feel cold inside and think deeply about the men and women who might’ve suffered long hours in these fields just in order to survive.
There are several different pathways through the hospital. One leads back to the furnace, one to the building that held the more elderly of patients, one to the schoolhouse and next to the dilapidated home of the Jemison Center’s superintendent. All of the paths are lined with high reeds, weeds, wildflowers and mud puddles. I can hear nothing other than the brustling of the wind through the trees and grass.
I pass one of the trees and see that it is carved up almost completely with the initials of lovers and “bffs.” My hands open slowly next to me. I raise them up so I can spin and feel the air rushing around my body. This place truly invigorates me. It calms me and clarifies my mind. I’m a horror movie guru and somewhat of a darkness lover as I mentioned earlier, so places like this fuel my desire for the haunted, but another thing I love most about Old Bryce isn’t the hospital’s history or the scary stories that surround it. Instead, it’s the bits and pieces of complete wilderness around me – overgrown trees and bushes, four and a half foot tall grass, vines that reach into places I can’t even see, different types of wildflowers I didn’t even know existed, the dilapidated buildings that have become one with the earth around them, and the fact that there are simply no signs of life – or if you prefer it this way, there are simply no signs of the living.
Not a single bird is chirping today. No squirrels are playing in the trees. Occasionally, I can hear something rustling in the underbrush as if it watching me, but I never quite could see what exactly was there. I don’t really care about that, though, although I probably should’ve cared a bit more seeing as how I was dancing around near an insane asylum; But when I’m alone on Bryce’s playground regardless of day or season, nothing can stop the wonder I feel as I venture through the forest and around the other buildings, find a bench to sit and write a while, or stand up on top of the roof where the vines play footsie with one another through the paneless windows. It’s the outdoors that makes this place wonderful and a little less eerie. Even inside where the darkness never hides, there is a connection to nature. The wind whips through every corridor and graces every room. Most of the doors are permanently open except for the secret room in the old people’s building that no one dares enter. The roof is mossy and green except for the parts where it has fallen in ages ago leaving more vines and tree branches hanging to the floor. There are always plants and tiny flowers growing from cracks in the walls in some of the rooms closer to the outside.
I’m ripped away from my daydreaming, suddenly, when I hear footsteps coming around the corner. I quickly dive into the bushes to hide but where I could also see who might be coming – if anyone at all. My palms begin to sweat. Night is breaking, and I’m alone in the most haunted place in Alabama. This can’t be good.
The footsteps grow louder. The hair on every inch of my body is standing straight up. I see a tall, thin shadow approaching, and then, I see him. Liam. Thank God.
I jump out of the bushes so as to give him somewhat of a fright in return. Scout recoils back into Liam’s leg out of fright and perks her ears. “A phone call or text would’ve been nice, ass hole.” He laughs and grabs my hand. The darkness in the sky is setting in, and we decide to go exploring inside. The paths around us are already beginning to become less and less visible as we walk unhurriedly back to the front of the hospital. The windows are now pitch black whereas before I could somewhat see from front window to back window due to the sun’s comforting light. We stand in the doorway for just a moment, take a deep breath, look at one another with apprehension, and then continue on, still holding hands, with Scout leading the way. I’ve been inside this building many times before, but tonight, I’ve decided to take in every sight and detail of the place I possibly can.
It’s about 7 o’clock now. Our flashlights come on at once and dance around the walls and ceiling and down each hallway on either side of us. Scout disappears down one of them, but we don’t worry, because she knows what she’s doing.
The front lobby of the building is probably the most trashed of any place in the entire hospital. Most people who come here bring booze and drugs. There is rubbish everywhere. The check out window sits directly to the left of the front doors. The sign in counter is still in tact. I think about the fact that most people who checked in here, probably never checked out.
Glass and shards of brick and wood crunch beneath our feet as we proceed down the right hallway which leads to what appear to be administrative offices and maybe even some examination rooms as we walk further back. We stop in the doorway of the very back room at the end of the hallway and flash our lights around to see what we can see. Fallen and rotting wooden beams lie splintered on the floor. Plywood and dirt is everywhere. There are no windows in this room, and I wonder what this space might’ve been used for. No outside light reaches here at all.
We walk back to the lobby. Scout meets us there. Liam points towards the main stairwell. We walk over to it, and he begins to descend to the basement. The stairs are covered in ash and dust but are sturdily made of stone. I take a careful step down. Chills are running through my body, and the air grows colder around me. Isn’t the myth that if the temperature suddenly drops, there’s a spirit present? I wonder to myself. I’m not sure, but I’m also not sure if I even want to know. We go further down.
Scout is definitely quite the adventurer, because she’s always ten steps ahead of us. Suddenly she stops dead in her tracks and begins to bark wildly into one of the rooms in the basement. This is the first time I have ever heard Scout bark in my life. I’m pretty sure it was even Liam’s first time to hear her bark. Some skeptics say that animals can sense spirits very easily. Some even say they can see apparitions. I wonder what or who she has just seen. We both step towards the room and peer in. Nothing but a huge tree limb leaning into the window as if to shout “Hey, get out! You shouldn’t be here.”
We find a second stairwell towards the left side of the building and walk up to the second floor. The main stair case is made of stone as I mentioned before, but I notice now that the other two (one on the right side of the hospital and one on the left) are made of some other material (probably wood because of random rotting spaces). All three stair cases have remnants of that rubber tread stuff that’s non-slip.
I can picture this place back in its heyday. Shiny, white washed walls. Spotless black handrails. The stairs sharp at the edges, the rubber treading bright orange. Doctors quickly walking up and down from floor to floor and then hall to hall to each patient’s room on his duty that day. Nurses rushing through with pill bottles, needles, and folders with patient information written on them. Even more nurses helping patients up and down the stairs to their assigned beds or to examination rooms. God only knows what went on in those. I remember Paul Davis’ words and shutter.
The second floor opens up to a large room that appears possibly to be where the patients might have eaten their meals. Further back down the hallway, however, there are actual patient rooms. Liam leads down a hallway to the left. Most of the rooms’ doors are either open, hanging on their hinges like the front door, or completely dislocated from the wall. All the doors are heavy and look like they are metal or probably steel plated. Each door has a single window in the top center that is made of damage proof glass or steel bars. Old mattresses, like the ones we used at summer camp, lie almost completely preserved amongst old toys (I guess they figured adults like toys too), fallen pieces of ceiling and glass. There is no nature in these parts of the building other than the wind.
The graffiti is getting more disturbing as we go deeper into the building. Attempts at shitty pentagrams, upside down crosses, huge dicks, and the words “white power” clutter up the walls where the white paint is ever chipping to reveal the dark grey cinder blocks underneath. I guess it’s a good thing that someone decided to redecorate so as not to reveal just how bare and desolate these walls really are. Occasionally, we come across painted words like “peace” and “love” and even random bible verses just to bring a better vibe to the place, but mostly, I figure that people are here to experience the negative. We’re here to experience anything, really.
The smell of asbestos was becoming really overpowering, so we find a low roof area where we can sit and talk and get some fresh air. Like I said before, there is no more glass in the windows, so we can walk in and out of them as if they were actual entrances. While sitting, we hear something rustle inside. Scout had run off into one of the hallways a bit ago, so we assumed it was her. Still, silently, we strain our ears to listen further. Something glass shatters. Then, we hear running footsteps inside the room we were just in. We both quickly stand up and hustle to the window to see if we can see anyone, but of course, we see nothing. A little more freaked out than before, we continue our talk but switch subjects to the fact that there are probably homeless people staying in this building right now. I’m not sure why we weren’t scared enough to leave, but we probably should have been, because not less than five minutes later a high pitched woman’s scream comes echoing through the entire second floor. Scout bounds onto the roof with us with a complete look of terror on her face.
Not even about to go back into that room, we jump off the low rise roof onto the ground below and book it towards the front of the building. When we finally reach the front entrance once more, we stop to breathe. This was the first time I had ever experienced something like that here, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or never wanted to come back. I knew just by looking around me at the bare trees and other various natural scenes and feeling the cool breeze that I couldn’t possibly stay away, but I did know that Scout barking into that empty room and the woman screaming were quite enough to keep me away for at least a little while.
We decide that we’d had enough exploring for the day, so we walk hand in hand down the path before us. One last time, I let go of Liam’s hand and turn to look at Bryce’s face. That’s when I saw her. Directly above the front doors in a second story window, she was standing there. A somber shadow facing towards the cotton fields that lie before her. Still and transparent. A memory.
I turn and grab Liam’s arm so I could show her to him, but when we turned back to look again, she was gone as quickly as she’d appeared. The wind picked up suddenly, whipping our hair around our faces. We grab hands again and begin our descent down the front drive back to the train tracks and to our cars. The puddles were deeper and more menacing than before. The trees almost sinister. The place had changed its temperament since I had arrived, and I knew that Mother Nature was telling us it was time to go.