The Real World Hospital That Inspired Fictional Arkham Asylum Was Located In?
Answer: Danvers, Massachusetts
Fans of both H.P. Lovecraft and the Batman universe can trace the roots of Arkham Asylum all the way back to a small rural community in 19th century Massachusetts where the inspiration for the terrifying fictional hospital stood made of real brick and mortar for over a century.
The Danvers State Hospital was a massive multi-acre psychiatric complex built in Danvers, Massachusetts in the late 19th century. Construction started in 1874, was completed in 1878, and it was opened that same year. The sprawling campus and main building were designed by famed architect Nathaniel Bradlee based on the principles of the Kirkbride Plan. The Kirkbride Plan was a design concept championed by psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride with the best of intentions: his design plans focused on building mental asylums that had long and meandering wings with plenty of small private rooms, ample sunlight, and very little direct views from one patient’s room to another. The emphasis in his design was to provide private and removed spaces for patients to recover in without being packed in with other patients, removed from natural light and airflow, or otherwise made to feel constrained or caged.
Although the design was revolutionary at the time (as previously the mentally ill had been housed in all manner of subpar conditions like county jails and even the basements of public buildings), it proved to be very costly to maintain as the buildings were very ornate and very expansive. They also, inadvertently, set the stage for the kind of spooky mental-asylum trope that is firmly embedded in our culture today. The long rambling hallways, the prolific number of rooms, and the sense that one could get lost in the giant labyrinthian buildings was very unsettling to visitors.
In that regard, the Danvers State Hospital was especially labyrinthian as all the outbuildings and sub-basements of the buildings were connected by dozens of winding tunnels. Essentially, the hospital couldn’t become more of a horror movie set if someone had designed it to be such. The structure was so sprawling and so imposing that it served as inspiration for H.P Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanatorium (featured in his short story “The Thing on the Doorstep”). In turn, Lovecraft’s story was the inspiration for the Arkham Asylum in the Batman comic universe.
If you’re a fan bent on exploring the now-defunct complex, you’re in for a disappointment. The vast majority of the complex was demolished in the early mid-2000s with only a small shell of the primary building preserved for historical purposes. The remaining land was developed into a series of apartment complexes, four of which burned in a large fire in 2007; the cause of the fire was never determined and the development company behind the apartment complexes sold the land in early 2014.
Image of Danvers State Hospital, Primary Complex, 1893.