Thursday, October 31, 2019


Byberry was a notorious psychiatric hospital in northeast Philadelphia from 1907 to 1990. Its fifty buildings housed seven thousand of the city’s mentally challenged to criminally insane. For much of the century, it more resembled a concentration camp with patients abused and exploited, huddled naked in crap-smeared corridors, having teeth extracted without Novocaine—the kind of hell the staff should go to Hell for. At last, budget cuts and a series of appalling inspections shut it down.

For the next decade-and-a-half, Byberry would become an abandoned post-apocalyptic playground for looters, gangs, and dark tourists. My friends and I were among the earliest wave of trespassers, high-schoolers from nearby Bucks County armed with a crowbar and flashlights, maneuvering past the on-duty cop to get inside. There was still wax on the floors. Wheelchairs. A straightjacket. Boxes of patient files. An art room featuring a dementedly asymmetrical portrait of the Pink Panther. A morgue.

The first time venturing into the cold, tile hallways, light beams unable to see the end in either direction, all that terrible history in mind, disembodied noises… we lasted as long as virgins do before pulling out. But we returned a hundred times, getting braver and staying till the sun came up to explore every last nook. The blueprints we found even led us to underground tunnels used for shuffling people between wards, concealed from the light of day.

Best friends already, our little club bonded deeper as we got covered in tics on the overgrown property and had to strip naked for the drive home up Roosevelt Boulevard, where the other cars honked at us in celebration and disgust; as we encountered a former-resident-turned-squatter in a stairwell; as a dozen Satan worshippers with medieval weapons chased us on a rooftop, down through levels of ransacked architecture, and out desperately onto the highway—cars honking this time to avoid running us over. Not quite a military kinship, but at least the Goonies in a fucked-up asylum.

Everything was razed in 2006 in a ceremony with the mayor. It’s condos now, so someone’s microwaving a Hot Pocket in the spot where an auditorium once held theater productions with lunatics. Where later I sat in the seats while a giant demon head floated in an exit door behind me, accidentally captured with a $20 Radio Shack camera. In the developed photograph, a line of chairs obscures the entity’s mouth, but those eyes suggest a malevolent smile...

My only record of our tremendous adventures there, that picture prompts me to look over my shoulder now and again, to be mindful of toxic forces that creep up unchecked such as burnout, complacency, or those extra Jack and Cokes. And to keep finding ways of tapping into the bold electricity of youth which landed me in that front-row seat to exhilarating madness.

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