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Seeking asylum

By Alex Beam, 8/9/2001

If you have watched the spooky trailer for Brad Anderson's forthcoming psychiatric horror film, ''Session 9,'' then you have seen one of its stars: the hulking, gothic '' witch's castle,'' the main building of the decommissioned Danvers State Hospital. The former Lunatic Asylum has been unoccupied since 1992, but Anderson spent several weeks last fall filming on the sprawling, 500-acre site.

Well before ''Session 9,'' the Danvers campus inspired many a harrowing tale. It is believed to be the ''Arkham Hospital'' in the writings of New England horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Historian Michael Ramseur has published an interesting history of Danvers State, including the ex-patients' successful efforts to restore its cemetery, on the Web at darkspire.org/asylums/index.html#tourist.

Danvers is not the only Massachusetts asylum attracting Hollywood's eye. McLean Hospital in Belmont, the setting for the movie version of Susanna Kaysen's memoir ''Girl, Interrupted,'' will soon be featured in ''A Beautiful Mind,'' with Australian buffasaurus Russell Crowe improbably cast as John Forbes Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning game theorist who sojourned at McLean in the 1950s. That movie is due out at Christmas. Another Nash project, in which the 73-year-old scholar will probably appear, is also underway at WGBH's ''American Experience'' history and biography series.

Hollywood isn't all that welcome at the privately owned McLean. ''Girl'' was shot in Pennsylvania, and ''Mind'' used locations there and in New Jersey. (The Web site www.maximumcrowe.com has some excellent pictures of Crowe playing Nash.) WGBH has done exterior filming at the hospital and may shoot inside some of the unoccupied wards.

Yet another Bay State asylum - the shuttered Northampton State Hospital - has also had a second life in the arts. Last November, artist Anna Schuleit staged an ambitious son et lumiere presentation of Bach's Magnificat piped through the rooms and corridors of the ''Old Main,'' the hospital's gigantic administration building. ''This was a mass event that was also intimately personal,'' wrote Tim Page of The Washington Post. ''When the sun burst through in the chorus ... the effect was so perfect that it might have been dismissed as a Hollywood touch, if it hadn't been so wonderfully, palpably real.''

Two documentary films on the Northampton event are due out this fall. You can learn more about the concert at Schuleit's Web site, www.1856.org.

Why the fascination with these antique asylums? Many of the elegant, campuslike hospitals in the Northeast bear the imprint of the psychiatrist/designer Thomas Story Kirkbride (Danvers, Northampton) or of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who chose the site for McLean and laid out the magnificent Hartford Retreat and the Bloomingdale Asylum north of New York City. ''Within the next decade, almost all of the old 19th-century asylums will disappear from the face of our society,'' Schuleit wrote on her Web site.

Not only are they not making hospitals like these anymore, but most of them are being chopped up and sold off. The state will decide on Danvers' fate this fall; most likely a developer will rehabilitate the old buildings for use as condos, elderly housing, and office space. A similar mixed-use plan is already underway in Northampton. (Trivia note: In 1997, the Massachusetts Film Office pitched the hospital grounds as a possible East Coast headquarters for moviemakers DreamWorks SKG, which said no.)

McLean is awaiting the go-ahead to sell off about half its site for housing and office use. The vast campus of Metropolitan State Hospital, closed since 1992, will be divvied among the three towns it straddles. Lexington plans to build affordable housing, and Belmont will leave its portion open and undeveloped. Waltham plans to build a golf course.

Follow-up

Former ABC newsman George Strait will not be the next head of Boston University's journalism school, after all. After being selected by the search commitee, the Cambridge native learned that the J-school boss has no budgetary authority; that rests with College of Communication dean Brent Baker. Instead of turning to the two other finalists, BU has appointed Strait's former colleague at ABC, professor Bob Zelnick, as acting head of the school.

Alex Beam's e-dress is beam@globe.com

This story ran on page 1 of the Boston Globe on 8/9/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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