If there’s one thing for sure about Athens, it’s that Halloween is always looming. It’s a great time to engage with the history and the culture of the town. There are three cemeteries inside the town, alongside family names and local lineages. But the spookiest spectacle in our neck of the woods is the Athens Lunatic Asylum.
Patients of this hospital were crammed into the facility. At its peak, the establishment housed 1,800 patients, almost triple the originally intended population. Those housed within the brick walls were subjected to hydroshock therapy, electrotherapy and lobotomies. Upkeep of the facility relied mainly on uncompensated patients; the orchards, fields, gardens, greenhouses, dairy, livestock and carriage shop were all maintained by the institutionalized.
Just as dutifully, Ohio University students pass down whispered stories in hushed tones about the female patient who was left to die, whose red stain still tarnishes the floorboards. Young people can be seen taking pictures or exploring the grounds, squinting through the misty haze for a glimpse of Victorian-era skirts or a whisper of unrested agony.
“I can’t lend this out to you,” sighed the tired librarian at the Athens Public Library. “There’s such a fascination with the asylum from students. We just can’t afford to lose any more of its books.”
I don’t blame him.
The reality is that what happened to these patients is a tragedy. But their souls are at rest. Creeping vines rehabilitate the environment with green, and black-eyed susans sprinkle bright yellow onto the landscape. The barbaric tools of yesteryear have been put to rest but the stories of its victims are hidden, a mystery for the whispers, a titillating holiday tradition.
The asylum rests upon land owned by OU. The scholarly institution is a profitable business with an ever-generous sports budget. A portion of this profit must be sectioned for the historical commemoration of the lives taken on the premises. At its current state, unmarked graves are left to the mercy of decomposition and time. This is natural. But it is our responsibility to respectfully remember the lives lived on the hill.
Might we ask about something other than the red stain? Might we ask about, instead, the first patient to arrive at the front door? A girl, eight years of age, suffering from what we now know as epilepsy. Who was her favorite nurse? What were her hidden treasures, her playmates, her games? What was her name?
Why do we rely upon well-meaning nonprofits to perform upkeep? Why not use a minuscule fraction of our wealth to delegate to the memory of the lives lived on our grounds?
We must revive the jutting gravestones. This land is the resting place of someone’s mother, brother or son. They were swept away from the public eye in life just as they have been in death. We must increase visibility. We can no longer let mental health be a scary and unnamed thing. And we must not let the Ridges be something to goggle at during a monetized Halloween tour. Let us be the generation to remove the numbers and use names for people instead.
Jamie is a senior at Ohio University studying journalism and women, gender and sexuality studies. Please note that the views expressed in this column do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk to Jamie about his article? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.