Blog, Personal Notes, Research

Behind the Scenes: Thriller Books, Mental Asylums & Stranger Things 3

Research that goes into writing thriller books such as Silence in the Woods, fascinates me. In fact, if I’m not careful, it can overtake the writing process completely. But researching the Vermont Hospital for the Insane was a remarkable and eye-opening experience. Where to begin? I started at the very beginning: a visit to the Vermont State Archives.

Housed in Middlesex, slightly north of Montpelier, the state’s capital, I found a beige building on a back road. The large sign over the doorway assured me I’d come to the right place. After a process of decontamination–basically storing coat, handbag, pens, keys, etc., in a storage locker–I followed the attendant to the records room.

It looked very much like a reading room at any typical library. There were several long tables set out for individuals to work at. There were a couple of computers and some microfiche machines against the wall. Several metal card catalogs lined another wall. A handful of people busily scrawled notes as they bent over books.

Asylums: Intriguing Histories

I’m really intrigued by old asylums in general. I got an in depth education of the frequently archaic methods of treatment as part of my undergraduate degree in psychology. I’ve been interested in these facilities even longer though, since childhood.

(Side note: if you’re also interested in this topic, there is a beautiful, haunting book called, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. It’s packed not only with gorgeous, haunting photographs, but also a comprehensive look into state mental institutions practices and histories.)

The Field Trip to the VT State Archives Begins

The staff at the Vermont State Archives were incredibly kind and helpful. I was quickly directed to a table they’d set up for me. Lining it were long, flat boxes and inside every box, was a record book from the hospital. These were from the late 19th century. I couldn’t believe I got to not only look at them but touch them (no gloves!).

Vermont State Hospital for the Insane
Registration book for the Vermont State Hospital for the Insane, late 19th Century

I carefully flipped through the registration books. The contents were fascinating. Written in different people’s penmanship (all beautiful), they recorded things such as name, gender, age, town, date of admittance, and reason for admittance/discharge.

Register Book Interior) The Vermont Hospital for the Insane, late 19th Century
Register Book Interior) The Vermont Hospital for the Insane, late 19th Century

Some of the reasons the patient had been admitted or discharged included, “on visit,” or “returned from visit”. Others were more disturbing. “Suicide by cutting throat,” stood out to me, as did, “By order of the governor, criminal”. One that I found humorous: “eloped”.

Brief History of The Vermont Hospital for the Insane

The Vermont State Hospital for the Insane is located in Waterbury to this day. It now houses mostly State offices and records, however. The facility opened in 1890. Another state asylum at the time was located in Brattleboro, but overcrowding made it necessary to secure a new facility.

The facility in Waterbury was intended originally for those who were deemed “insane” by the courts–those with criminal backgrounds in other words. However, over time it expanded to other patients with mental health issues. Vermonters who had mild and severe mental health problems were all admitted. Those who suffered from alcoholism, senility and other common issues, were frequently patients. Some stayed for weeks or months, others for years. Some never left.

The Hospital Continues to Grow…

A ward at The Vermont State Hospital for the Insane, late 19th Century.
A ward at The Vermont State Hospital for the Insane, late 19th Century.

According to my notes, by 1902 there were 527 patients at the hospital. Photographs of the facility were especially intriguing. There was little privacy if you were a patient. The photographs show row upon row of beds in large rooms with huge barred windows. Private cases paid $5.00 per week. It was clear what state-supported patients paid, but I assume it was less.

Nurses aides and patients of The Vermont State Hospital for the Insane, late 19th Century.
Nurses aides and patients of The Vermont State Hospital for the Insane, late 19th Century.

The nurses wore all white: long skirt, blouse and little cap. Nurse aides wore blue or gray shirt with long white skirt along with an apron and a similar style of cap. The director of the hospital lived on-site. There were separate (lavish by comparison) rooms for he and his family, which I thought was interesting.

Even though the facility was massive, overcrowding was still an issue. Patients who were more cooperative were moved to a roomier area, it was noted. Sadly, treatment was only administered to those patients who had a good chance of recovery. Otherwise, if you were a patient because of old age, were “badly deteriorated,” or infirm, you didn’t receive treatment.

Tying it Into Silence in the Woods

The opening of Silence in the Woods, is located within the Vermont State Hospital for the Insane. There, Paul Rogers has been admitted following a hiking-trip-gone-wrong. His wife and two of their friends are still missing in the Green Mountains on the fictional Shiny Creek Trail .

Paul escaped but is not sure how he ended up at the asylum. What he is certain of is that there is a creature–an inhuman one–in the woods and that he must get back and find his wife before it does.

The book is set in 1917 and all the information about the hospital is as accurate as possible. I had a lot of fun not only researching the specifics of the asylum, but also creating the characters who work there–some kind, some not–and have heard from readers that they appreciated the attention to detail when it came to describing the hospital setting.

Stranger Things 3

So, what the heck does Stranger Things 3 have to do with any of this? Nothing at all. I just discovered the Season Three trailer for Stranger Things this morning while on YouTube and was over-the-moon excited to watch it. The new season officially starts on July 4th and I can’t wait to see it!

It’s funny because I generally do not like 80s things: the fashion, the music (ugh, the music, shiver, shiver) but I do love this show. It’s such a great blend of suspense, drama, humor and campy fun that I couldn’t resist it when we started watching Season 1.

So, let me know: do you like watching Stranger Things? Do you like to learn about abandoned asylums and other facilities like I do? And just how much research do you want an author to have done for a suspense thriller book?

Published by jpchoquette

I am an author and lover of Gothic books and movies. I enjoy reading, spending time in old cemeteries, visiting junk shops and drinking hot beverages...just not all at the same time.

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