Haunts of the ward: Abandoned Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital toys with rational thought
A two-hour bus ride to Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, takes us to the small town of Gonjiam. We follow latitude and longitude coordinates from the bus stop to where Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital stands, but barbed wire and a sign saying “No trespassing” in Korean warn us to stay away.
That does not deter us. A small clearing next to a nearby fiberglass mill hints that perhaps this place is accessible after all. We hike for a bit and look behind us at the barbed wire fence that previously blocked our path. The famed abandoned hospital is only a short walk away now.
Marred by time
Upon approaching the institution, the signs of a timeworn place become clear — dead, unkempt grass, glass shards littering the premises, small shelters barely visible through the overgrown vines that cover them. For what purpose these buildings once served, we couldn’t know. They are in such a dilapidated condition that venturing into them seems pointless.
Fortunately, the main building is in fairly good shape, and, as we soon discover, had been visited by two decades’ worth of trespassers.
The main entrance had originally been barred shut, but someone eventually decided to break in, as no one would be breaking out now. As a result, a 1-meter-high opening exists where bars once were. It’s large enough to crawl through, but too small to walk through. Standing in the open hallway for the first time and looking back at the outside world through the remaining bars, I feel a deep sense of anxiety coming over me. The stark contrast between the air outside and the rancid stench inside can be picked up immediately. It is so acrid that even taking small, quick breaths felt like we were doing our lungs a disservice. It would be the first of many signs that we should not be here.
The rain has taken its toll on the structure, with the walls stripped clean by water damage and oily puddles mingling with pieces of trash. Scattered across the floor are traces of the mental ward’s abandonment: psychiatric evaluations suggesting treatment for diabetic peripheral neuropathy, a computer manual for an IBM computer, a calendar dated 1996, ripped magazine pages featuring models with bangs too big for their faces. Life had certainly once existed here.
As we move further inside, the rooms begin to show their true character.
Through the square openings of closed doors we see rooms as dead as zombies, living caricatures of what they once were. The sheets are there. The mattresses, most of them, are still intact. Books are half-open, as if the reader had put them down for a short break. Fine curtains are still strung up above the windows, and only dust specks hint at their age. It is as if time has stopped.
At the end of this hallway stands a ruined cafeteria, more reminiscent of a World War II relic. Time seems to stretch and slow as I linger here in this forgotten wasteland. A strong, putrid smell fills my nostrils and fades as quickly as it had come.
Logic has been by my side for the first 20 minutes of this experience, but room 222 calls into question my entire dependency on rational thinking. The door suddenly shifts open a smidge, giving a creak loud enough to alert both me and the photographer to the doorway.
Neither of us utters a word. The air is foul and silent. I have not felt such heaviness in the atmosphere until now.
Logic would say, “Just the wind. Keep walking.” But on the second floor there is no wind. The air is stuffy and has the lingering trail of humidity circa mid-July. No wind, no breeze, barely any oxygen — unless the putrid smell of water stains counts.
The door pauses, letting out only a small beam of light. With little hesitation, it abruptly creaks open again. The sharp sense that there is a third party in the room overcomes me. We get the intense awareness that we are unwelcome.
“It’s still only the wind.” Logic knocks on all corners of my membrane, but it ceases the moment we behold a shadow flicker across the beam of light. A shadow, I wonder. From whom? Another stray wanderer like us?
We finally decide to keep walking. But the sharp rise in tension plagues us with an unshakable feeling of dread for every floor and every room thereafter.
Breaking through the murky atmosphere are the scribbles of expats who, like us, wanted to test how haunted this was purported to be. It seems that over the two decades that this institution has been closed, a number of people wanted to add to the rumors.
Thus, the tour of graffiti fail:
“KILL” is written in large red letters, the paint dripped in such a way as to make it appear like blood. Good effort, but that isn’t blood and “KILL” wouldn’t be written in English.
“She sees you.” Tell her I say hi.
“I can’t breathe.” Sorry to hear that, buddy. I hope your friend dialed 1-1-9.
“Don’t go in room 108.” Is that kind of like “The Shining”? Will an old woman rise out of the tub and seduce me?
Despite the obvious attempts, it’s a nice mood lifter to see the effort put into keeping the folklore alive. Not to mention that after the more-than-serious encounter with room 222, we were in need of something light to occupy our minds.
The trail ends
We reach the end of our tour on the roof, where a recreational blacktop and basketball hoop have been set up. It is littered with the remains of soju bottles, partially evaporated half-filled cups of Coke and cans of Asahi and Hite. Whatever fear we had earlier encountered seems to melt away in these last few moments of sunlight.
I look down at a Frisbee imprinted with a very old children’s logo and wonder how it had gotten there. What had happened to this place? Why is a broken phone from the mid-’90s with the cord still attached lying up here? Why are children’s toys strewn about?
The results aren’t actually as mysterious as the fame of being an abandoned mental facility suggests. Poor financing and irreparable conditions forced the hospital’s closure. The staff moved on, patients were transferred or simply released and the owner moved out of the country. The place was abandoned in every sense of the word.
What happened in those post-years of abandonment is where the real mystery lies. A lot of untold stories occurred here in the past two decades. Not all of them are sadistic in nature; most are just stories like this one — curious travelers stumbling upon an old building and observing the many artifacts left there over time: calendars, papers, beer cans and toys, but no knives or medical instruments as horror movies suggest.
The only horror to be found here is the kind that plays with your mind. For one previous visitor, it was room 108; for us, it is room 222. Curiously enough, on our return down the stairs we discover that the doors on the second floor that were previously ajar are shut tight.
“Coincidence,” logic would say. Perhaps, but who knows what untold story occurred there that would have managed to intertwine our present-day visit with some unexplained phenomenon from the past?