Asylum “Ghost Tours” are Grotesque Tours

By Tracy Mack and Geoffrey Reaume 

Abandoned or renovated psychiatric asylums have inspired countless urban legends and ghost stories, overshadowing the lives of the people who lived, worked, and died there, with most of their histories remaining untold. Building on this folklore, ‘ghost tours’ of former psychiatric hospitals have become a popular attraction in which the historical lives of asylum inmates are portrayed as still being present, this time as “ghosts” haunting the grounds. These guided tours of asylum premises are presented as educational and entertainment but are actually exploitative and stigmatizing. Being a patient in a psychiatric facility is not an enjoyable experience. Not in the past. Not today. It is not fun to be feared, laughed at and held up as examples of voyeuristic glares by people because of one's psychiatric history. Yet, this is what happens with “ghost” tours. It encourages precisely this sort of prejudice. Even after previous protests, it is still happening.
 
Humber College is one of those institutions which has, and currently does, sponsor tours of the old psychiatric buildings that specifically link the site with ghoulishness despite the uproar by mad activists and allies. The Mimico Insane Asylum (now Humber College) was located in what is now Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada, the western part of Toronto. It operated under various names from 1890 until closing in 1979. By the early 2000s, it re-opened as a community college which included old asylum buildings which were renovated for educational and administrative purposes.
 
In re-using the old Mimico asylum grounds as an educational facility, a professor at Humber College has mystified its history in a way that promotes the worst stereotypes about psychiatric patients as people to be frightened of, like an other-worldly figure in a gothic horror story. This is a problem that goes far beyond this one former asylum. As reports from Sweden and the United States indicate, people who do not identify as having a psychiatric history use the grounds of old asylums to perpetuate voyeuristic, stereotyped views of what these places represent with so-called “ghost” tours. By focusing on the activities at one Canadian institution, the purpose of this blog post is to emphasize the ongoing discrimination towards people deemed mad and how it is reinforced every time a “ghost tour” occurs.
 
In 2010, “The Powerhouse of Terror,” a Halloween tour of the underground tunnels of the old Mimico asylum, was denounced by the mad community and allies, yet it still took place. In 2014, the tour was named the Lakeshore Tunnel Tours. Co-author Tracy Mack took notes from a 2014 tour (these quotes are from a recording of the tour and were then documented in 2014 in the effort to mobilize and stop the tour from occurring). Before the tour began, Professor Steve Bang, a business professor, self-declared “unofficial historic tour leader” told the group to look out for an orb, a round speckled object floating about which, in this case, is associated with ghostly apparitions. Bang was dressed in a black robe, a hat from around 1800 and a glass lantern. Bang stated that the orb was actually the nurse who hung herself after being caught having an affair with a patient.
 
Further down the hallway, Bang told the group that the patients built the tunnels themselves in order to be kept occupied. That patients built these tunnels is correct, but it took years of unpaid hard physical labour to construct the buildings and tunnels. Inmates also repaired the buildings, transported coal into the asylum, washed and mended clothing, worked on farms, and gardened all in the name of work therapy, but it was, in fact, outright exploitation of patients' unpaid labor.
 
Less than a mile away there are 1511 mostly unmarked graves, all inmates who died while institutionalized at this psychiatric hospital.  Yet, this was not ghostly enough to speak about during the tour attended by a co-author of this article. Upon seeing a series of indents above the walls, Bang explained that the indents were once windows. He stated that the hallways were lit by candles at night. Further down the hallway, we came across many rusted bolts in the wall. “Those bolts used to be for shackles,” said Bang. Patients were shackled to the wall when they were having an “episode”. Basically, “men and women sat with their hands banded together by shackles while they screamed in the glow of the candle-lit hallways”, he said. As the institution was separated by gender this could not have occurred, certainly not in the way described. Electricity was widely available in this part of Ontario by the early 20th century. Candlelight would not have been used during most, if not all, of this institution’s history, rendering this claim even more suspect – unless it helps to sell a “ghost” story which is “scarier” with an image of flickering candles in a dark, underground space. Next, participants saw a couple of caged cells in the walls. Bang said that “the jail cells were for the bad patients”, but never explained what he meant by “bad patients,” an extremely dubious term in the context of people confined in these institutions.  These tales are akin to folklore and made up ghost stories, though presented as historical facts. A serious tour would discuss controversial topics including the exploitation of unpaid patient labour; abuse and isolation of patients from the outside world; and the contentious nature of diagnostic categories which were influenced by biases based on class, race, gender and disability. In recent years, Humber College, through their interpretive centre, has offered a serious and respectful historical tour of the grounds which is distinct from the “ghostly” tour being critiqued here.
 
Yet, Humber College allows Professor Bang to continue to promote “ghostly” tours years after the criticisms expressed in this blog were first made public. On his website, dated 2021, he states:

you might find me leading a group of teachers, students or visitors through the attics and tunnels of the Lakeshore cottages in search of the ever elusive Ghost of the Asylum. For more information click on the links provided or send me an e-mail to arrange your own private tour.

In 2014, a Halloween tour was planned that would have continued the imagery that psychiatric inmates are people who are nothing more than titillating entertainment to get a good scare out of, or laugh at, on a night when fear is promoted as a source of fun.  The co-authors of this article met with the Principal of Humber College, Wanda Buote, and Professor Bang. They stated that it was not their intent to exploit this history but to allow their students to hear more about the history of their grounds. Although they admitted that there was some folklore, they emphasized that it was not something they focused on and that they were working hard to reduce the stigma around mental health. At one point during the meeting, Professor Bang was asked if Humber College had previously been a residential school, would he lead tours, adding in ghost stories to Indigenous history, while dressed up in Indigenous attire. He whole-heartedly said yes, without a second to think about the question’s implications. Humber did not cancel the tour due to this meeting, however, the event was cancelled the morning of the tour due to a protest that was going to occur by the mad community and allies.  Despite this, in 2015 the organizer had another ghost tour, just after Halloween, evident by the poster below in which he wears clothing while carrying an irrelevant prop – a glass lantern – that has nothing to do with the actual asylum history of this site. Instead, the image suggests a costume that might have been worn by a night watchman  about a century before the Mimico institution opened.


2015 poster advertising Mimico Asylum history tour.
2015 poster advertising Mimico Asylum history tour.
 
Tours through old institutions that are respectful and sensitive of the history and experiences of the psychiatric inmates who were held there are extremely important.  We need to remember this past, the traumas it produced, and how institutionalization functioned as a disabling process contributing to the marginalization and oppression of people deemed mad and intellectually disabled. Yet, ongoing ghost tours contradict and undercut this important work around the history of institutionalization by promoting offensive stereotypes around people with mental disabilities and erasing the salient history of the institution by constructing the facility as "haunted." This transforms the old parts of the hospital from a mindful memorial into public amusement which erases abuses and reduces asylum inmates to passive silence when their memory is not otherwise being used to “scare” people.
 
History needs to preserved and the untold stories need to be respectfully heard. How do we memorialize pasts filled with abuse and torture? Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada is one example. The main building was the Shingwauk Residential School that closed in 1970. The university runs an archive on residential schools where they have gathered the records of many children who were incarcerated there and in other residential schools. The university offers not only courses but a degree program in Anishinaabe studies. In every class, in every department, Indigenous Studies are intertwined within the courses. Within the walls of that university, no one is permitted to speak ill of Indigenous people or their past. As a former student of Algoma University, co-author Tracy Mack left not only with a degree but with a wealth of invaluable knowledge regarding Indigenous issues that are ingrained in the overall learning process.  This is how histories filled with abuse and torture should be remembered and memorialized – with the greatest respect and care.
 
To link the histories of inmates who once lived, worked and died in former asylums with "frightening" imagery is to perpetuate the worst type of stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes towards one of the most marginalized disabled communities. Treatment in public institutions during the period when asylums like Mimico were operating were often horrific with well documented cases of physical, verbal and sexual abuse. It is inappropriate to turn such monumental human tragedy into ghost stories.  As educators, we have a responsibility to replace folklore with factual histories and in the process pay respect to those who lived and died there.
 
Ghost tours are grotesque tours which insult the memory of deceased psychiatric patients and inflict real harm on the daily lives of people experiencing mental distress today. People who lead such tours have to ask themselves – what is it about people who were in these institutions that permits their caricature as “ghosts” when, in another context, such scare-mongering mystification of a marginalized population would never be permitted?
 

Tracy Mack has a PhD in Critical Disability Studies at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Geoffrey Reaume teaches mad people´s history and disability history in the Critical Disability Studies program at York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

_____________________

Suggested readings:
Eghigian, G. (2010, September 15). Who’s haunting whom? The new fad in asylum tourism” Psychiatric Times, reposted to H-Madness: https://historypsychiatry.com/2010/09/15/september-psychiatric-times-post-whos-haunting-whom-the-new-fad-in-asylum-tourism/
Goar, C. (2010, October 26). Goar: Horror show for former patients. The Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2010/10/26/goar_horror_show_for_former_patients.html
Jackson, K. (2018). A textual analysis of newspapers, madness, and the Lakeshore psychiatric hospital. Critical Disabilities Discourses, 8: 98-126. https://cdd.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/cdd/article/view/39728/35970
Punzi, E. (2019). Ghost walks or thoughtful remembrance: How should the heritage of psychiatry be approached? Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy, 19(4): 242-249.
 
Recommended citation:  
Tracy Mack & Geoffrey Reaume  (2021): Asylum “Ghost Tours” are Grotesque Tours. In: Public Disability History 6 (2021) 3.



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