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a visit to Central State Hospital

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

— Lewis Carroll from “Alice in Wonderland”

A cream-colored cupola tops the Jones Building on the Central State Hospital grounds.

My original plan was to catalogue paranormal curiosities of a local stripe, to research accounts of supernatural encounters and list them here as a collection of tales from the ethereal plane. But happenstance led down different trails.

It all began pragmatically enough with visits to the local library and the torpid unearthing of the many tales my colleagues had suggested I research.

I learned about Madison’s Lulu Hurst who reportedly had the ability to levitate people and objects.

I learned about beautiful, elegant but shy Sylvia, named after a character in Shakespeare’s comedy “Two Gentleman of Verona.” It is claimed that Sylvia has haunted Panola Hall in Eatonton for nearly 200 years, sometimes appearing in a second-floor hall, a bedroom or gazing out living room windows. She is usually described as wearing a flowing white dress with a Damask rose in her dark hair.

I learned of the young blonde-woman who is said to emerge from the front door of the Foster-Thomason-Miller house in Madison and then vanish.

I learned about a Confederate soldier with only half his head remaining who allegedly roams the railroad lines on moonless nights near Greensboro, his canteen in his hands, his tattered wool uniform caked with black blood and his feeble voice pleading for a drink of water.

Locals say Panola Hall in Eatonton is haunted by the ghost of a young woman named Sylvia.

All these quaint tales piqued my interest, but I as I began to drift farther south in my research, I developed an interest in much darker subject matter.

If there is a place sure to be roiling with psychic energy, I reasoned, it has to be Milledgeville in general and Central State Hospital in particular.

In fact, the mere mention of Milledgeville when I was a child conjured images eloquent of malevolence and menace, of deranged psychopaths cackling in the dark; shrieks of horror emanating from open windows; sinister psychiatrists lurking in secret underground laboratories.

Rectangular windows, most with shattered glass and crooked sashes, offered no comfort in symmetry.

I decided that I should spend some time on the vacated part of that haunted campus; that I should visit some of the 200 buildings on 2,000 acres that once housed as many as 13,000 patients, a facility whose first patient died of “maniacal exhaustion” back in 1843, according to an Atlanta Magazine story.

The Morgan County Library computers had yielded up a volume of lore concerning what was originally known as the “Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot and Epileptic Asylum,” but the book occupied a shelf at the Baldwin County Library in Milledgeville. I telephoned to make sure the tome was indeed available, and I was told it was.

So, I headed south the next morning, a certain vague anxiety troubling me as I headed down Highway 441.

As I moved closer and closer to Milledgeville, I felt I was approaching some dimly apprehended boundary between this world and whatever makes up the next one, an ethereal region populated by revenants, phantoms and lurid specters spawned inside the minds of the hopelessly mad.

When I arrived at the Baldwin County Library, I went upstairs to the room housing the reference collection, but a library staff member known as Mr. Brown informed me that the volume I sought could not be found.

My mind already tainted by the strange notion of supernatural influences, I wondered if this was a warning to stay away or a message urging me to come closer, to peer into the abyss for myself.

At length I confided to Mr. Brown that I was looking for supernatural tales concerning the old asylum.

“I’m looking for ghosts,” I said.

At that moment, a convulsion of thunder shook the girders of the building and the wind began to hiss through a cracked window. The hiss soon became a wail that obtained the frequency of someone screaming in unbridled terror.

I wondered anew if this was a form of warning or strange entities beckoning me to join them.

I perused some of the volumes Mr. Brown placed before me, thanked him and then continued my journey to the asylum.

The Central State Hospital does not linger on the horizon but appears abruptly on the right. If its creators intended it to offer a welcoming appearance, they failed miserably.

The grounds were silent and foreboding but didn’t seem empty.

Not in the least.

I wandered aimlessly for a time among the buildings strewn about the rolling hills like toys discarded by an indifferent child.

I passed by the oppressive facade of the pale white Powell Building.

I crested a hill above what appeared to be an incinerator nearly obscured by kudzu with two thin brick stacks guarding the open steel maw in the earth between them.

At length I began to feel uneasy, so I started to make my way toward my truck.

As I was passing the Jones Building again, I thought I saw a pair of luminous eyes peering at me from a fourth-floor window.

I shuddered and hurried on.

Then something fell through the limbs of an oak and landed with a thud on the ground a few feet from me.

Behind me, I could feel the eyes of traumatized soldiers from countless wars watching me flee, soldiers enduring the horrors of war again and again with no respite; I could feel the tortured souls of misdiagnosed patients taken from their families and institutionalized: gamblers, social misfits, adulterers and the like, misunderstood by their society and cast out.

I could discern the inaudible cries of confused and agonized mental patients who knew not what troubled them or what might give them relief.

I turned to look upon the stained brick edifice one final time as I reached the imagined safety of my truck. Rectangular windows, most with shattered glass and crooked sashes, offered no comfort in symmetry, all of them twisted or covered in rusted iron cages. Some of the lower windows had been replaced with sheets of plywood the color of anemic blood.

And then something changed, a phase shift, a deepening of color on the horizon, a dank odor rising out of the damp soil.

Suddenly nothing seemed quite so important as leaving this lonely region behind.

After all, why was I really here?

I was but another thrill seeker here to exploit the sad spirits confined to this eternity of suffering through no fault of their own. I was merely here for my own avocation, my own entertainment. I suddenly felt as if I should apologize to someone . . . or something.

I left abruptly and didn’t slow down until I was almost back to Madison.

I shall not return to that forbidding acreage again.

And unto those still trapped there: In pace requiescat!

(The preceding item was written in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft with a nod to the low-budget horror films its author grew up watching. It is true that Central State Hospital resonates with the power of its past, but the Central State Hospital Local Development Authority is working to revitalize and reclaim the grounds and buildings. The old campus can seem creepy, but it also has infinite possibilities as the future unfolds).

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Story and photographs by T. Michael Stone, published in the Fall 2018 edition of Lakelife magazine.


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