When you’re a teenager in a tiny Saskatchewan town, you are bound to get into trouble. A sheer lack of things to do leads young people in these towns to do stereotypically devious things like making crop circles in cornfields and joyriding while drinking Pilsner. In the case of my own brief time in a small town a few summers ago, this troublemaking came in the form of an attempted break-in at an abandoned mental institution.
I should contextualize. My mom grew up in a town called Weyburn, Saskatchewan, about an hour and a half south of Regina. My nonagenarian Oma and Opa still live there – and have for nearly fifty years, since they moved from Germany to Canada. A couple of times every year – usually in the summer – various family members trek ten hours east from Calgary to visit them. It was during one of these trips, two years ago, that I found myself in the company of my sister and older cousin. Slipping away after the traditional German afternoon snack of coffee and cake (which my Opa always prefaces with “how about a cup coffee and piece cake?”), we found ourselves victims of our own curiousity.
Driving aimlessly around town looking for something to do, we soon found ourselves on the outskirts of town, turning down the thin, tree-lined road to the Weyburn Mental Hospital, colloquially known as just “the mental”.
The treed road to the hospital provides a bizarre introduction to the main building. Over a kilometre long, it’s lined with overhanging deciduous trees, creating an aura of Transylvania-cum-Saskatchewan, almost like a cartoon-like image of something haunted. At the end of the long road, there is a clear view of the imposing turreted entrance, evoking the overused – but here apropos – theme of Foucault’s panopticon.
We neared the building and parked the car around back, hiding any evidence that we might be illegally trespassing. Walking around the building, we made jokes about the horribly done graffiti (“GoD HAtEs YoU”? Really?) and periodically looked into open windows. Through one of them we saw a cell with peeling blue paint, filled with garbage, the door askew. We had trouble deciding if it had been a prison cell or a patient’s room.
We talked about how scary it would be to actually go in and explore the building. Very gradually, these ruminations became more serious plans. It was in this stage of mounting seriousness that we came across the open door we would use to try to get into the Weyburn Mental Hospital.
* * *
The hospital was opened on December 29, 1921 with a capacity of 900 patients and sixty live-in nurses. The initial building was roughly 275,000 square feet, which costs the equivalent of $27,000,000 in today’s dollars. It was demolished in the winter of 2009 after being unused for almost twenty years, the advent of modern psychiatric drugs making the treatment of mental illness increasingly focused on outpatient, rather than inpatient, therapy.
In a period spanning the latter-19th century, formal pyschiatric institutions like Weyburn became widespread. Early psychologists like Thomas Story Kirkbride founded what would come to be known as the Kirkbride plan for building psychiatric hospitals, which dictated that hospitals be built in a staggered V, with the most “troubled” patients being housed in the wards further out. The Weyburn hospital, although not an archetypical Kirkbride, was obviously inspired by such a plan.
The treatments at the hospital, while often at the forefront of contemporary psychiatric research, were troubling. They included electroshock therapy, lobotomies, insulin therapy, and hydrotherapy. A history of the institution describes the latter process as follows: “The patient was restrained in a bathtub by means of canvas sheets, then ice cold water was run into the tub….In some cases, ice was added directly to the tub to further lower the temperature. Naturally this caused hypothermia in the patient and no doubt would dramatically reduce the activity level. Without doubt they were in a state of real shock.”
But what “the mental” is most famous for is that it was here where Dr. Humphrey Osmond first tested Lisurgic Acid, or LSD, on patients.
Osmond, a Cambridge trained biologist, hypothesized that psychological disorders like schizophrenia were caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. Since the effects of Lisurgic Acid (LSD) mimicked that imbalance by increasing levels of dopamine in the body, it could possibly assist in treating the disease. According to “Under the Dome: The Life and Times of Saskatchewan Hospital, Weyburn,” an almost yearbook-like account of life at the hospital, “such exotic drugs as LSD, peyote, muscatel, and magic mushrooms were used in these experiments”. Indeed, according to an article in the Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences, the taking of LSD by hospital staff was seen as a rite of passage.
While one would likely not describe the Weyburn Mental Hospital as “groovy”, it is interesting to note that because of Osmond, Weyburn is considered to be the birthplace of the term “psychedelic” due to his experiments with LSD.
* * *
We came back at night with a crowbar stolen from my grandpa’s garage, a screwdriver, a flashlight, and a renewed sense of courage. We were really going to do it.
We parked the car near the entrance we had found and walked to the plywood door, armed with a flashlight and sweaty palms, our fight or flight responses on red alert.
Thus began the effort of opening this portal to the hospital. We started by attempting to remove the many green screws holding the plywood, which boarded the door to the hospital shut. Being successful with some and stripping others, we felt confident enough to bring in my grandpa’s blue, rusted, foot-long crowbar to finish the task. We gained leverage, and the plywood began to peel back.
We slipped a wooden block behind the plywood to secure the leverage we had gained. The wedge created a roughly 15 degree angle, and a promise that entrance was close. I began to work again, lower on the board, to gain the final pry. As I was about the deliver the final hard thrust, we heard what sounded like water rushing in the pipes above us, bizarre for a building that had been abandoned for twenty years. Then suddenly, a magnificent, visceral, booming SLAM came from behind the plywood. The plywood snapped back into its original position, shutting the entrance with a gust of air.
And we ran.
Throwing our tools into the back of the car and flooring the gas, we maintained our blood-curdling screams until the end of the road. Stopping the car at the downtown 7/11, there was a period of detente. Adrenalin production stopped; we began breathing more slowly, and we began to reflect.
What had we just seen? Could it have been just a force of physics, slamming the plywood back onto us? We went back to the picture evidence. From the photos, we could see that there was a blue light behind the door, and it was fucking spooky. There was no reason for there to be any light on in that building.
To this day, we still have no idea. It makes a better story that way. The summer we broke into “the mental” will sit in our repertoires for some time.