You Fancy Me Mad
by A.M. Broadous
The following contains graphic content that may not be suitable for sensitive readers.
I press my blackened thumb firmly on tattered paper and sign away for my treatment. A stack of sagging waivers is creased and inked by what seems like hundreds of adrenaline junkies, horror buffs, and heavy metal-listening residents and non-residents of Tooele, Utah. My two companions, Megan and Adam, flank me on either side, their eyes fixed on the blood-splattered straitjackets adorning the ticket booths like fresh rabbit pelts. I pay the man up front, who staggers forward, slides a ticket through the window, and gives an Igor-esque smile. When I see his lips curl, I immediately forget why this was a group decision. I feel as though my sanity is in question here at Asylum 49. Maybe I do belong here, after all. I breathe in sharply and start tapping my hands lightly on my legs. There is a long, long line outside, and the air is deadly cold. By the end of all this, I just may become a committed patient.
Before it was one of Utah’s only full-contact haunted attractions and in the top 100 scariest haunted houses in America, Asylum 49 was first and foremost a hospital. If you wind the clocks back to 1873, it was the humble abode of Samuel F. Lee and his family. When the Lees moved in 1913, the place became a poorhouse, a derelict haven of slight repose for the elderly and the mentally ill. It was only until the town of Tooele grew from "population: seven" that people started to envision more than just a run-down shack. They imagined stethoscopes and hard candy, scrubs and clean linen.
Refurbished as an actual hospital with all the bells and whistles in 1953, Asylum 49, the then-Tooele Valley Hospital, did its job until it suffered severe underfunding. The budget blow couldn’t even accommodate those who passed away. Deceased patients were literally stacking up in designated, unrefrigerated rooms until a coroner arrived and signed off on each one. These particular papers, though, had no space for a black thumbprint.
“They want to make sure they can identify our dead bodies,” Megan says after we finish signing the waivers. “These’ll help, too,” she says, holding up the blue band on her wrist. The three of us had also received hospital wristbands with our names scribbled in Sharpie.
I nod and stare at the black marks and my wristband, wondering if she’s serious; I can never tell with her. I’m also wondering why the hell I'm here, subjecting myself to this kind of morbid amusement. This isn’t my first haunted house, and it likely won’t be my last. And I can’t put my finger on why exactly that is. Maybe I’ve finally lost it—lost them. My marbles.
Maybe that’s it. They’ve tumbled to the ground. I’m stooping low and swiping my hands to try and find them. This idea truly takes shape when I realize I’m somewhat disheartened that I didn’t have to prick my finger for a blood signature. Or when I entertain the idea of one of the doctors locking me in a padded cell.
Then I think to when I’m dragged to a horror film by some friend of a friend. I shut my eyes while watching Insidious or Annabelle or even the 90s It miniseries. But there’s always one lid that slowly creeps open like I’m a little boy peeking through the window blinds at the mailman. There’s that part of me that just has to see it. I have to know. I have to. Yes, I just have to.
Am I insane?
Only half of Asylum 49 is the attraction: the windowed rotunda, blinking vertical neon-green sign, and part of the blocky midsection perched on the hill. The other half of the building is an elderly care center owned by Rocky Mountain Health Care.
At this other half, patients have reported a number of more-than-close encounters of the “other kind.” The “other kind” has been said to come in the form of mists, orbs, and mysterious portals. It has also taken the shape of a nurse clad in white who roams about when all other nurses wear green. A terrifying man in black who arrives in patients’ rooms precisely at 3 AM. A mysterious little girl named Jane or Jackie or Jessica (the “J” names vary depending on the source) who claps three times and disappears in a faint whisper.
This haunting and, some may argue, demonic obsession with the number three (three specters, three o’clock, three claps) is said to be an affront to the Holy Trinity. This I learned with one half-opened eye watching The Conjuring.
Given the truly sinister nature of this building, it makes sense that the former Tooele Valley Hospital is neighbors with a cemetery. All this, I’m sure, is truly comforting for those who reside in the other half. It surely comforts my paranoia as I stand in line, hands jerking slightly, as I await my checkup from the good doctors.
This, of course, isn’t my first checkup from shrinks milling about. It’s not my first hospitalization, either.
No, not at all.
Adam looks paranoid like me. I wonder if he’s also insane. As the line progresses, we pass under an arbor strewn with dim lightbulbs, cobwebs, and small hanging pumpkins. In the eerie light thrown over him, I can see Adam more clearly. He’s slightly shorter in stature, bespectacled, folding the leathery arms of his jacket, and tottering side to side. He's quite handsome and looks like he could be a secret agent in the Kingsman series. I don’t know him at all. He’s Megan's old high school friend, the quiet type I can identify with. He’s the lone wolf who runs by his own playbook, and it takes a lot for him to smile like it’s against his religion. Maybe he’s the quiet madman who hordes handkerchiefs and mutters “Banana” to himself at Home Depot.
Or perhaps Adam’s like the madman in downtown Salt Lake City who follows me down the street and asks me “Are you black or white?”
I'm afraid this might be a strange trick question, so I say “Uh, no” and briskly walk away.
I love Megan like the sister I always wanted, but she must be insane. If she hangs with me, it makes sense. What cements her craziness even more is the fact that she’s the horror lover of the group. She’s seen every movie from The Taking of Deborah Logan to The Witch to the early slashers. She even watched one of them with her boyfriend at midnight in a graffiti tunnel. And she came out alive.
Megan’s a madwoman. And it just happens that she’s friends with two madmen.
An hour into the line, wall-to-wall spectators huddled in one giant snake, I see a teenager who’s suddenly snatched from his group by one of the doctors covered in dried crimson and wandering through the maze of the crowd. The boy is taken to the very front of the line where he’ll soon be thrust through the doors of the asylum and on his own to navigate its bowels.
I look down at my wristband. Both my hands are shuddering. I shut my eyes and concentrate on steadying my pulse.
Distracted by the inside of my eyelids, I don’t notice another doctor slinking up behind Megan and yanking her ponytail. When she yelps, I’m wide awake, and Adam gawks with his thick glasses. The doctor looks at Megan squarely in the eyes. His face is weathered and droopy, complete with a mess of shock-white hair and a blurry nametag.
Megan and the good doctor spend a few minutes locked in a staring contest, then he saunters off to find another victim to torment.
My hands shake more violently. I feel it coming.
I start to tap my hands against my legs again until my head stops somersaulting in the heat of July. Until my world slows down to the tick of a metronome. I blink hard and shake my head.
Megan looks at me. “Are you okay?”
Once my breathing gains traction, I nod and adjust my snapback. “Yeah. Are you?”
“That was awesome.”
“Did you see that?” a boy directly in front of us says, pointing his finger at the doctor, his slightly chubby face contorted with preadolescent terror. His name is Cash. He is not insane; he’s 11 years old. He darts his head around and surveys the crowd like a quail. Dr. Leatherface has entered the line. Cash holds his Dodgers cap firmly to his head because he’s afraid it might get snatched. As Dr. Leatherface approaches, Cash holds the cap so tight it covers his nose. But the doctor merely passes, grunting to himself.
I steady my hands and do my best to give Cash consolation, a therapeutic talking-to, but I’m the one who really needs it. It turns out I was wrong. Adam's not insane. Megan’s not insane.
It’s just me.
“Just tap,” says Dr. Hermann, sitting with one crossed leg, a clipboard in his hand. His voice is mild and warm, subtly accented by an Arabian sun. He has a peppery-gray beard and thin spectacles that look like they might break. He doesn’t look at me like I’m an insect under a magnifying glass like the male nurse here. He sees me.
I do as he says and gently bring my wobbly hands to my thighs on the chair. Up. Down. Up. Down. Repeat. This exercise eases my racing thoughts, the ones that lead to my nervous breakdowns and what B.B. King calls the “blues.” These are the thoughts that put me in scrubs for two weeks at this mental institution, Highland Ridge Hospital, in Murray, Utah. Five years from now at another hospital, instead of Dr. Hermann, I’ll see Dr. Leatherface.
He gives me a puzzled look and leans in. “Tell me about those suicidal thoughts.” The last word comes out like “tots.”
I look at my name printed on my light blue wristband. I feel my eyes go hot and heavy.
Dr. Hermann’s face is expectant, but his eyes don’t rush me.
“Every day,” I say, thinking of the one psychological breakdown and pill soup that urged my parents to bring me here.
“How about right now?” Dr. Hermann says, tilting his head. “In this room.”
I half-shrug. “I guess not right this minute.” I look away to the side, at the DSM-5 leaning on a bookshelf. “I’m not crazy, am I?”
Dr. Hermann smiles again. “What do you think?”
I wipe my eyes and laugh in spite of myself. “I honestly don’t know anymore.” I then tell the doctor I’m feeling a little ill and ask if I can leave his office and return to my room. He kindly obliges and shows me out.
“We can talk when you’re ready,” he says. “Get some rest.”
The hallway is blaring with light. On my way to my room, I spot an older patient stooping low to the ground and caressing the air. A nurse is standing beside him and asking what “breed she is.”
“Irish setter,” the man says. “I call her Shelley.” He continues to pet the air. His name is Danny. He’s schizophrenic.
Then Nurse Duncan comes strolling down the hall, a smirk on his face when he looks my way. Unfortunately, Nurse Duncan isn't the most popular among the patients and has been likened to Nurse Ratched. On one occasion, he even made one of them scream “Suck a big, fat cock!”
I walk past him without any sort of acknowledgement and enter my room, which has no door. None of the rooms do. This is to ensure patients are safely under the nurses’ vigilant gaze.
Nurse Sonia is one of the head caregivers dressed in all white. She’s always the one who checks on me, and we have nothing but pleasant exchanges. She peeks tenderly in the doorway and sees me slumped on my bed. “Hey,” she says softly. “How are you doing today?”
I sit up and feign a smile. “Just fine.”
She smiles and lingers a moment, then checks a box on her clipboard and heads to another patient’s room.
I slump back over and close my eyes, wondering what’s written about me in that DSM-5.
Cash’s father must be insane for bringing his son to Asylum 49. I’m watching him closely. He resembles a taller, more muscular Michael Chiklis. He’s just like Adam in that he keeps his arms folded and his lips tightly shut. He laughs to himself when his son, ever-fearful of Dr. Leatherface and his team of zombie nurses, latches to his arm. His stoicism is even more evident in his faraway look, the kind that, if you meet it, says Whaddya lookin’ at, bub? After a brief conversation with him, consisting mainly of grunts on his part, I conclude that he is not, in fact, crazy; he just doesn’t like long lines.
We’re now two hours in. Cash tugs periodically on my sleeve to keep me updated on Dr. Leatherface’s whereabouts. Megan and Adam are on their phones.
Adam is reading the Book of Mormon.
Megan’s playing Dark Meadow: The Pact.
There’s a hearse parked eerily near us. The waning gibbous peeking through the clouds glints off its windows and fender and every juncture where gray steel meets silver steel. I’m half-expecting someone or something to pop out, but nothing ever does. No need to tap my thighs.
Somebody in line has ordered a pepperoni pizza. I can smell the marinara and garlic wafting in the air, but I’m not hungry. My stomach churns like butter as we snake along the asylum’s southeastern wall.
A nurse brushes against my shoulder. Her face is a veiny, shriveled Cabbage Patch Kids doll, and she hobbles along with a walking stick. She turns and eyes me again and points her finger. Then she turns slowly back around and hobbles away.
Tap, tap, tap, tap...