Despite a ton of misplaced distrust in medicine and medical staff plaguing society in recent years, there are still many valid reasons to be nervous about going to the hospital. In fact, the very nature of hospitals–what they’re designed for–makes them understandably frightening. We can hope for the best when we have to visit a hospital, but we also know that it’s a place where, inevitably, the worst is possible even in spite of best efforts.
In this episode I cover how hospitals have been featured in horror fiction, and also in ghostlore, with a particular focus on a lesser-known, allegedly haunted hospital I was familiar with as a kid: Mississippi’s Old Biloxi Hospital.
Dockins, Metric. “Hospital Staff Hopes Ghost Girls Survive Move.” The Sun Herald, 31 Oct. 1986, pp. 1–1.
Demography and Roman society : Tim G. Parkin.
Parkin, Tim G
Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, c1992.
The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.
The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.
Other music for this episode: “Abandoned House” by Mocha Music. licensed through Shutterstock
I spent a fair bit of time in hospitals when I was a kid; from about the age of four to seven or eight or so. Once upon a time, asthma apparently tried to take me out. I don’t remember almost dying, my folks are the ones burdened with those memories and I’ve never asked them much about it for the obvious reason of not wanting them to relive that trauma.
Hospitals are where I learned early on to appreciate medicine while still finding it disgusting–if you’ve never had to drink liquid prednisone, good for you, and I mean that–where I also learned to appreciate nurses and doctors, and where I first learned to absolutely hate needles. I’m mostly over that last bit–mostly–it only took a couple of decades to get there. Whenever I had to get a shot or get my blood drawn, the nurses would always tell me to just look away. It wouldn’t hurt or scare me so much if I wouldn’t look at it going into my arm. But I never could turn away. Even now, I find that difficult to do. Back then it was impossible for me. As scared of the needle and syringe as I was, the idea of taking my eyes off it–not seeing exactly what it was doing–scared me more.
I have fairly clear memories of feeling and flexing the swollen fingers on the hand that had an IV running into it. Another memory I have from this time is of being in bed so long that when I was finally allowed to get up and walk around on my own, I couldn’t feel my feet for a few seconds. So, very briefly, it kind of felt like I was walking on air.
What I don’t remember is ever feeling terribly scared. With the benefit of hindsight I know I had it considerably easier than a lot of other kids who’ve had to spend far, far more time in hospitals. Adults as well, for that matter. Besides my medical condition not being as severe as what afflicts many others, I was also nowhere near fully cognizant of the extent of my condition. Not until I was a little bit older, in sixth grade, and my lung collapsed, and the doctor showed me an x-ray that, to me, sort of made it look like a cobweb was growing inside one half of my chest. That was when it first occurred to me that hospitals are inherently at least a little bit frightening. The vast majority of us aren’t really looking for a reason to go to the hospital. And for many of us, unfortunately, despite the best efforts of even the most competent medical professionals, it’s the last place we ever end up.
Little wonder, then, that various hospital settings are frequently featured in horror fiction and real world lore.
In Louisville, Kentucky, the infamous Waverly Hills Sanitorium is now an attraction due to some elements of its history, most notably something now commonly referred to as the “death tunnel.” There was a film made about it in 2005 titled Death Tunnel, which I have never seen because it has particularly unfavorable reviews–from critics, horror fans, and casual viewers–but it’s worth acknowledging that it does exist, and that it makes sense for a horror movie on the subject to exist. The story attached to the tunnel makes it an ideal playground for horror legends.
It had other names. The Death Chute. The Body Chute. The Body Slide. By any name, the tunnel served a simple and even reasonable purpose. It was used to transport the deceased by way of rail car from the ground floor of the main building to the basement of an older version of the hospital. There are no records I could find of how many bodies–people–passed through it when the hospital was active. I’ve seen generic ranges of “thousands” to “tens of thousands,” always from sources emphasizing the lore of the hospital and tunnel, as opposed to emphasizing its strict history, so they may be exaggerating. Or not. One can imagine it was especially busy during the tuberculosis outbreaks that plagued the area from the time when the hospital opened in 1910, to the development of TB-fighting antibiotics and better treatments in the mid 1940’s.
The idea of tens of thousands of brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and more being shuttled through hundreds of feet of a tunnel to be prepared for disposal might strike some as callous, but it was efficient and sensible. It reflects part of the nature of hospitals. They have to be designed for care, but also for what happens when options for care have been exhausted. For when patients become cadavers. Hospitals are a prime reflection of what happens when optimal optimism must confront inevitability. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst, as the old adage says. Under absolute ideal conditions, every hospital and worker has to believe in the ability to cure anything curable, but accept the reality that some conditions are incurable, and that letting the dead occupy space better used to save the living is potentially recklessly jeopardizing the health of someone who still has a chance. A death tunnel, therefore, might be considered macabre, but hardly morbid.
Again, this is intrinsic to hospitals. They are places where people heal. They are also places where people die. I started this podcast in the immediate, large and heavy shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The first episode includes a preamble expressing my desire not to exploit that topic, or things related to it, while at the same time examining how we shouldn’t–by default–automatically be afraid to fear, or consider it a negative thing. It is a natural, often beneficial emotion, and it can be natural to fear the worst that can happen to us if we go to a hospital while also understanding it’s more irrational to fear a diagnosis than the ravages of a diagnosed illness. COVID-19, at its multiple peaks, gave us waves of practical hospital horror stories. Unfortunately, it might never finish furnishing us with such stories. Overworked and unsupported staff. Underequipped and overfilled emergency rooms and intensive care units. Some patients neglected, some hopeless, others still belligerent, distrustful, and even violent. Not quite a bottoming-out worst case scenario, but as close to one as we’ve seen regarding modern medical institutions for several decades. But if you’ve read about hospital overcrowding in the past, whether during previous pandemics or epidemics, or during war, or just in impoverished areas of the world, you realize it wasn’t unprecedented. Earlier I referred to idyllic hospital conditions, but the true, utopian ideal for hospitals is a world where they needn’t exist. And we all know that isn’t possible.
Medicine and treatment has gone through many phases throughout history. Like so many things in our modern world, our worst case scenario is still better than the best case scenario from just two or three hundred years ago, much less the eras preceding that. Even as we know an ecological crisis looms, I still wonder if a bright and open mind from centuries past wouldn’t still be eager to trade places with someone from our present day, based alone on the level of medical treatment they could now receive. Life expectancy of people from previous eras is a strangely, grimly skewed statistic; infant and childhood mortality rates were so high that they tilt the numbers lower than what might be considered “truly accurate,” for lack of a better term. The average life expectancy for ancient Romans was about 25-years according to history professor Tim G. Parkin, for instance, (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=acls;cc=acls;view=toc;idno=heb01461.0001.001), but by his estimation, people who survived past the age of twenty-five on average lived to be 53. Still not a great number compared to the modern Japanese average from birth to adulthood of 83-years-old, but it still reflects that people in bygone eras weren’t genuinely living in a world where hardly anyone survived into middle-age, much less old age. Still, the fact that enough young and vulnerable people were dying to drive the average down so dramatically speaks to the comparative ineffectiveness of medical care in the distant (and sometimes not-so-distant) past. Not always out of neglect or lack of effort, but out of simple lack of knowledge. We’ve now had enough time to learn so much more, and develop so much more. Medical science has evolved beyond just treatment of the sick, but well into sciences designed to optimize health, athleticism, and longevity.
Even with that in mind, what might emphasize the fear we may have of hospitals is the fact that we know all of the advancements we’ve made can’t save us. We’re an incalculable distance away from cracking the code to immortality, or even the one to increase our current, best life expectancy average by say twenty percent. To say nothing of addressing illnesses for which the best treatment is, “Make death as comfortable and painless as possible.” I’ve had the displeasure of having my heart sink at the phrase, “hospice care,” with regard to people I love more than once. And I still might be comparatively fortunate when considering others who’ve had to hear the term more often, or aren’t even given the opportunity to hear that term before a relative or friend passes.
We’re not just afraid of hospitals because of what going into one might mean to us. Hearing that someone you care about has been taken to a hospital can produce a jolt of terror. Hell, it can even be disquieting to see it happening to a stranger, or someone you barely know. Seeing an ambulance on your street, a few houses down, in front of the house of a neighbor whose name you don’t know, who you’ve only waved at on occasion, can still prove disturbing. The best you can hope for, in such a situation, is that it’s a false alarm and the ambulance will leave without a patient in back. Otherwise, seeing an ambulance in flight to an emergency room, lights flashing, is the potential alert that a hospital is going to receive someone whose life is in danger.
Ambulances, relative to actual hospital buildings, have been rarely utilized in horror or lore. Phantom vehicles are a significant presence in ghostlore and urban legends. There have long been ghost trains and phantom carriages, and even just solo ghost riders on horseback. A phantom carriage appears in perhaps the most famous ghost story of all time, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In modern times, haunted cars have shown up in the work of horror legends ranging from H.R. Wakefield to Stephen King. On the more conspiratorial yet somewhat more grounded side of things, black helicopters are associated with everything from militant, new-world-order takeovers to UFO coverups, and the car known as the “Black Volga” features in dark legends from Greece to Mongolia: a vehicle used by Satanists, secret police and everything between to abduct and disappear people caught out at night. No such phantom or black ambulance prominently exists, however, which I find a little strange.
An impressive work of horror that does feature a ghostly ambulance is the Danish television series, known in English as Kingdom. Its Danish name is spelled R-I-G-E-T, and its pronunciation appears to consist of just one syllable, and I’m still not even going to give it a shot. Not on this recording at least. I pride myself on at least trying to pronounce words outside of my native tongue as correctly as I can, but this one just isn’t happening for me.
Anyway, the Danish series was remade for American audiences as Kingdom Hospital, a miniseries developed by Stephen King. All respect to the American King of horror, in this case, I prefer the original Danish version, and of the things I remember of it, including the absolutely outrageous climactic cliffhanger of its childbirth scene, what haunts me most are the relatively brief but important and eerie scenes of a ghostly ambulance driving through the dark and arriving nightly at the hospital with no one alive inside, yet clearly being driven by and carrying something.
Of all the kinds of automobiles that could haunt the highways and byways, aside from hearses, an ambulance seems the most obvious choice. It should be, by now, more cliché than ghost trains. Yet Kingdom is the only significant work of fiction I’ve found that features one, and the only legend–urban or older–that I could find about phantom ambulances is a relatively recent one, about an invisible ambulance whose siren can be heard at the spot of an accident in the Mexican city of San Nicolas de los Garza.
The hospitals themselves, then, remain the primary haunted spaces. Sometimes they’re used when a haunting is only suggested, or when the terror is still human, at least relatively. 1981’s Halloween II places its final girl and spree killer in a hospital. The same goes for an 80’s action film with some horror DNA, Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra. The Korean film Infection is confined entirely to an understaffed hospital where a mistake and attempted cover-up are the catalysts for supernatural horrors. On the exploitation end of things, there are films like 1981’s X-Ray, that, from title to end product, seem to operate on the idea that hospitals are scary enough to carry the thinnest of thin horror premises. On the somewhat subtler side of things, the last lines of the film Session 9 indicate that it might straddle the line. Was there a discreet haunting taking place all along, or was the film’s recently inured killer just coincidentally working at a place where a murderer’s alter ego once declared that he occupies the minds of, “the weak and the wounded.”
Session 9 was filmed at the Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, a classically Gothic, sprawling set of buildings. It’s not only the setting of Session 9 , but of the young adult novel Project 17, and it is featured in an early episode of the popular podcast Lore. In one of the DVD features for Session 9, which I might happen to own, one of the film’s stars, Peter Mullan, speaks of having an eerie inclination to jump from the roof of one of its buildings despite having no previous tendences toward taking his own life. As if under influence of something within the long-derelict hospital. It’s hardly indicative of a legitimate haunting–if such a thing exists–but it’s notable, and disquieting regardless of whether you’re a believer or rationalist.
Once a cutting edge facility, Danvers eventually became emblematic of the problems plaguing many mental health hospitals throughout the country. It was overcrowded and underfunded, and it allegedly resorted to inhumane measures such as shock therapy, straitjackets and lobotomies to keep its patients in check.
Looking back at what I just wrote, I realize I just anthropomorphized the hospital. I didn’t say the staff at Danvers resorted to those brutal measures, I said that Danvers itself did it.
Realistically, hospitals are, of course, comprised of human beings who work within them, make decisions, make people better, and sometimes make mistakes. Like any other institution, a hospital is only as good or bad, effective or ineffective, as the people in charge of it, and the people working under those in charge. Nonetheless, once a place receives a certain reputation, that can be a hard thing for it to shake, even if it replaced every bad actor within its walls with the most earnest, talented and benevolent people it could find. We know that the people are responsible for whatever happens inside a hospital, but we might feel, consciously or not, that the facility and buildings are in some way the cause.
While I’m reticent to say anything that might be misconstrued as an endorsement of those infamously distrustful of medical science in recent, tumultuous years, it is not entirely unreasonable to be wary of people who have power and knowledge that we don’t have when that power and knowledge can impact our health and very lives. We also might not really be wary the actual physicians and nurses there to directly assist us, or the scientists and researchers working on medications, inoculations and other treatments, but instead wary of the unseen money-men and women making decisions behind the scenes.
Like many of us, it’s a lot easier for me to trust nurses because I personally know and have known a fair share of them, and recognize how hard-working and caring they are. I’m a little farther removed from doctors–the only ones I’ve known have been the ones I’ve had to visit throughout my life. Still, my nurse friends and acquaintances tend to trust doctors at least enough to work with them, and I can only, rationally, be so skeptical–if at all–of someone who’s dedicated their life and career to developing expertise in a field in which it would be generous to call me a layman. Still, I’m farthest removed from, say, any member of the board of directors for a pharmaceutical giant. Or insurance company. These hospital-related entities tend to be more openly and acceptably considered untrustworthy, and not without cause. By and large, however, representations of unscrupulous medical executives tend to appear in dramas like The Rainmaker, or occasionally in a conspiracy, action-thriller like The Fugitive. Even if they’re the people who should scare us more so than the frontline staff, they don’t make for frightening villains quite as easily.
Evil, murderous doctors and sinister nurses, meanwhile, have appeared in a variety of horror stories. And have appeared rarely in real life as well. The Wikipedia page that breaks down serial killers by number of victims has a section specifically dedicated to medical professionals and pseudo-medical professionals. If you’re inclined to first do harm, it’s much easier to do so when the injured, ill and infirm are being delivered to you daily, sparing you the need to stalk the streets for new victims like almost every other serial killer has to. This has been exploited in a range of horror films, often largely set in and around a hospital, or other medical facility. The German horror film Anatomy, starring Franke Potente, is one standout of many examples. It features a group of killer doctors that actually call themselves the Anti-Hippocratic Society. For any who may need a reminder, the Hippocratic Oath is a millennia-old ethical promise made by physicians in which, among other things, they swear to abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm. So the killers in Anatomy are proudly placing themselves in direct opposition to that promise.
Even just visually speaking, it’s pretty easy to make hospitals, doctors and nurses appear frightening. Part of this is likely due to understandable fears we associate with seeing all of these things: again, it’s perfectly natural to be a little apprehensive about having to visit a hospital, to say nothing of having to stay for an extended period, and possibly live out your last days in one. But I think part of it is just cosmetic. Much like the classic black and white, hooded nun’s habit is always just a tweak or two away from looking perfectly frightening, masked doctors or nurses, be they in lab coats or scrubs, are always just a few flickering lights or a clutched scalpel away from looking like horror villains. Hospital interiors, whether pristine or dingy, are likewise, visually, as made for horror as a Gothic or Baroque cathedral or, hell, any lighthouse.
Don’t make that face. Even if ghosts don’t exist, I assure you every lighthouse is haunted.
From the 2021 film, The Power–set in a hospital during a period of rolling blackouts–to the creepy demonic nurses in the Silent Hill franchise, to the evil asylum director, Dr. Caligari who was first introduced to audiences over a century ago, hospitals and their associated staff have been used to frighten people for years, exploiting the real world fears we may have of them. And then there are the stories that are designed to bridge the gap between the real world and make believe. Stories of legend and lore. Stories that, according to many, surely cannot be true, but that claim to be so, and are ardently believed by many others. I’ve mentioned two relatively famous hospitals that have such legends attached to them: Waverly and Danvers. There are many others of varying fame or infamy around the country. The one I’d like to speak about next is the first haunted hospital I can remember hearing of. Not the one I stayed in when I was a kid in Mississippi, but one very near to it. One that, by the time I was leaving Mississippi at the age of thirteen, was already being spoken of as if it was distant history. Howard Memorial, or, as I knew it as a kid from hearing stories of its ghosts, Old Biloxi Hospital.
If you believe in haunted houses, I have to imagine you believe in haunted hospitals. They would meet certain conditions seemingly requisite to a haunting that also appear in houses, multiplied a hundred or a thousand times over, or perhaps more. They capture the sagas of multitudinous lives in crisis; potentially in their waning days or hours.
Biloxi, Mississippi’s Howard Memorial Hospital opened in 1963. Originally a four-story structure, a fifth story was added in 1975. It remained active until a replacement was opened in October of 1986. Twenty-three years isn’t very long compared to an old family home, especially one that has survived generations, but with its max capacity of two-hundred beds, and due to its very nature, what Old Biloxi Hospital lacked in age it could make up in volume and steady suffering.
With this in mind, its rumored spirits might, at first, appear friendlier than you’d think. I had heard from someone at school that there was just one little girl haunting the hospital, but by most accounts there were two of them. Said accounts include an article from the local Sun Herald newspaper, released on Halloween in 1986, shortly after the hospital was set to close. The title of the article states that certain staff members hoped the ghost girls were going to “survive” the transition to the newer facility.
Even within the Sun Herald piece, written by Mr. Metric Dockins, there are variations to certain details. For instance, the girls were either patients who died in the hospital, or they were killed in a playground next to the hospital. They may have been dressed in nightgowns–or hospital gowns, more fittingly–or in party dresses of a particular time period; their attire being dependent on their backstory, it would seem. If you didn’t see them, you could still hear them. They were known to laugh, and were therefore thought of by the nurses as happy, if a bit mischievous at times. When elevator doors would open of their own accord, or unoccupied elevators would move between floors for no apparent reason, it was chalked up to the girls playing around. Other times they might have been trying to help the staff. According to one nurse, on certain occasions when a baby needed to be rushed to intensive care, the elevator doors would always open for her without her needing to do anything. Whether or not they had been patients, it would seem the girls had a soft spot for other kids at the hospital.
Without meaning to be, however, the girls were also reputed to be omens. Severely ill patients would sometimes ask the nurses why the girls were being allowed to play in their rooms, and if they could be made to leave. It isn’t stated in the article that this meant the girls were primarily visible to patients who were near death, but I’ve read statements–in the few places that I’ve found that have anything to say about the hospital–that presume this is the case.
The old, informal online index of haunted places, Shadowlands.net has a few short sentences on the hospital. Let me stop for a second here, though, and be clear that it this an old website and I’m not sure about its upkeep, but in my experience it’s been prone to viruses on occasion, so don’t go rushing out to it unless you’re 100% sure your computer is protected and can take it. Anyway, Shadowlands devotes one sentence to the ghost girls, another to various doors opening and closing on their own…and then there’s one more sentence about a tall, unidentified spectral figure in white that made the temperature drop when it passed through the dispatch area.
Elsewhere, in article comments I’ve read online, there are anecdotes from people who claimed to have worked at the hospital, and others who say they ventured onto the property when it was abandoned and explored each of the five floors. They claim to have heard disembodied voices. Whispers. Screams. Babies crying. One individual says they saw a distinct-looking, lone wheelchair in a room on one floor, then when they went to a different floor they saw a wheelchair waiting for them again, and were somehow sure it was the same one. All the sights and sounds could be blamed on squatters or other trespassers, of course, but no one ever entertains that as a possible answer for what they heard or saw.
Another commenter and urban explorer says they once saw a shadowy figure in the stairwell, and that the figure was “darker than the dark.” They couldn’t see the shadow’s face, but nonetheless felt as though it watched them as they passed.
These tales of trespassers encountering eeriness within the walls of the empty hospital were the kinds of stories about Old Biloxi Hospital that I grew up with. These and darker stories. As I said before, the story I first heard wasn’t about two ghost girls, but about just one. And she wasn’t helpful or playful. She was scared. The way I heard it, there was no debate that she had been a patient who never made it out of the hospital alive. The person who said they saw her spirit in the hospital also said she was running from something. Other phantoms. Those of masked doctors and nurses who–based on the looks in their eyes, the surgical instruments in their hands, and the fear on the young girl’s face– would probably fit right in with the Anti-Hippocratic society from the film Anatomy.
I’m glad I didn’t hear about these stories until after I had been through my extended stays in a different hospital. I doubt I would have recovered as well given how very little sleep I would have gotten.
I’m actually keeping some details about the story as I heard it to myself right now. I’ve always wanted to use them in a story of my own, and I’m convinced that someday I will. They’re the kind of details it’s hard for me to imagine being imagined someone who isn’t at least a reasonably gifted storyteller. The person who told this to me was not that. They were a classmate who was entirely disinterested in literature and barely even interested in movies, television, comic books, etc. I always figured they were lying about having ventured into the hospital themselves, and were just re-spinning someone else’s yarn. Either way, I didn’t mind. Be it believable or… let’s say “less so,” I’ve always been a sucker for a good ghost story, even if it’ll keep me awake at night. Hell, especially so.
I remember laying in bed as a kid, eyes wide open, thinking about the ghost girl running from other ghosts in Old Biloxi Hospital. I used to wonder if thinking about her and the other ghosts too hard would let them somehow leave the hospital and come to my house. And I’d stare at the door to my bedroom, which was typically ajar, and wonder for the thousandth time why I couldn’t just close it for the night. Why the idea of not being able to see what was behind the door was somehow scarier than seeing the darkness looking back at me through the narrow opening. If I closed the door, then at least I wouldn’t see the phantom girl and spectral doctors and nurses if they did show up in my house, in my hallway. But it would be worse to not see them if they were there. A lot like those needles whenever I had to get a shot, or get my blood drawn during the many days and nights I spent at a hospital, I couldn’t stand to see it, but it I also couldn’t stand to look away.