One Halloween night in Kingston, Ontario, I witnessed cops struggle to shut down a 200-guest kegger after one particularly intelligent person set the road on fire, and another brilliant individual fired a nail gun at a neighbour’s car.
This chaotic, nonsensical lifestyle sustained most college kids in town, but for someone who rarely drinks, and has a higher-than-average attention span… I was bored out of my mind. Standing around at house parties while everyone else got drunk and acted like animals was not cutting it.
I’d heard stories of a nearby place called Rockwood: an old, abandoned asylum for the criminally insane. While out for a bike ride one day, I decided to investigate. The place is hidden from all the main roads, which is perhaps intentional.
The first thing I noticed about Rockwood is how massive it is. The main building—which housed the patients (although treated more like inmates)—is four stories tall, and spans hundreds of feet across. The open fields surrounding it could have been useful for spotting patients if they somehow managed to escape. I imagine this place was probably beautiful when operational, at least from the outside, but Rockwood is now barren and run down. Even in daylight, darkness is all one sees through hundreds of barred windows. It looked more like a prison than anything else, which is not surprising considering Kingston is known for housing many dangerous criminals.
Rockwood’s history is deeply troubling, and some of its patients’ stories will send shivers up your spine. It thrived in a time (1878 – 1905) when modern, humane medical treatment did not exist. People were tortured because doctors thought mental illness could be “cured” by beating it out of a patient. Disturbing stories of horrific acts were carried out here in the name of experimental science. Lobotomies were common (the “let’s-poke-this-part-of-the-brain-and-see-what-happens” kind). Rumours ran rampant amongst the people of Kingston. Supposed ghost sightings were common. Numerous lives of misery, sadness, and terror ended painfully here. I thought if any place on earth was likely to be haunted, it was this one. I had to get inside, especially after discovering a patient who shares the same last name as me in an online database.
I assembled a team of eight to break in (the rest must have chickened out). I didn’t care if I got caught, the experience far outweighed the risk.
There are a number of wild animals and possible squatters who take shelter in Rockwood, leaving shit both figuratively and literally all over the place, and we didn’t want to breathe in those fumes. My girlfriend at the time was a vet-tech student. She brought along surgical masks, which complimented our discreet all-black attire. Armed with flashlights, we set out at midnight. It felt like we were about to perform some sort of grand heist.
The first stage of the break-in was the scouting operation. One team player–Andrew–and I advanced close to the building and took cover behind a tree, to get a feel for the layout of the place, possible entrances, and security. We spotted a security car parked with its headlights off in the otherwise empty lot. The exhaust fumes in the cold air gave it away.
After about 10 minutes, the car moved around the corner of the building. We followed it, always staying out of sight, and deciphered its predictable patrol pattern. It circled the entire property clockwise, stopping in one spot for a few minutes before proceeding. It would be laughably easy to bypass this defence; all we had to do was time it right. Plus, the old lady driving didn’t seem the type to give us trouble.
We waited for the opportune moment, and signaled our squad via text. No turning back now. We scaled the fence, I ripped my jeans in the process. Two members of the group—Max and Ian—were hammered. They decided to take the discrete approach and throw a rock through a window. To their surprise, there was no glass. Max hopped on Ian’s shoulders and climbed up, then pulled Ian, and another comrade—Dylan—up with him. I on the other hand, simply opened the back door and waltzed in with Andrew and our girlfriends. We had to be the crazy ones, breaking into an insane asylum. Maybe some unseen force was calling us home.
The inside was spooky to say the least. I’ll admit that I was a little scared, but I wasn’t going to let my girlfriend see that. I was more afraid of running into a hobo with a knife than a ghost. Phrases like, “You’re going to die here,” “Look out behind you,” and “It was more fun in hell,” were written on the walls amongst plenty of obscenities and dick-graffiti. There was waste everywhere: plastic bags, pieces of drywall, feces, loose bricks, broken beer bottles, and even a few used needles. Good thing I wore thick boots. Someone had made themselves at home, and could very well be lurking behind some dark corner.
“Fuck you ghosts! Come at me bro! I ain’t scared of you,” yelled Max and Ian. Their dates urged them to calm down so they wouldn’t “disturb the spirits.” I didn’t mind—if something sinister was waiting for us, it would go for them first.
The place was a maze. There were far too many empty rooms, long hallways, and spiral stairwells to count. It would be easy to get lost. We split up into smaller groups: a classic mistake in just about every horror movie.
I took several opportunities to hide around corners, jump out of shadows, and invent spooky stories to scare my friends. I would stop suddenly, and stare into a dark room, then yell, “What the hell was that?!” In hindsight, that may have been one of the reasons my girlfriend and I weren’t in a relationship for very long. Despite my attempts to terrify my friends, I succeeded more in scaring myself.
We spent a couple of hours exploring this frightening yet fascinating place, but still only covered a fraction it. We reached the highest window, which was in a hidden attic reachable via ladder from a barred cell: one of many cells. Marks on the walls indicated the passing of days, or years, judging by the number of lines.
We worked our way down to the basement, where all we could see was whatever was directly illuminated by our flashlights. There, we discovered a room with a single electric chair, complete with sponge bucket. We didn’t stay in that particular room for very long; a quick glance was more than enough to freak us the fuck out. It’s not like the movies. There is no audience behind a pane of glass. Just a chair with straps and a spaghetti strainer for a helmet, within a small room where people go to die.
Everywhere we went, I felt like I was being watched, like someone or something was stalking me, waiting for an opportune moment to strike. I was in a state of heightened awareness, scanning every shadow for signs of movement, and always listening for scurrying at my back. I told myself this was just my imagination getting the best of me.
My arm went numb from my girlfriend squeezing it.
We discovered an enormous banquet hall riddled with smashed tables and chairs, and a huge, fallen chandelier in the middle. We discovered an equally large sleeping area, with mattresses eerily placed in neat rows, unlike the numerous springy cot frames leaning against the hallway walls.
Worst of all was a secret underground pathway that connects the patient housing units to the warden’s building. This was the path nurses took to deliver patients for experimental procedures. It’s a long, narrow stretch of darkness that looks much like a mineshaft—not a place you’d want to be if claustrophobic. I wanted to go through, but it’s where my friends drew the line. I only saw the entrance that night. I don’t blame them for backing down; the room before—filled with chains, and tables with arm and leg constraints—was enough.
The wind blew in from the open water of the St. Lawrence River. Since the windows were mostly shattered, the sound was amplified, and echoed through every corridor, creating the illusion of screams in the distance.
Max sang while taking a piss in a urinal of a row of about twenty. He must have had balls of steel to turn his back to the dark bathroom stalls, some of which had doors bent or torn from their hinges. Mirrors were clouded over. Porcelain sinks were partially shattered. Maybe he didn’t notice.
Max tried to wash his hands. “What? There’s no plumbing in this place?”
Every door in the building was open. I assumed this was because once people enter, they don’t stick around long enough to close the door behind them.
Eventually, the security guard caught on. I wasn’t surprised. I was amazed that she didn’t discover us sooner. I warned my friends to turn off their flashlights near windows, but they didn’t listen.
“Hey! I know you’re in there! Come out right now!” She spoke over a megaphone.
The girls screamed. The whole night, they were expecting a ghost or a monster, but this is what set them off: an old lady in a car. We lead the security guard on a wild goose chase, ignoring her pleas for us to leave. She didn’t dare enter the building, but followed our silhouettes in the windows from her cruiser. Andrew and Dylan stopped to smoke a joint just to taunt her. She might’ve expected another relaxing night on the job, sleeping in her car, or doing the daily crossword, but that night she had to deal with a bunch of idiots.
Eventually the police showed up. It was clear they weren’t going to leave before us, so we walked out the back door and greeted them. The officer understood we were just kids having fun, and let us off with a minimum fine, if you can believe that.
The entire experience was an adrenaline rush; the fear of the unknown excited me. I could have shrugged off the idea of entering Rockwood, but I didn’t. I am grateful for avoiding another night partying, or lounging at home, staring at the television.
A normal life is boring. It’s always better to be a little crazy. Next time I visit Rockwood, I think I’ll go in alone.
William Cousins is a Professional Writing student at Algonquin College, living in Ottawa, Ontario. Writing is his passion. He believes in the power of the written word, and aspires to perfect his craft in order to create great works of art. From movies, to song lyrics, to video games, he is locked in a constant quest for the perfect story.