Tue 31 Oct 2006
This is a true story.
Imagine if you will, a huge old Victorian building (perhaps I should more accurately say ‘collection of many buildings’), set upon a hill in outer suburban London, near a place called Stone. The sprawling structure is sombre and foreboding. And massive, stretching as it does over dozens of acres. It is in poor condition. Sections of the roof have lost tiles, and windows that aren’t already secured by boards are broken and hollow and look like nothing so much as missing teeth in the skull of a long dead corpse. Its appearance now, more than at any other time in its history, is perhaps the most evocative physical manifestation of the purpose for which it was built.
Once upon a time, not really too far back, it was set in attractive countryside, amidst tidy farms and pretty copses. It was built in 1878 and the bucolic setting belied the reason for its respectable arm’s-length location from the genteel City of London. It was that most fearsome and repulsive of all places in the Victorian Epoch: a Lunatic Asylum, a place built with the specific intent of hiding away the unfortunate misfits of Victorian Society; those tormented by demons and visions, the lost and the distressed, and even the merely physically disfigured. It was home to a sad shiftless, shuffling population of the disenchanted.
The year now is 1987. Winter has set in and Christmas is not too far off. My first view of the building is through a damp rising fog. I’m here to art direct a music video clip for for the now fading English rock band The Fixx. It’s a miserable day, but the sombre chill lends a perfect Gothic ambience to the purpose for my visit today – a location reconnoitre, or ‘recce’ as we say in the business.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure of the reason that this place has been chosen for this particular clip; there is nothing in the (admittedly sketchy) storyboard that indicates that there’s going to be much value in this kind of location. It seems to be primarily a number of set pieces involving some laborious construction work, and is in my view better suited to a studio shoot. I guess the director has some kind of plan to get the best out of the forbidding architectural setting.*
The Fixx song is a cringe worthy earnest ‘eco-message’ number with irksome lyrics that say things like:
I’m cooking with microwaves
To warm up food that’s not seen the soil
Plugged into my TV
Yeah, I’m used to the lies they’re telling me
Horrible, but sadly, we’ve worked with even worse. The song is destined to have a brief moment in the US Charts and then sink without a trace.
I pull the car up in the gravel driveway, and with my assistant, walk to the front door. We’ve been told that the building, in recent times a mental hospital, has been completely abandoned for several years, but is under some kind of heritage protection, necessitating a permanent presence by a security firm in an effort to deter vandalism.†
I push open the huge front door and peer inside. There’s a small black & white tv playing the football, and a chubby guy on the phone. He beckons us in. I can’t remember his name now, but it was something like Bill or Bob. I remember thinking at the time that he looked just like a Bill or a Bob.
“Come on in, I’ll show you ‘round,” he says cheerfully, grabbing a huge bunch of keys and a torch. I suspect we are a novelty in many long winter days of boredom. We set off after him into the gloom. There are no lights on anywhere.
“No power except in the office,” says Bill. I already know this, since we’ve arranged generators for the shoot, but the lack of power equating with the lack of light seems a little more meaningful as we wander through the dismal cold space.
Now the first thing that becomes apparent is that this place is vast. Long bleak corridors connect dreary, decaying rooms that still retain vestiges of the ominous purposes for which they were designed. In one, a red and white tiled floor is littered with metal surgical basins and coiled rubber hoses; in another, rubble from the roof has fallen into large cracked green baths. In still another, evidently some kind of theatre at one time, a beautiful raked stage is disconcertingly decorated on each side of the proscenium with matching images of Pinky and Perky, rendered by a naive hand at larger than human size. Sporting mouths full of sharp, pointed white teeth. I don’t remember the jolly little dancing porkers having vampiric aspirations and I have an image of these creatures singing in high sped-up voices. The effect is unsettling. We have a scene to shoot in here. I can’t wait.
The whole place is grim and sad and depressing. And, oh yes, very, very spooky.
We walk down a long, long hallway, through at least half a dozen swinging doors. It feels like we walk the best part of a kilometre (it is at least half that in actual fact). I notice that there are power outlets at waist height every ten feet or so, for the entire length of the corridor. I have absolutely no idea what purpose this would serve, but it unnerves me.
“Apparently you’re shooting out in the old kitchen as well,” says Bob. “That’s the other end of the building”.
He waves his torch off in the general direction.
“You can get there by going all the way around the outside, but it takes about twice as long as going through here. The problem is that coming straight through is a bit tricky – some rooms in the upper level are locked for safety reasons, so where that happens you have to go down one level, and then come up again on the other side.”
The subtext of what he’s saying is that if we’re at the other end of the building and we want to use the phone, which is in the office, we have two choices – the long way round outside, or the creepy, crumbling, treacherous haunted-by-Pinky & Perky direct route.‡ We follow Bill along and up and down and around, attempting to commit the confusing path to memory. After ten minutes of this, I pray I’ll never have to do it.
The following day is still cold, but sunny, and things don’t seem nearly as oppressive. I’m supervising a delivery of boxes of antique glassware, a complete tree stump, plush red theatrical curtains, metres of iron piping, candelabras and three huge ‘texture screens’ that my assistant and I have painstakingly assembled out of fabric, wax, ceramic shards and photographs.†† We also need a number of tree branches, and after having checked that it’s OK with the property manager I head off to selectively prune a few of the unkempt trees that are happily taking over the grounds. I walk out around the back of the building and see, coming a long the path, a wild-eyed and dishevelled looking older man with long hair. He’s pushing a wheelbarrow full of twigs. Like some kind of unhinged gardener.
He zeroes in on me with the kind of determination possessed only by those who are inhabiting an alternate reality. When we draw level I smile politely.
“Nice day for the children,” he says.
I thought this place was deserted. Later I find out that although the hospital has been closed down for several years, ex-residents still haunt the grounds, no place else to go in the real world. It is eerie and sad.
Darkness falls at about 4.30. It’s freezing to the bone. Our only source of power is a spluttering generator which keeps a couple of work lights squeezing out a thin, inadequate illumination. Our only source of heat is thermoses of soup and hip flasks of whisky. It is really, really miserable. Our fingers are so cold that we’re forced to stop working from time to time and hold them close to the lights to get some circulation back. Someone makes the uncanny discovery that it is actually colder inside the building than outside.
We take a break out the back to have a shot of whisky and to stand holding our hands, in steaming fingerless woollen gloves, against the light.
“Is there really no power in this place,” says Clive, one of the carpenters. His accent is thick East End.
“Except for the front office,” I say, “Where I’m sure Bob has a nice radiator and a kettle and a toasted sandwich maker”.
“And it’s deserted?”
“Well, supposedly. I was told that no-one lives here anymore, if that’s what you mean”.
“Right,” says Clive. “So, er, how come there’s a light on in that tower?”
He points. We look. The building has an imposing ultra-Gothic looking tower that stands a couple of storeys above the surrounding structures. The window in the top has shutters, which are closed, but Clive’s right – we can easily see that there’s a light on inside.
And almost immediately it goes out.
“Let’s just pretend we didn’t see that,” I say.
“Yeah. Best that way,” says Clive.
The outside work light goes very bright for a second and then it too goes out. The generator hum goes up in pitch a semitone.
“Bugger it”, someone says, “that’s the spare globe gone”.
The carpenters are still working inside OK, but we’re going to need this second lamp to get on with some of the other stuff we have to finish before we start shooting first thing in the morning.
“Someone will have to go phone the production office and get them to send out some replacements,” I say. I hardly reach the end of the sentence before I understand just who that someone is going to be.
Phone. Front of building. Right.
We haul all the equipment inside.
There’s nothing for it. I head off on the Creepy Direct Route. Oh god.
Have you ever wandered around in a deserted, dilapidated, damp Victorian lunatic asylum at night with only a torch? No? Funny, that. It’s the kind of thing that no person in possession of their full set of wits ever finds themselves doing by choice. And trust me, you can readily strike it from your List of a Hundred Things to Do Before You Die.
I go along and up and down and around… and then around and down and up… and then up and down and around and around… and around and around and around and around. Shit.
I walk into the room with the red and white tiles. The rubber hoses ripple under the torch light, like massive slugs. Water drips down through a leak in the roof. Now, it was left and up from here, right.
Wrong. I am in a room with some kind of metal benches. With straps. Oh man. The rain streams in through some high broken windows. I back out and turn the way I’ve come. Erk. Locked door. Obviously need to go down this set of stairs, and underneath. Something smells strongly of wet wool. This is really unfamiliar. There are smashed pieces of roofing slate on the floor. Definitely not the right way. I turn back again. My heart is beating irrationally fast.
It’s not like I am here, in an abandoned Victorian lunatic asylum in the complete dark, alone, and without a torch, or anything.
And with that thought flitting through my brain, uncannily, incomprehensibly and entirely and utterly pants-crappingly definitively, my torch just goes out. Off. Out. Dark.
Oh man. I stand there like a lunatic shaking it violently.
“What are you doing you stupid piece of shit!” I yell at it.
Wait. Did I say ‘like a lunatic’? No, no I didn’t mean that. I’m completely sane. I’m not talking to an inanimate object! Don’t take my soul!
These things appear in visions in my head:
•A newspaper headline that says “Young Australian Film-maker Found Dismembered in Bizarre Circumstances. Brain not found.”
•People standing around at a funeral, whispering “They say he died of terror; his hair was completely white!”
•A search party milling around out the front of the building: “It’s no good Sarge, there’s no sign of him, we’ve searched every last inch. All we found was a perfectly working torch and a pair of soiled trousers”.
It is really, really dark. My heart is beating in my mouth.
I’m pretty sure I hear, somewhere, distantly, the Pinky and Perky theme echoing along the dank corridors.
And then, just as inexplicably as it went out, the torch blinks back on again. I almost scream. (Actually, I really think I did).
Not only that, the brilliant holy beam lights fairly and squarely on a sign that says ‘Administration’. The office!
I gallop down a corridor and burst through into the foyer.
Bill jumps six feet out of his chair.
“Gordon Bennett! You scared the crap out of me!”
Sadly, because this is a true story, that’s where it ends. I wish I could say I had a snappy rejoinder for Bob, like “Yeah, well I guess we’re going to need two changes of pants then” or “It coulda been worse Bill – I could be a singing pig”. But I didn’t. I just said “Oh, er, sorry. I need to use the phone”.
I know, I know. But if there’s one thing that building did more successfully than any other place I’ve ever been, it was to suck the humour and life out of everything in its immediate vicinity. We had a miserable, cold, fraught, tense time making that clip – personalities clashed, people got sick and the end product is a depressing, blurry, poorly achieved piece of forgettable pop dross. It was, without comparison, the worst music video we ever made.
A few years afterwards, I heard that the old rambling edifice was slated for refurbishment as some flashy new apartment buildings. I’m sure it’ll be nothing like that dismal old asylum, but I can’t help but wonder if, in the dark of night, in the depths of Winter, when the fog is rising and the blackbirds are settled in the bare trees, insomniac residents are puzzled about those the faint strains of odd music they sometimes hear, far off, like it’s coming from a badly tuned tv. A sort of jaunty whistling theme… then creepy, sped up voices…
We belong together,
It’s you for me, and me for you,
Just as one and one make two,
It’s us, and here, forever,
Together we will be
UPDATE (January 7, 2013): There are some awesomely beautiful photographs of the interior of Stone House on the 28 Days Later UrbEx site.
*He didn’t. You can clearly see by the end result that he was evidently smoking crack. We were put through three days of cold and damp and darkness and misery for absolutely no sensible reason.
†At a later stage I was told that the hospital was destined to be demolished in order that a mining firm could dig out chalk from the hill on which it was built. (Update: In about 2009 work did begin on refurbishment for apartments, which continues as of 2013)
‡ That’s right kiddies, Choice Number 3: ‘Use your mobile phone’ was still many years away from being a possibility.
††Oh yes, all this stuff is in fact in the clip. Spot it if you can. I may as well have used anything I could have found in the average dumpster. Who could tell the difference?
Some additional notes:
•I pilfered images for this story from The Time Chamber and I hope they will forgive me for that. It’s a great site and you should take a look.
•When I was writing this story I had recourse to refer to my thesaurus for another word for ‘grim’ to describe the asylum. This is what it said:
3.GRIM: The asylum holds some grim secrets; DREADFUL, dire, ghastly, horrible, horrendous, horrid, terrible, awful, appalling, frightful, shocking, unspeakable, grisly, gruesome, hideous, macabre, depressing, distressing, upsetting, worrying, unpleasant.
I kid you not.