Vandals have broken the windows and mangled some of the doors. At the same time, there are white buckets strewn about, evidence of dry wall caked on the inside; workers leave their water bottles and trawls in corners. They have installed hanging lights, smoothed some of the walls, and created more perfect doorjambs. Everywhere we wander, there are signs indicating the demise of Camarillo’s infamous state mental hospital. With relentless progress towards renovation comes the threat–or the hope, depending which side you are on–of permanent memory loss. Soon, no one will know who originally lived in this unit, why it existed, or the purpose of those odd, elongated tubs or rows of showers.
A mental hospital evokes images of terror, loss, anger, desperation and unreality. We fear madness as much as death. Insanity is it’s own kind of death, a place where the real world melts away into something chaotic and incomprehensible. Those souls incarcerated in Unit X participated in the rituals of their own versions of hell. That is what one feels walking those hallways, wandering through a darkness that has texture and smell; there is no way to avoid the feeling that not only are you being watched, you are being penetrated by something that wants you to remember it. I won’t even attempt to define the nature of what was left behind in Camarillo. It’s not something to analyze; it’s a feeling, a whole physical sensation. It is something like the beginnings of a migraine or a flu; you know that something has altered and mutated within you, yet it’s too early to know exactly what is happening. It’s the moment before you faint, or before someone attacks you from behind in the dark. You might call it presentiment, telepathy, foresight, or simple intuition.
We don’t avoid Camarillo for those reasons, although that would seem to make sense; rather, we seek it out, for there is something addictive about the buzzing, banging, murky intensity of the maze of hallways and rooms. There is a mystery around every corner, a puzzle that never allows the last piece to fall into place. The various units each served a purpose: every room was constructed with an eye towards controlling and treating a population of people considered marginal and sick. They had no freedom to wander their jail, no ability to explore the confines a place they had to call home. Perhaps our free will feels especially liberating in a place like Camarillo. We can go where they couldn’t, and more importantly, we can leave when we choose.
But soon, we may not be able to go back. Whatever hold Camarillo exerts upon us will be broken by the modernization and redefinition of those old halls. The memories will be erased by drywall and paint, by new fixtures and furniture, and mostly by the students as they fill the old recreation rooms and nurses’ stations, recreating by their very presence the mission of that place . . . and yet I wonder. Can such a transformation really take place in a meaningful way? Is there any possible way to erase the spirits of Unit X and the other vacant units, patiently awaiting their turn at respectability?
I somehow don’t think it possible. Whatever we have found there, whatever has found us, is not fooled by superficial attempts at forced amnesia. Camarillo State Hospital has found its own version of eternity, one that, like blood soaked into wood or cancerous mold in the walls, will not be erased: not by our will; not by our shame; not by our fear. There is no escape from the past. Stay there long enough, and their world will find you. When it does, make sure to lock the door behind you as you leave and don’t look back.
But you will. Again and again.
Kirsten A. Thorne