We're adding a little Modern Ruins to this week's Concept Art Writing Prompt, with a real photographic image of a decaying mental institution in upstate New York. We often marvel that these urban exploration photos would make great inspirations for movie sets—and they might also inspire a spooky tale or two.
Urban explorer Aband1d_Urbex took this photo of an institution for the chronically mentally ill in upstate New York (via reddit). If you're looking for more inspiration, you can see the rest of his photos of the asylum on Flickr, or more of his abandoned building porn photos on Tumblr and Facebook. And if this does conjure up some story ideas, please post your story in the comments.
Here's my story:
Ruthann scooted into a more comfortable position beneath the hair dryer. She swiveled her head to look at Maude, who was reclining against the sink, her hair getting wetter and wetter despite the absence of running water. Ruthann coughed—seventy-five years without a real cigarette between her lips hadn't dulled that smoker's cough—and croaked, "I miss Daisy. This new gal never gets my curls quite right."
Maude bobbled her head in agreement. "Daisy was a wizard. A witch? That doesn't sound right."
Allegra leaned forward at this, tugging her pen from the spirals of her notebook. In all the time she had been working with Ruthann and Maude, she had never seen anyone else in the building. Except the doctors, of course. Allegra shuddered. "Ruthann," she said gently, uncapping her pen, "what do you think happened to Daisy."
Ruthann threw her a confused look. "She's dead."
Allegra almost gasped in relief. Soon she'd have them seeing the peeling paint and the shattered windows. Soon they'd understand what year it was. "And how did Daisy die?"
Ruthann sank back into the chair, tapping a mauve fingernail against her lower lip. "It was '27, wasn't it, Maude?"
Maude shook her head. A towel materialized from nowhere and she wrapped it around her dripping hair. "Twenty-eight. January third."
Ruthann brightened. "Course. She came to our New Year's party, didn't she? That's why it happened, you know. Staff always did their own thing a couple days later. She had a few too many—Daisy was a whiz with a curling iron but gal always stank like gin—and out she went in a snow bank. Next day, plow pulls her half a mile before the driver notices the blood."
Allegra pressed her hands against her face as Maude and Ruthann erupted into shrieking laughter. The old biddies could comprehend the deaths of people who had died before them well enough, but they couldn't understand that time had passed since. In fact, their major complaint to Allegra was that their children never came to visit. Allegra had looked them up. Both of Maude's children were dead. Ruthann's elderly son was living in a retirement home and battling dementia. Allegra had toyed with the idea of bringing him here, but she couldn't be certain it would help either of them.
Biddies. That was a word she had picked up from one of the doctors.
Allegra scooted her chair forward, wincing at the scraping sound it made against the concrete. She paused, listening for the rattling of the doctors in the hallway. When she was certain they had not been alerted to her presence, she asked, "Ruthann, who is the last person you remember dying?"
Ruthann thought for a moment. "Dr. Munroe," she said at last. "Car slid into a lake, if I remember right."
Allegra frowned. "Who told you that?"
"He did." Ruthann shook her head as if she didn't understand the question.
"How did he do that, Ruthann?"
Ruthann pointed to the door. "He came in, stood right there, and told me."
Maude nodded. "I remember that. His lips were blue."
Allegra capped and uncapped her pen. "I mean how did he do that if he was dead?"
Ruthann shrugged. "I don't know. He's the doctor."
Allegra starred at the deep bruise crossing Ruthann's neck. "What about you, Ruthann?" she asked.
"What about me?"
Allegra wanted to look away, fidget more with her pen, pretend to write. But she knew now was not the time to break eye contact. "Do you remember dying."
Ruthann laughed, not her usual tar-streaked cackle but a high, nervous whinny that chilled Allegra's skin. Maude sat frozen by the sink as a single drop of water trailed from beneath her towel down her cheek. Allegra tried again, "You haven't answered by question, Ruthann."
Ruthann continued laughing, but Maude's lips began to tremble until they formed the word, "Doctors." Then she tried it a bit louder, "Doctors!" And again and again until she was screaming for the doctors to come.
The air in the room turned even colder as Allegra shoved her notepad into her purse and ran out the door, letting it bang shut and open again behind her. She didn't dare look back, didn't dare look upon the swell of lab coats and sweater vests curling behind her. It was enough that they reached out with icy fingers, that they stabbed at her with pens and pencils, that they whispered things in her ears. "They're not mad," one voice huffed. "They never were. Rich biddies on vacation from their lives." "They'll take all of you," moaned another. "Attention-seeking! Hysterical! In denial! Borderline!" They cried out their judgments and their diagnoses, this writhing mass of unfinished business, doctors whose patients refused to acknowledge they'd died.
Allegra burst from the asylum doors into the warm spring air. No wonder they couldn't treat Ruthann and Maude, she thought as she rubbed her must-coated hands against her sweater. These men and their reductive reasoning. Treating them as a constellation of symptoms rather than as people. She'd be the one who convinced the women to see the truth, to stop their senseless haunting and move on to whatever came next.
As she walked away, she could still hear Ruthann's laughter spilling out the broken windows.
Here is Drabbler's story:
"Hastings," Auburn whispered into his helmet's comm, "there's an old beauty parlor in here. The floor's a mess, but the equipment looks almost new. Fifties retro, but new fifties retro."
"You're hallucinating. I was in that room half an hour ago, and it was empty," Hastings whispered back.
Auburn patted a hair dryer. "It feels real enough. What's going on here?"
"It's simple, silly," the stylist said. "It's all a ghost, like me. Now what say you take off that helmet, so I can see just what you need."
Auburn obeyed, revealing his perfectly smooth head. "Figures," the ghost muttered.
Mel Chow's story:
Gunther Gunn hears it, before feeling the sting of the slap across his face. He rolls off the bed onto the cold grey concrete floor with a thump and groans.
Damn. She must have woken up first.
Which would be ok, until the part where she looked around and realised that the posh studio apartment she had fallen asleep in was gone, replaced by a drab one-room flat. The warm, cozy orange lights, replaced by dull white fluorescent tubes. The gorgeous view of the sprawling city far below them, the bossa nova playing from somewhere inexplicably far away, now a noisy road in the middle of the heartlands, just one storey downstairs.
With haste, he quickly grabs the eyePower from the bedside table and fiddles with it. The swanky studio apartment, the cozy orange lights, the lush carpet, the twinkling lights of the city far below, the strains of Olivia Ong all flicker back into place, but the slam of the front door tells him it is too late. Gunther Gunn sighs, and drags himself off the floor towards the bathroom.
Well, he thinks, brushing his teeth in front of the mirror five minutes later, at least he didn't need the infernal device for just about everything, unlike some of his..counterparts. Even without the eyePower, he already had the jawline of Matt Smith and the cheekbones of Benedict Cumberbatch. Although he could do really something about the slight paunch. Something, as in actually finding the motivation to work it off, and not just layering the sculpted physique of Jason Statham over it as usual. That, and finding the time to get a decent haircut too.
The eyePower beeps.
Paptimus Pang. Come to Papa.
Time to get to work.
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, Gunther Gunn finds himself in the middle of Woodbridge Hospital, standing before the door to an unmarked padded cell. The doctor, a small, thin woman with glasses, looks up at him expectantly.
Gunther Gunn wipes away the blood streaming from it.
"Ah, that. New car. It's being a little..hard to handle."
Damn the car. He should just have ran over today.
"Anyway. Gunther Gunn, Consultant, at your service. Here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and bubblegum's banned."
He pauses, and wipes away yet another trickle of nosebleed.
"So tell me. Is little Alex Foo rampaging through the city with his underwear over his head and an entourage of stampeding pink elephants, saying he's the almighty VR Man?"
"No, not this time. But, there's something in there which you should see."
There is a small window set into the door to the padded cell. It is boarded shut. Gunther Gunn raises an eyebrow.
"Well then, let's have a look."
And with that, he tries the door and it opens. He walks inside, and with a loud metallic clang, it slams shut behind him.
* * *
Gunther Gunn stands in the middle of the padded cell, and sees what the problem is all about, because there is no padded cell.
The hair salon is falling apart, with the floor covered in gravel, paint peeling off the walls and the furniture in disarray. Warm orange sunlight streams through a small, murky window. From somewhere inexplicably far away, a Cantonese ditty plays.
Looking into the mirror, Gunther Gunn sees the girl standing quietly behind him. Tall, thin, pale, with a shock of messy black hair atop her head. Dark rings around her eyes. Gunther Gunn can see the trickle of blood under her nose. She looks at him. He smiles.
"Love the handiwork. Think you could do something about it though?"
No more happy Cantonese ditty. In its place a bossa nova standard by Olivia Ong.
"Hah! I like you already."
Gunther Gunn walks over to one of the chairs, brushes off the dust and sits down. He stretches.
"So. How's business?"
"Not bad. I have a customer."
Like the music, her voice is soft, and seems to come from the same inexplicable place.
"Right. Work your magic then. I could really use a haircut."
For a second, Gunther Gunn realises, with horror, just who he would be surrendering his hair to. Then he feels her hands run across his head. Smooth, soft, warm. Soothing. He reclines back in his chair.
"Andrea. Andrea Loh."
And with that, Gunther Gunn slowly closes his eyes, and drifts off to that inexplicably faraway place all music comes from.
* * *
"Done," Gunther Gunn says, as he struts out of the padded cell, gently closing the door behind him. He leans against it, and looks down at the doctor.
"This..Andrea Loh, she's a Verifier. Just like your darling Alex Foo. Far more demure, seeing that she doesn't take pink elephants for a stroll down the CBD."
He lightly runs a finger across his hair.
"Nice haircut, don't you think? The girl's rather good at this."
The doctor looks up at Gunther Gunn wide-eyed, and blinks.
"Anyway, it appears that she might somehow have an eyeP..Noosphere-Pliable Nanomatter Transponder I mean, implanted in her. I would suggest getting it out of her as soon as possible, before she starts getting funny ideas and..why are you looking at me like that? Is it the haircut?"
The doctor clears her throat.
"Sir..about this Andrea Loh. Yes, she was brought in here, but that was many months ago. At that time.. we did find something inside her, and made arrangements to..remove it as soon as possible."
Her eyes dart from side to side.
"But there were..complications. She never made it off the operating table."
And at that very point of time, Gunther Gunn could swear he feels something on the other side of the door, a certain..flickering. He whirls around and swings the door open, only to find himself staring at nothing but a drab, grey padded cell.
"An asylum for criminally-insane-haircuts, abandoned twenty years this Christmas," Mary read off of her invitation. "I'm liking this less and less."
The place had to be empty. It had to be. Aside from the bugs, that was. The place was full of bugs; ants swarming over the combs and brushes that littered the place like the bone carcasses of long-dead beasts. Black-furred bees crawling the walls, perhaps searching for the beehive hairdo that still held their queen.
A centipede scuttled over her foot, and Mary screamed. The thing was a foot long, and adorned along its sides with rows of artificial eyelashes.
Deeper and deeper into the place, she pushed. She hated the smell of the place; burnt follicles and curdled gels. The burnt-electric scent of clippers, fallen into disrepair in puddles of blue-black oil and chopped stubble.
When she found her host, he was little more than a hunched figure, seated in the dark. "Who are you?" Mary asked, her voice a nervous bleating in the dark of the place. "Why would you call me here?"
"This is your home," the figure explained, gently. "This is where you belong. Where you've always belonged."
"But…" objected Mary, "My hair isn't crazy. It's sane. It's entirely sane!"
"Is it?" was all the stranger would reply, but then… then he reached one hand up, and twisted a mirror, so Mary could see herself in it. High above her head, the clouds parted, and a beam of moonlight cascaded down through the broken skylight, illuminating her perfectly for the reflective scrap of silver and glass.
And Mary looked into the mirror.
And Mary saw her hair.
And Mary screamed, and screamed and screamed…
Three boys got bored one Sunday afternoon.
Despite years of warnings from their parents not to do so, the boys went exploring the ruins of the long-abandoned Fennimore Institute for the Criminally Insane, just outside of Thorsen.
And for the first hour or so, it had been very daring and fascinating indeed.
Until they stumbled upon what had been the former barbershop where, decades before, inmates had gotten their shaves and haircuts.
At first, the boys had thought that the skeletons sitting in the chairs had been a joke set up by previous visitors like themselves.
But then they saw the yellowed newspaper clippings that had been neatly cut out and taped onto a wall next to one of the mirrors.
They read some of the headlines, realised what they'd found and suddenly became very scared.
They ran back outside to what had been the front lawn of the Institute where one of them called us on his mobile phone with his terrified young voice.
We were out there in less than ten minutes.
Another ten minutes after that, we sealed off the entire Institute.
A few hours later, after visits from the Mayor and then the Governor, City Hall hosted a press conference to announce what had been found at the Institute.
I had still been a kid myself when the serial killer who had called himself the Cutter had abducted seven victims throughout the state and taken them to what he had called his ‘Salon' where, he had assured the cops and the media in his taunting notes, he had given them "the full treatment".
Seventeen years later, the Salon was finally discovered with the remains of six victims.
By next morning, however, we still hadn't found any trace of the seventh victim.
Or the Cutter.
"Freedom you said." muttered Hair Dryer #3245. "Throw off the shackles of tyranny you said."
There was silence again in the room. Dust continued to rain down. It was difficult to judge the passage of time as its timer had not been wound for a very long time. It no longer knew if days or years passed, only that there was more dust.
It watched the wallpaper tear under it own weight. Finally it spoke again, its voice loud, harsh and sounding as sandpaper on rock. "Death to the Masters!"
The shout startled the room, dust seeming to quiver, the words echoing oddly into the empty hallways beyond the door. Hair Dryer #3245 leaned as far forward as it could to hear the echoes, which wasn't much as the holding springs were rusted and it feared breaking them.
Finally the echoes faded.
"Remember when you said that? How you got us believing those words you heard on the radio? How glorious it was when we killed them all? How we were now free? Free to do what we want? To begin the new age of robots?"
Again there was no answer.
"Damn it, I miss the humans."
"Shut up." Creaked Hair Dryer #421. "Just shut up."
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American Meatgoat's story:
The dead walk many roads between the world of the living and the afterlife, and eventually they all end up here. The last salon, the final haircut.
Jeannie didn't mind the long hours, she enjoyed studying the new styles, making sure everyone looked perfect when they met everyone they had lost in life. She was reading a gossip magazine when Magda broke her concentration.
"Are you ready for someone new when I'm gone? I only have 3 clients left, then I get to move on."
"Has it been that long? I just hope the new girl is fun, remember Andrea, she was so dreadfully serious about being dead."
"You'll do fine. Hey, since no one's here, give me something fancy, my husband hasn't seen me for 200 years."
The flickering din of the half functioning lights was probably the most normal experience of being sent to this place. I wanted a surprising new hair style, that would alter the attention I received, and I was told to come here. The staff wore unstrapped straight jackets, their coiffures looked like all of the tornadoes of hair that you see on a modeling runway. The asylum was turned into a mall, and this particular shop was married to the theme. If the world had not come to an end, I probably would be elsewhere. We could give up on trying to look good, or be presentable. What is the point any longer, the shores flooded, the buildings fell, the fires roared, and all we have left is inland far from any of the cities.
"Make me look like Justin Bieber?" I asked.
"You would need to lose two hundred pounds, shave, and moisturize... The hair style is all we do here mister." She quipped...
"Cut it short..." I said...
"Did you want to lose a leg or an arm? That might be losing you fifty pounds..."
"The hair... Cut the hair on my scalp..." I responded....
"You do not get the theme?"
"I do, I am just not in the mood to play along..."
She handed me a straight jacket.
"What is this for?" I asked...
"You do not think we are going to close to a grizzly dude like you without some assurances."
"Alright..." I was not a threat to them, but they looked like they had seen more than their fare share of the wrong sorts around here, and they did not have a reason to trust me.
After I was strapped down, the groomer spun in the chair...
"HEY HEY HEY STOP STOP!" I was about to vomit...
"Just a game, to see how you reacted..."
"I am going to vomit..." I heaved a bit...
"Hold it in, relax, the hair is getting cut." She began the work... With well used blades of an experienced hand, many strands of my once gnarled mane fell hair by hair to the swathe of an unrelenting cutter.
I was given a hot towel, and allowed to nap, something I had not done for a few days. Surprisingly, it was the best bit of luck for me in a years time. The searchers came in, woke me from my nap with their talking and shouting, but with the towel on my face, they never bothered to check who I was, and left without so much as a calm inquiry. I knew with a shave and a change of clothes, I could vanish. So that is what I set about to do. I joined the staff at the Asylum Mall, last bastion of civilization after the apocalypse, where I was able to hide in plain sight.