Location can make a huge difference to the impact of a film—especially when that film is being made on a tight budget and doesn’t have the luxury of massive studio backing that brings construction, unlimited options for set decoration, and the like. A thoughtful location can make a huge impact on the overall tone of a film. Case in point: Session 9. Filmed onsite at the abandoned Danvers State Hospital, Brad Anderson’s film benefited greatly from the chosen location—not just because filming onsite at the hospital provided a cheap way of giving them a filming location, but because of the atmosphere it contributed to the finished product. Danvers is as much a character in that film as any of the others. Had this been filmed on a soundstage, it still would have been a great story, but using the actual hospital gave the production an authenticity and a feeling that just can’t be replicated.
When it first opened in 1878, the Danvers State Hospital (also then known as the Danvers Lunatic Asylum) was one of the most progressive mental health facilities in the country. It was designed by Nathaniel J. Bradlee, following the guidance of Thomas Story Kirkbride, a prominent physician. Kirkbride believed that a patient’s environment was critical to their mental health and their healing process. Danvers, along with several other hospitals overseen by Kirkbride, focused on allowing air circulation, light, and a pleasant atmosphere to be a key component of the architecture, and thus, the healing experience.
The hospital was initially designed to house 500 patients. By the 1940s, it was severely overcrowded, with over 2,000 residents. Harmful and abusive treatments, including restraints, shock therapy, and lobotomies were common practice, and what had been envisioned as a peaceful setting to treat mental illness was now a nightmare that really only focused on keeping its population under control. In the latter half of the 20th century, budget cuts and increasing emphasis on deinstitutionalization led to the gradual closing of the complex, and by the late 1980s, the Danvers Hospital was shuttered for good.
Years passed. The building began to decay. Homeless people and local hooligans passed through. Graffiti was left on the walls as the paint began to chip away. Fixtures rusted. Ceilings began to rot. But the memories remained, as much a part of the building as the walls themselves.
And then, in 2001, Brad Anderson and his film crew arrived and created one of the most unnerving films in horror history. Session 9 was filmed onsite within the decaying structure of the asylum, abandoned for 15 years, providing the perfect set for this haunted story.
The film opens on a quiet, foreboding shot of a hallway. The walls are damaged and the paint is peeling. Far down it, bathed in a spot of light from a nearby doorway, sits a restraint chair. The camera slowly regards the chair and the chair seems to stare back at us.
In the opening scenes, we get introduced to two of our main characters—Gordon (Peter Mullan) and Phil (David Caruso). The pair run an asbestos abatement company and are visiting the hospital to put a bid in on a job to clean it up before it undergoes some pretty major renovations.*
As they approach the site, they are greeted by the tall, towering red brick visage of Danvers. The Gothic architecture casts an intimidating shadow across the grounds. Ivy covers the walls, and the trees of the nearby woods are just beginning to turn, signaling an impending New England autumn. It is at once beautiful and foreboding.
Gordon and Phil are treated to a tour by Town Manager Bill Griggs (Paul Guilfoyle), bringing the audience along for the ride. Though empty and dilapidated, the hospital still carries an echo of its past. As we walk through the building, we are first introduced to the hydrotherapy chambers, containing steel tubs (eerily still filled with water) where the patients were submerged as a part of their treatment. Painted on the wall above the tubs is an image of a swan sitting gracefully on the surface of a lake. The tubs were brought in by the production department, but the painting was originally there, a likely ineffective attempt to provide calm to the room.
They enter the dining area and see a large, open space. Tiles are coming off the floor and chipping off the walls. Everything is coated with dust. A good amount of graffiti (some already existing, some added by the production), injects a hint of modernity to the older architecture.
We then enter Ward A, which Bill tells us is where they kept the more “extreme” patients. He also referred to it as the “snake pit.” The walls and floors have noticeable water damage. The floor is crumbling, making it dangerous to walk on. (The crew actually witnessed floors and ceilings collapse during the shoot. Thankfully, no one was hurt). Dingy paint is peeling off dingier walls. The trio encounters the restraint chair from the opening shot, still at the end of the long hallway. We will revisit this shot several times throughout the film.
Our next stop is the solarium, a large room with lots of windows that would seem cheerful, if not for the grime on the walls and the glass. Still though, the influx of light juxtaposed with the room’s decay makes for a fascinating image.
Phil enters one of the patient rooms, known as “seclusions.” The walls are collaged with photos, magazine cutouts, and other such images. Bill explains that this was encouraged as a therapy for the patients; one that allowed a form of self-expression. This particular room has been dressed by the art department, but is based not only on the therapy principle that Bill referenced, but also on the existing remnants of such collages that the crew found in other rooms. The images contrast each other, giving off a feeling of chaos and confusion.
After their bid is accepted and work on the building actually starts, we have even more opportunities to view the dark corners of Danvers as different characters take it upon themselves to explore even further. Mike (co-writer Steven Gevedon) stumbles into a library on one of the lower levels. It is disheveled, filled with desks, books, filing cabinets, and boxes of records. Papers litter the floor. This is the room that he is constantly pulled back to over the course of the film, obsessed with learning more about Patient #444, Mary Hobbs. This room was put together by the film crew, but with items that they found elsewhere on the property and consolidated. The crowded space feels a bit chaotic and almost claustrophobic.
The film also spends a good amount of time in the subterranean tunnels, which were used to connect the various buildings on the hospital property and provide a way to pass from one to another without having to deal with inclement weather. Anderson noted that filming in this area comprised some of the more stressful moments of the shoot, not to mention one of the scarier moments of the feature, when Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) finds himself trapped in the tunnels as the lights begin to go out, one by one.
Similarly, Hank (Josh Lucas) uncovers a treasure trove of creepy artifacts from the hospital’s many years of patients—coins, jewelry, eyeglasses, even gold tooth fillings—hidden in one of the walls on a lower level. As he sits, hunched in a dark corner, exploring his newfound bounty, we feel he is not entirely alone in the darkness. It’s a really minimalistic scene that packs a huge punch.
Most of what the crew added in terms of set decoration was merely replacing or filling out what was already there. They didn’t go to great lengths to dramatize or make horrific the asylum setting, because most of that already existed within the walls and the history of the Danvers Hospital.
All of this history is present in the final product. The haunting feeling that no doubt permeated the shoot came through in the film and Session 9 seems to be filled not only with the ghosts of its story, but with the ghosts and memories that haunted the real walls of the hospital. Anderson and his team brilliantly utilized what was already in existence and let Danvers tell its own haunted story, while also playing its own role in theirs.
*In the story, the building is set to be renovated in order to house the Danvers Municipal Offices. In reality, it was eventually gutted, with only the Gothic facade left, in order to build posh (totally haunted) apartments on the property.
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