Inside the Looney Disco
Dancing the Night Away at a German Mental Hospital
May 11 2012
Photos by Tanja Kernweiss
On the second Wednesday of every month, Klinikum Wahrendorff, a psychiatric hospital in Köthenwald, Germany, becomes the most improbable disco in the world. The common room is cleared out and transformed into something resembling a typical discotheque: People dress up, dance, drink, flirt, argue, and generally get out of hand. The main difference here is that while it’s hard to get in to a regular club, it’s even more difficult to get out of Wahrendorff.
I arrive before the festivities begin to find two light machines beaming blue, red, yellow, and green lights in various patterns on the dark hardwood floor and the long red curtains that cover the windows. It could be a scene straight out of a B movie from the 80s, except I don’t think the concept of time is held in high regard here.
I scan the deserted room and try to picture how it will appear in 30 minutes, when 200 patients invade the space and coagulate into one dancing, pulsing entity. The bass kicks in over the speakers. I half-recognize the song. It’s something by Lady Gaga, a fitting choice for a soundcheck in a mental hospital. Behind the dance floor there are tables laden with plastic plates full of chips, pretzels, and other snacks. The setup resembles a cross between a small-town disco and a teenager’s birthday party.
Just like “normal” bars and clubs, some patients prefer to scope out the scene from the sidelines.
I soon discover that psychiatric patients take to the dance floor just like their supposedly sane counterparts: first slowly, then in a rush, all at once, when the right track mobilizes the larger group. It’s not long before the party is in full swing, the music attracting excited inmates like sharks to a bloody meal. The DJ is Sabine Wenzel, the director of the residential portion of the facility, and she defies all the Nurse Ratched, mental-hospital-overseer stereotypes by completely absorbing herself in the music and grooving energetically behind her mixing console. The attendees succumb to the sounds too, including Johnny, a 60-year-old schizophrenic with thinning hair and dirty glasses who alternately sings along and grinds his teeth in pleasure.
Johnny takes a break from the dance floor and wanders over to talk to me. It freaks me out a little. I wonder what goes on inside his head. “Nobody is taking care of me, nobody wants me,” he says, before telling me that someone was mixing poison in his food, which, he continues, is the reason for his sickness. He tells me he’s been in and out of mental hospitals since he was young and admits that he can’t live by himself. “I don’t want to get out; it’s terrible on the outside,” he says. “It’s a bit like Woodstock in here.”
I’m not sure exactly what he means, but I keep thinking about the inmates in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest who prefer the safety and sterility of the hospital to the world outside. I doubt Randle McMurphy would be able to heal Johnny, though. As we talk, he suddenly puckers his face as if he’d just bitten into a lemon and tells me about his various delusions in great detail. For instance, he claims he once infiltrated a ring of pedophiles, which resulted in breaking down the door of a guy’s apartment and catching him jerking off to photos of kids. Johnny spits as he speaks, and my face gets wetter by the syllable. Then, out of nowhere, he loses all interest in me. He hollers, “Music, please,” and wobbles back to the dance floor.
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