Australia has a relatively dark history of mental illness treatment. It wasn't until the early 1900s that "lunatic asylums" even employed doctors. A 1938 Royal Commission from Western Australia found one facility suffered severe overcrowding, patients with nothing to fill their days, and staff with no interest in rehabilitating them. It was during this same year that Larundel Mental Asylum was built in Melbourne.
Australia started closing asylums in the 1980s, instead choosing to treat mental illness in smaller hospital units. Larundel was officially closed in 2001 and it has since become a derelict ruin, off limits to the general public. But rumours about the building's chequered past has earned it a reputation for being haunted. Maybe even the most haunted.
I am someone who can't watch horror movies with any hint of paranormal activity. I'll take SAW over The Exorcist any day, every day. But Larundel is near where I live... and I've always wondered. Then, as Friday the 13th rolled near, me and my photographer mate Sean decided why not? We wanted to find out if ghosts are real.
We arrive around 5 PM and walk the perimeter.
Despite the dilapidation, Larundel has somehow still held onto its beauty. It was originally one of Melbourne's three "magnificent asylums for the insane" built in the 1930s and 40s to help present the city as cultured and compassionate. The large windows and sprawling gardens seem like an ornate attempt to convince the outside work that this is not a jail.
The vast grounds are encircled by temporary hurricane fencing. I imagine how it must have looked in full operation, at a time when it held as many as 700 patients.
As the sun starts to set, my new torch stops working. Of course. Sean and I sit and watch the building, waiting for the full cover of night. In the sky above we can see Orion's belt to our left—also known as the three brothers of Indigenous astronomy, depending on what you're into.
I go for one more lap around the building, in complete darkness without my torch, but I feel at ease. I've felt worse vibes in my own bedroom.
We get inside and find the walls thick with layers upon layers of tags. Bonezz wazzz here. Fuck man, if you're going to go out of your way to make a mark, at least give us some art.
Better. Maybe because this guy gave me a Picasso vibe. It's dark and creepy but the exhilaration of getting in far outweighs any spookiness.
No ghosts so far. Plenty of Gatorade bongs and old Winfield Blues packs though. I was expecting the place to smell bad but it doesn't, the only issue was the dust. I can't see any evidence of squatters.
A noose. Not ominous at all.
Larundel was built around a central courtyard that's inaccessible from the outside. The overgrown bushes rustle with the movement that suggests possums or nocturnal mammals of some kind. Could they be ghost joeys? Keep an eye out for my next in-depth investigation: "Ghost Joeys, Chemtrails, And The Panama Papers."
Some genius had spray painted shadows like these all over the place. No sarcasm: He or she is a genius and we are not worthy of this level of art. When you are walking in a pitch black abandoned mental asylum and your torch catches one of these shadows, you freak the fuck out.
The dust is getting to us, so Sean and I decide to head back to our base outside the grounds and get some whiskey. We make it as far as the main balcony when we see two security cars perched 50 metres away just outside the outer fencing. They're on their phones, looking more or less our direction. We hear dogs. More cars pull up.
We drop down; the balcony wall our only shelter. Security enter the grounds and head towards the Laurendel, high-powered torches passing back and forth across the facade, until they are right beneath us.
We lay silently in our dark hidden crevice. I see Sean slowly reach for his camera. No. But he continues. NO NO, shit, don't. But he does. He fucking pokes his head up in between torch flashes like a duck in hunting season and takes the snap above.
As we start to crawl back inside through the rubble, I feel like I'm in a goddamn war movie, carefully avoiding the search lights. If you've ever played Sly Racoon on PlayStation 2, this was exactly like that. You can't buy this kind of adrenaline.
But as the rush of fear and excitement tapers off as we realise we'll have to wait them out. We spent a long time trying to get inside Larundel, and now we're stuck here, unable to escape. Sean and I sit in overwhelming silence—somewhere between imminent arrest and freedom—and our mind drifts to how it must have felt to be stuck in these places for years on end, sometimes your whole life.
I imagine myself as a patient, surrounded by guards, screaming to be let free as I'm beaten for refusing to eat, or because I pissed myself. One of my best friends is autistic. If he was born at a different time, these walls would've been his fate. I shudder to think of all the misunderstood people who have wasted away inside Laurendel's walls.
Sean and I both drift off around 3 AM. When we stir around 5:30 AM, the security guards are still patrolling outside. We've been dead quiet this whole time, they probably think we're not even here anymore. All that's left at this point is two guys and one car.
We figure their shift must end at 6 AM, but the sun will rise just after that, so we have a limited time to get the fuck out of here while still under the cover of darkness. At 5:59 AM we hear a car start. We watch them leave and now it's time to go.
We get out right as the final sheet of dark was lifting.
There were no ghosts to be afraid of. Just a few security guards to remind us that for property managers, true terror is a personal injury claim. Luckily they're extinguishing that remote risk with—you guessed it—apartments. There's a $500 million rejuvenation project afoot to give Melbourne more overpriced real estate and less adventure. Somehow, for all those sad people incarcerated in Larundel over the years, I think that makes even less sense than letting it rot.
All photos by Sean Foster.