It’s off-limits, dangerous and smells of rotting basements. So what makes the old Essex County Hospital of Cedar Grove — aka, Overbrook Asylum or “The Bin” — so intriguing? “Hollywood would be hard-pressed to make a fake asylum as eerie as Overbrook,” said photographer and co-author Rusty Tagliareni.
Tagliareni and co-author/videographer Christina Mathews have ventured into the abandoned asylum on multiple occasions, exploring the remains of New Jersey’s psychiatric past and publishing the findings on their website. This month, they’re releasing a book of their photography called Antiquity Echoes: A Photographed Tour of Abandoned America, which features images and scannable QR Codes that link to exclusive video content.
“Overbrook is what started my interest in videography,” said Mathews. “The first time I was inside I knew I had to film this. I wanted everyone to see what I saw.”
And What Did She See Inside Overbrook?
“I saw a headless CPR dummy sitting in a chair,” said Mathews of the dummy (right). “On the floor next to it, was the head — but it was missing its face.”
It’s enough to make anyone run away screaming, but Mathews and Tagliareni not only stuck around, but revisited Overbrook Asylum on several occasions.
“We’ve been blessed enough to get permission a few times to film on the grounds,” said Tagliareni. “At one point we even got a tour from a county supervisor.”
Good thing, since the remains of the Essex County Hospital are heavily patrolled by the Sheriff’s officers looking for trespassers and trouble-makers.
Just this year, the Sheriff’s officers have rounded up more than 80 trespassers on the site, handing out charges of burglary, defiant trespassing and resisting arrest. This is not a place to go for fun — unless your idea of a great time is getting arrested. It’s probably easier to sneak into Disney World’s Haunted Mansion than it is to get a peek inside New Jersey’s notorious, sprawling asylum.
But despite the warnings and the police presence, people still feel compelled to explore the old hospital. What makes this dilapidated building so appealing?
Short answer: Ghosts.
Long answer: Ghooooooosts!
You won’t always encounter spirits, but inside the ruins you’ll find a dark history of mental health care.
An Unsavory History of Mental Health
Inside the asylum are untouched remains of a psychiatric hospital, whose history has inspired ghost stories and tales of terror. Beyond the electroshock therapy and lobotomies — brutal treatments which were common practice in the early days of psychiatric medicine — Overbrook’s walls bore witness to horrifying patient neglect. In 1917, 24 patients froze to death in their beds when the complex’s heating system broke down.
When the hospital was massively overcrowded after World War II, 150 patients disappeared. It’s estimated that more than ten thousand people died during their stay at Overbrook — and some believe their tormented spirits still dwell in the decay.
The geography of Overbrook Asylum adds to the eerie aura of the place. The original Essex County Hospital opened in 1896 and expanded into dozens of buildings that sprawled out on the 325-acre plot of land. (The site now occupies 90 acres.) The buildings were connected via tunnels, some of which still remain.
“It’s very easy to get lost in them,” said Mathews. “There are a couple windows, but it’s pretty dark. There was an old lab down there, and there’s a sign on the wall that says ‘Music Room’ with little stick figures. And there’s a fallout shelter down there, too.”
As mental health practices improved, thanks in large part to pharmaceutical therapy, the need for such a massive campus dwindled, and the original hospital was shut down, piece by piece.
And when a section was closed down, many things stayed behind.
“Everywhere you look there are little details,” said Tagliareni. “You see an old TV up on the wall, and there are still chairs and hundreds of beds and linens. You walk into a bedroom and there’s still a Christmas card someone received on the nightstand. The building is a big, cold empty space, but there are little, warm human elements you see sprinkled around.”
The Rain Forest of New Jersey
Inside the ruins are tiny forests, some that have been sealed away for decades.
“It’s hard to describe the stale air,” said Tagliareni. “If you just condense a wet basement smell and multiplied it, that’s what it smells like. It’s very much like a cave on the inside — it stays cool in the summer and the air is trapped because the windows are sealed, so the humidity builds up and up. It gets so humid that ferns start growing on the floor. It’s a weird climate.”
That climate led to the natural creation of one of the most interesting rooms at the site.
“It was an office and the door was shut for many years,” said Tagliareni of the Moss Room. “There was a leak in the roof, so water was getting in and the humidity built up and created this rain forest. Anything that was wood or biodegradable had moss on it. Even papers on the wall can be covered in moss.”
Parrots and Devils
The walls that aren’t crumbling or covered in moss are decorated with remnants of the hospital’s strange murals and art.
“A lot of the paintings on the wall are eerie,” Mathews said. “There was a painting of a giant parrot that just said, ‘Don’t be a parrot.’”
“There’s a mural about drug addiction leading to a life of hell,” added Tagliareni. (This and the parrot mural can be seen in the below video.) “It’s a gigantic mural in a very dark hallway and it shows people turning into skeletons and falling into the fires of hell. It’s supposed to be a message of sobriety, but it’s so depressing and scary. And it’s huge. Probably twelve or fifteen feet long. It’s scary anywhere, and in an asylum it’s even more so.”
Though Tagliareni and Mathews don’t consider themselves ghost hunters, and are interested the history — not the hauntings — of Overbrook, they have had one encounter that can’t be easily explained.
“I was alone, filming an old hospital bed with the infrared camera,” said Mathews. “And I looked down the hallway and I saw a shadow. It looked like it was hunched over with a giant back and then it ran down the hall. I kept rolling, and then it ran the other way. When I walked down there, the only thing I found was a wall.”
Tagliareni is quick to point out, “We’re hesitant to say supernatural. We just don’t know what it was.”
It was probably a ghost, if you believe Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, which visited the asylum. The team captured shadows, floating orbs — and even a disembodied voice saying, “Help me.”
Some of the most damning evidence comes from author Chuck Palahniuk, who filmed part of the adaptation of his novel, Choke, at Overbrook. Writing for Maxim, he told of interns finding Satanic altars and rotting animal sacrifices. “One Teamster won’t leave his truck because of the old nurse people keep seeing, a gray-haired woman wearing a starched white cap and uniform who disappears midway down long hallways or into dead-end rooms,” Palahniuk revealed.
Whether you’re ghost-hunting or just curious, Tagliareni does have some words of advice for those exploring urban sites: “Be respectful and ask first. All it takes is inquiring with the town or county. That’s what we did with Overbrook. Just ask. If they say no, don’t break a window and jump in. Be mature.”
The Overbrook Asylum is slowly being torn down by the county. Rumors of new, luxury homes being built on the site pop up every year. As of now, pieces of the hospital and its tunnels still remain, like fossils embedded in stone. But if the government doesn’t tear it down, it looks like Mother Nature (or the ghosts) will reclaim the land.
Antiquity Echoes: A Photographed Tour of Abandoned America by Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews will be released October 20th, and can be pre-ordered now. For more information, check out their website AntiquityEchoes.Blogspot.com.