How to be a pissed off haunted asylum ghost: gonjiam vs. grave encounters and the unwilling casting of patients as villains

haunted asylum movies keep being made and I don’t like it one bit sir

Ah, haunted asylum movies—bringing nothing new to the table and only serving as an exercise in combating hubris. Is there anything more gratifying then watching over-confident ghost hunters get their comeuppance? Not to me, and clearly not to most people, because they keep making these fucking movies.

a lesson in hubris: the movie

In Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum and the American-made movie “Grave Encounters”, you could, if so inclined, switch the plots of both and basically end up with the same exact film. They boil down to this simple premise: amateur ghost hunters hear about a haunted asylum and look for the paranormal. They find it.

To get a bit more in depth; Gonjiam follows the team behind a popular Korean horror webseries, and for this very special episode the crew decides on the haunted as shit Gonjiam Asylum to film what will hopefully be their most popular episode to date. Of course the asylum has a long and sordid history of death and illness, from once housing political prisoners to building the institution on a literal mass grave (I don’t know if that’s true about the real life asylum, this is stated in the movie).

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Even after the hospital’s closing, people have disappeared, or committed suicide, or have died at the hands of whatever lies behind the walls of Gonjiam; hell, the prologue of the movie shows three kids trying to open the famous and very cursed “room 402” and later we find out that, yes those kids in fact DID disappear and are presumed to be dead, which makes the gung-ho attitude of the cast all the more confusing and inappropriate.

Unrelated, but in my research about the Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital in Gwangju-Si, South Korea, I found that most of the websites about the hospital list that it was suddenly and mysteriously closed in the early 1990’s for “unknown reasons”, though some speculated that South Korean authorities discovered the atrocities supposedly being committed within it’s walls and shut the whole thing down. In reality, there was some issue with sewage disposal and other unsanitary conditions, and the owner of the hospital bounced without doing anything about it.¹ The Atlas obscura lists no sources on the article they wrote about the asylum, so I cannot say for sure that this was the fate of Gonjiam, but it seems more plausible than “a mad doctor killing his patients”²

This place is BURSTING at the seams with pissed off ghosts, and the crew take it a step further by faking the scares….at first. They preform an intricate ritual in order to draw out all of the spirts from the asylum, and they beg the ghosts to come out of hiding and converse with them. And when they make these silly moves, they inadvertently summon something real. Suddenly the stakes become very tangible, and our main characters must fight to get out.

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Copy and Paste for grave encounters; something something ghost hunter show, spooky scary episode in the asylum, and oh look it’s actually haunted by real life ghosts and now the crew are patients in the asylum!

(In GE’s defense, it does a couple things pretty well, including creating a sense of unreality as the crew becomes trapped in a seemingly endless night, and their concept of time becomes muddled.)

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But the similar, overdone and outdated concept of ‘angry hospital patients as angrier ghosts’ can be seen in both of them. In Grave Encounters, patients are seen by the camera crew, back turned, only to turn around and reveal themselves as demons, or monsters or whatever. In Gonjiam, a naked patient pulls one of the main characters into the darkness, presumably killing her.

People in hospital gowns assault the protagonists, making them run, hide, and fight for their lives as they try to murder them…but why? Why are all these asylum ghosts so pissed off and killing everything in sight? I mean, I guess I would be too if I died trapped in a hospital and some dumbass kids kept trying to summon me for some bullshit webseries.

don’t talk to me im angy

And here I get into my spiel about these movies and the real-life implications

Jokes aside, there’s something unsettling in the way we depict those who have suffered and died on the grounds of a state run (or privately owned) institution. In the way we turn the suffering of people who most assuredly did not deserve it into a spectacle of flashing lights and people dressed up in patient’s gowns and demonic faces. Grave Encounters is especially complicit in this, as the film ends with the main character, television host Lance Preston, actually having undergone a lobotomy by one of the ghostly doctors. Using a lobotomy for ‘shock factor’ is sort of…muddled ground. It’s a bit weird.

I understand that these asylums and these scenarios the actors find themselves in are completely fabricated, but their effects on actual mentally ill individuals and how we look back on these kinds of institutions are not.

It’s why ideas like ‘Fear VR 5150’ and the Six Flags ‘Dark Oaks’ asylum, where, in the latter one is thrown into a simulation in which they are involuntarily committed into a psychiatric facility (thus the 5150 code) and in the former you are thrown “face-to-face with the world’s worst psychiatric patients” while having to fight through a horde of ‘maniacal inmates”. It’s why state-owned institutions that indulged in horrific treatments of mentally-ill individuals like Pennhurst Asylum–which horrified the nation by showing individuals in chains and children in literal cages³—has become a haunted house attraction.

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I truly believe that media such as this pops up when we, as a society, are fascinated by the inhuman and barbaric ways our predecessors ‘managed’ mental illness, yet we are so far removed from the actual human suffering that came with these histories that we don’t care about the real life people locked away in these institutions.

And I know that the mysteriousness of mental illness itself is no doubt a huge factor into why we keep casting people with psychotic disorders or bipolar disorder or depression as unwilling participants as evil ghost, but at this point the redundancy of it has been worn out. Sure, I guess it’s gratifying watching stupid assholes get their comeuppance for being dickbags in a ghost hotbed, but its hard to remove the fact that they are doing it at the cost of turning people with mental illnesses into roving, rabid monsters.


 

¹ (https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/gonjiam-psychiatric-hospital)

²[Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital – The Paranormal Guide](http://www.theparanormalguide.com/blog/gonjiam-psychiatric-hospital))

³[A Living Nightmare: The History of Pennhurst Asylum](https://the-line-up.com/pennhurst-asylum)

[Opinion | Mental Illness Is Not a Horror Show – The New York Times](https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/26/opinion/mental-illness-is-not-a-horror-show.html)

[Is this how people see me? What happened when I visited Pennhurst’s Haunted Asylum | Liz Spikol](https://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/commentary/pennhurst-asylum-hospital-haunted-house-mental-health-20171019.html)