In 1873, the town of Parma was struck by a cholera epidemic. Therefore, the psychiatric hospital was moved to Colorno, a neighboring village. The rooms and halls of the former ducal palace and San Domenico convent were rearranged for the occasion.
The patients’ conditions were critical. Just like a ghetto, every unwanted and troublesome person in the society was locked up inside those walls and abused: restraint beds, straightjackets, confinement cells, electroshocks, jailer-nurses, sadistic relationships between doctors and patients. Not a treatment center but a real nightmare! Some people were born in the institution and lived there all their lives thinking it was normal.
At the asylum, patients were taught that crazy people weren’t people but things, and just like things they needed to be washed, dressed, tied and punished. The asylum was a concentration camp.
Things improved in the sixties when a group of medical students occupied the building to claim the patients’ right to equality, reporting discrimination, absurd hierarchies, and patients being forbidden to have any type of contact with relatives outside the institution.
On December 31st 1996, the Colorno asylum was closed permanently.
Nowadays, after myths and urban legends, it seems like nothing ever ended. People tell of cries and noises coming from the former asylum, of ghosts and unidentifiable beings that still inhabit the building.
We enter the former mental institution with Hanna, a 20-year-old girl from Ukraine. We’ve come here with her because she deeply believes, and fears, all that lies beyond life.
Hanna: “I’ve been fascinated by the psyche, its mechanisms and emotional states ever since I was little. I’ve always believed that there is something else living with us concrete and manifest humans.
We manage to get inside the asylum through a small hole in the wall. The atmosphere is disturbing. There are wheelchairs and beds everywhere. There are patient’s files all over the floor, piles of clothing, strange instruments, medicines and tableware, and dust is everywhere”.
Hanna is scared to death, you can see it in her eyes, but she gets ready for the photoshoot with great courage. She undresses and wears a pair of panties and a torn T-shirt, defenseless and uncomfortable just like the people who were “buried alive” here.
Hanna wanders around the asylum to understand and feel what really happened in this place. And to face her darkest fears. We follow her, capturing every single moment and all of her emotions.
Hanna:“People say that what we cannot touch or see, things we cannot know or discover makes man fear, and I’m scared of spirits… those supernatural beings that are commonly pictured as an almost colorless stain, transparent and light floating around in abandoned houses and dark places”.
The Colorno asylum is ramshackle but… it feels like it’s still alive, and we soon confirm this. We start hearing thuds and weird noises, all of which are inexplicable. Hanna jumps and starts at every small noise. She cries, she’s paralyzed.
Hanna: “When my grandfather died, weird paranormal episodes started happening. I was very little but I’ll never forget the sense of foreboding in my house, the noises, the strong smell of hospital and… echoing steps in the night. I knew it was my grandfather but I was terrified anyway. I could sense some negative energy, a certain close warmth every time I went to bed, just as if he was sitting right beside me”.
Hanna looks around and then, overcoming her fears, she starts to touch beds and wheelchairs, sitting on top of them just like the patients used to do. Her eyes are terrifying, empty. In this icy dead silence, the only sounds we hear are the clicks of the camera and our heartbeats… and then another thud, making us start with fear.
Hanna: “I always try to give a rational, valid explanation to these kinds of phenomena, even if it’s just to feel a little bit safe. But I’m just as sure of what I feel now: fear and anxiety, the same feelings which resurface every time I hear something creak”.
It really feels like there is some sort of presence which we can’t identify or explain.
Our minds keep drifting back to the patients who have been tortured here, their cries of pain, the people who were sane but became crazy in here. Are those people making these noises? Do they want us to leave? Or do they want to communicate with us? What if they’re asking for help? Or is it just powerful suggestion?
Hanna: “What I feel may have been conditioned by the movies and documentaries I’ve seen in the past, but I’ve learned to respect these entities and not mess with them. I honestly feel more at peace thinking that respecting them might make them respect me, too.”
It’s thanks to the respect that Hanna has for the paranormal that she’s somehow managed to endure working for two straight days inside the asylum.
Hanna: “I know that life isn’t over when your heart stops beating.”