Camarillo, California California is a state with more than its fair share of ghostly residents, and true to the West Coast way of life, many of them deal with stars of past eras and horrific tragedies, the likes of which no other state can easily boast. While stories of the ghost of Marilyn Monroe and Howard Hughes are well known and accredited to dozens of locations, there are places where the presences of ghosts is not merely a fabrication to boost the tourist trade. In fact, were the places left in their original condition, no sane tourist would want to come within hundreds of miles of them. But while places, like aging stars, get facelifts and become something else, the soul remains the same. Such is the case with the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.
Built in 1936 in the small town of Camarillo, the State Mental Hospital emerged in an era when those with mental disorders were called ?crazies,? ?lunatics,? or ?criminally insane.? Its hallways and cells were used to treat alcoholics, pedophiles, and those with mental illnesses, retardation, and violent tendencies. According to some reports, Camarillo was, in those days, a man-made purgatory in which the worst of the mentally diseased lived. The acreage around the facility was used as farmland, complete with a dairy. The patients had no need to leave the grounds for any of their needs, nor were they allowed to.
By the 1950?s more than 7,000 patients, some as young as eleven years old, were housed at the massive facility. Patients wore tan jumpsuits to distinguish them from the doctors and to help capture those that attempted escape. Rowdy inmates were routinely kept under control with powerful drugs. Those that were still uncontrollable were subjected to barbaric treatments such as electroshock therapy. Another routine ?treatment? was to immerse the patients in hot water, bring them out, and then wrap them in ice-cold towels. Still others were simply strapped to their beds until they?d exhausted themselves. Investigations of the hospital revealed other horrors such as brutality from the guards and inmates abusing and killing each other.
Over the following decades things began to slowly change at Camarillo. During the mid 1970?s the house of horrors examined its policies and began working to actually heal the patients instead of locking them away. By the early 1990?s patients were no longer wearing the familiar tan jumpsuits and were being taught real skills that could enable them to exist and function in the outside world. More children were admitted, and different types of therapies were developed. Patients were allowed to wear their own clothes, and even a petting zoo was added to help the developmentally challenged and children.
Toward the end of the Regan Administration, the President instituted a new legislative mandate of deinstitutionalization. It heralded the end of Camarillo, as patients were to be moved to other facilities or released back onto the streets. Camarillo finally closed its doors in 1997, marking the end of an era.
Scars left by the old administration plagued the hospital until it closed. Employees and renovators alike tell tales of phantom presences and moving objects, as well as several strangely coincidental deaths. Even people from the film industry, which has used the buildings for several set locations in movies, have reported strange encounters.
Most who enter the old hospital grounds are affected in one way or another. Headaches and nausea are common side effects, as are dizziness and fatigue. Many who enter swear they can feel being watched or threatened. While symptoms such as these can be attributed to the imagination, it is the eyewitness accounts that provide the most chilling view into the past of Camarillo State Hospital.
Among the reported activities are the voices and laughter of children at the building once designated as the children?s center and the petting zoo. The beautiful woman in white, whom many assume to be a nurse, roams the hallways of the bell tower, only to vanish when confronted. There are reports of an old woman who walks the grounds outside the bell tower as well as a man who sits at the bus stop. There?s even a chattering ghost in the women?s restroom in the bell tower.
However, some of the most compelling stories come from those who either worked or lived there. A female janitor one evening got a shock when cleaning the women?s restroom. As she bent to pick something up off the floor, she noticed a pair of legs, which she described as obviously belonging to a man, under the door of a stall. When she called out to the person in the stall, there was no answer. She pushed the door open only to find the stall empty, the legs gone. She refused to enter the restroom again.
Another employee, a nurse named Debbie, had an encounter when trying to sneak a cigarette during a rainy day. Not wanting to go outside in the rain, she opened the doors to the courtyard and lit up. No sooner had she taken her first puff than, as she put it, someone grabbed her roughly by the shoulders and shook her hard. However, when she looked, there was no one there.
A sixty-five-year-old nurse was grabbed by the hair and pulled backward out of a chair by an unseen assailant. She was, however, alone in the room. Her coworker, a ten-year veteran of Camarillo named Sheryl Downey, thought the stories eerie, but it wasn?t until her own encounter with the supernatural that she truly believed.
She says she saw him as plain as day, as if he were another living resident of the hospital, but that she?d never seen him before, and he was wearing an inmate uniform from the old days of the asylum. He appeared during one of the busiest times of day, just after breakfast, walking into the women?s restroom. When she called out to stop him, he continued as if he hadn?t heard her. Sheryl called her coworker to roust the man out, but the room was empty. There were no other exits or windows, and the man could not have gotten out without at least one of the ladies seeing him, but the room was empty. As Sheryl pondered, her coworker screamed. The man was standing directly behind her. He then promptly vanished.
While on a location shoot in May of 2004, several filmmakers reported tools going missing, only to be found later in unopened rooms. Set builders talked of windows slamming on their own, microwave ovens thrown on the floor, and strange knocking on walls. Cold spots were also prevalent through the buildings. Several of the crew quit the set, stating the place was just too creepy for them.
There also appears to be something strange about the back road into the hospital, as it has been host to several unexplained car accidents. Although the road was not heavily traveled, car crashes on it were almost common. After one accident in which a nurse was killed, an autopsy showed that the otherwise healthy woman had suffered a freak brain embolism.
Legends and folklore have amplified the reputation of the Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Its fame has spread through myth and celebrity alike. Jazz legend Charlie Parker stayed for seven months after a nervous breakdown in 1947 and soon after recorded his hit ?Relaxing at Camarillo.? The old hospital is also rumored by some to be the inspiration for The Eagles? 1976 hit ?Hotel California.? Movie producers for several big-budget films have used the site, but the buildings have taken on a new life since the 1997 closing.
In 2000 renovations began, and two years later the buildings that were once considered the most notorious forensic mental hospital in California opened its doors once again, this time as California State University-Channel Islands. The buildings look the same as they did on the outside. Inside, cells have been converted into classrooms and dorms. The restless souls, however, seem to remain.
Apparitions appear with little regard to time of year or day. However, the current administration, as well as other governing bodies, seem to wish to largely forget about the buildings? storied past. The best chance of encountering a ghost on the campus, it seems, is to enroll for a semester and keep your eyes open.
Thanks very much to Sheryl Downey, who worked at Camarillo State Mental Institution for the last ten years of its operation, for sharing her stories and experiences.
See you in two weeks!