In late May I was invited to head to Gwangju, a city in Gyeonggi Province, by my friend Conrad Hughes. Gwangju – not to be confused with the much larger city by the same name – is a tiny place an hour outside of Seoul with a population of 267,207. During the Joseon dynasty, it held an important role in the production of ceramics used by the royal court.
I wasn’t going for any of these reasons though. The true purpose was to break into a psychiatric hospital that has been abandoned for 15 years and sits at the base of a mountain, enshrouded and secluded in the forest.
Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital has an impressive presence on the Internet for supposedly being haunted by the ghosts of homicidal patients and doctors as cracked as Strangelove and Caligari. But I suspect its popularity is due to its accessible location (Korea isn’t the biggest stickler for rules – see my waltz through the gates of the highly dangerous, abandoned Gaya Land) and very photogenic scenes thanks in part to the beautiful, rugged landscape it’s cozied into.
Conrad and Will, natives of England, brought filming equipment for photographs and stock footage of the infamous hospital. Also along for the trip were my girlfriend and I, as well as a Ukrainian friend named Alisa.
We borrowed a tiny, silver car from a fellow foreigner, and after packing shooting equipment including tripods and Steadicam tracks, we piled into the vehicle. The ride was fun but entirely uncomfortable, as Conrad sped and juked around other speeding cars on the extended highway, which was flanked by rugged mountains.
The group elected to see an underground, DIY punk show in Itaewon (a hugely popular section of Seoul that includes bars, clubs, shops and unique restaurants) that Alisa had found out about. We planned to wake up early Sunday and head to the asylum.
After six hours of leg-cramping, back-aching travel through countryside lit by opaque clouds, we arrived in Seoul. We went to meet Alisa’s friend Yong Jun on a busy market street teeming with passers-by. We decided to park on the street among the people, and we did – clumsily, on a curb, in the heart of the activity – which attracted a lot of attention.
As three members of our party were vegetarians, we headed to a traditional Korean restaurant that caters to Buddhist monks by removing all animal products from its dishes. For the first time, I was able to try Kimchi jjigae (a stew made with kimchi and spicy pork, tofu and vegetables), bulgogi (grilled beef marinated in a sweet sauce with sliced bell peppers) and mandu (Korea’s dumplings, which are similar to pierogis and come grilled, fried or steamed with pork and diced herbs).
In reaction to the recent Sewol Ferry incident, there have been huge protests in the capital city, and that night there was a major rally. The protesters, presumably family and friends of people lost at sea, carried candles in a vigil that stopped our tiny, silver car dead in its tracks while we were trying to locate a hotel.
Fearing we would miss the punk show, Alisa and I abandoned ship amidst the megaphone chants of the protesters to walk to the venue while the others went on in an attempt to find a hotel.
The show turned out to be a basement show, more or less, in an unfinished room with a huge, white screen for photography at the other end. Behind the drums hung silver velvet banners, reminding me of a middle school talent show.
This was my first introduction to the realistic underground punk scene in Korea. During my first year, I saw two metal shows: At the Gates and Napalm Death. Napalm Death brought out the entire European foreigner scene in Korea, with very few Koreans actually in attendance. At the Gates garnered even less of a crowd after the Korean troop slinked away following Korean band Oathean’s set. I had hopes the outcome would be better at a specifically Korean show for Korean underground bands.
The total attendance — in Seoul, the capital city with the largest population in the country — was an estimated 30 people including bands. The show was fun; it was especially enjoyable for me to see Koreans interested and involved in underground, extreme music.
Though the crowd was not as violent or energetic as those in the states, there was an underlying politeness and community that rang true. As a foreigner, I was treated no differently than others who appeared for the show. The bass player of both Gonguri and Sulsa, as it turns out, had responded to an email I sent about another band he was in and was more than happy to meet me and introduce me to people.
After a night out with new friends and multiple attempts to phone a pizza place at the hotel, we finally passed out.
The small city of Gwangju had a sleepy aura aggravated by the heavy, rain-filled clouds hanging above it when we drove in the next morning. There were considerably fewer people on the streets than you’d normally anticipate in Korea, and many of the buildings and businesses we passed were dated, with faded colors on their aged, soviet-style stone structures. Nearing our location, farms became prevalent, as well as piles of garbage and scrap metal on the streets, making the area resemble a southeast Asian village. Suntanned old women dressed from head to toe in sun protection gear and wheeled large carts behind them that were full of cans and bottles for recycling.
The natives we attempted to talk to were entirely rude and shunned us. One old woman I endeavored to address politely hissed and hacked at us, shoeing us away in angry mumbles. She was effectively the “warner of danger” by horror movie standards — a foreshadowing trope.
We parked in front of a gate — solemn and worn, like the entrance to a grave yard — and climbed it. The entrance to the actual hospital was bright, with no entry signs, and covered in barbed wire. We walked on a long, dirt path overgrown with vegetation to the living quarters asylum’s head doctor.
It was as if he’d been abducted. The man left scores of medical dictionaries, novels, graphic novels, furniture, clothing, silverware and photo albums that detailed his presence during the inception and building of the hospital, as well as his trips to Europe. Among his books he even had informational discourses on communism.
Exploring other buildings in the immediate area, we found the orderly living quarters, thick with black mold and the skeletal remains of large greenhouses.
We hiked straight into a thick forest with grass as high as the knee and through a valley of thorns and odd insects as we followed a blue dot on Conrad’s smartphone map. We found the asylum in the middle of another valley, tightly surrounded by jagged mountains and ancient vegetation reaching up like fingers over the hospital. Bars and metal fences blocked windows and doors and encompassed the roof, where an activities court could be seen. Trash littered the yard – evidence of others visiting.
After crawling through a narrow opening in a gate and limbo-ing to avoid being scratched by rusty rebar, we found the rooms belonging to the patients on the first floor. They had dilapidated ceilings that had fallen onto rotted beds and tables. Literature was scattered down the long, shadowy hallways, as well as dated clocks, old telephones and straightjackets. Bits of debris were seemingly collected in neat piles at random spots. In the dining hall and on the roof, we found remnants of large fires. In the dining hall, someone had caught old bed frames on fire — around 10 wiry rectangles spewing coils from black flame markings on the wall.
On the second floor, in a dark and dripping font, “KILL” was written on the wall in English. This immediately removed the threat of danger, as an English-writing, Korean ghost seemed unauthentic. There were also large footprints on the walls of the stairwell located at the rear of the hospital — as if someone had walked up the walls in some stupefying feat of paranormal activity or wore his shoes on his hands, pretending to defy gravity.
Coming from a community of family and friends ostensibly interested in and spooked by the supernatural, I was used to finding logical responses to things people too easily assume are unanswerable. In fact, later on, I found out that during the economic downturn 15 years prior, Gonjiam lost funding. Coupled with sanitary conditions and sewage drainage problems, the hospital shut its doors after the owner left the country with all the institution’s documentation. The Internet had bred stories about ghosts and murdering doctors and patients from thin air.
Leaving the group, I walked the length of the building — from the end of the dining hall to the main entrance — by myself. Nothing happened of course, but the experience procured a certain anxiety in me as I peered into each of the patients’ rooms while passing by in the dark.
On the way out, it began raining, and the water made the wild flowers and trees appear more vibrantly colored. We followed a different way out, eventually finding a path behind a resident’s home. We came out by a decomposing garage where two men were huddled under a canopy smoking next to the torso of an abandoned manikin.
“You must be crazy to go to the hospital,” he said in Korean jocularly.
Conrad, who has a good command of the language, responded, “You must be crazy to live here.”