Tucked away in the grey and green of the the small city of Gwangju lies a place known as one of the creepiest in the world: Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital. The building was left abandoned nearly 20 years ago and has since been closed to the public. However, thanks to its intriguing backstory and sinister aesthetics, this spot brings in around 1,000 unofficial visitors a year. If you’re looking for an alternative day out then this is the perfect sojourn — although it’s perhaps not for the fainthearted.
The reasons given for its abandonment are a little fuzzy, and if you read enough blogs on Naver you’ll find some uninspiring facts ranging from economic failure to sewage problems. But in the words of Tony Wilson, when you have to choose between the truth and the legend, always choose the legend. And so, as the slightly more stirring accounts say, the insidious reason for closure was the mysterious deaths of patients during the mid ’90s. The allegedly clinically insane owner kept the tormented there as his prisoners until he fled to America in 1996. Since then the remaining structure has been left to let nature take its course, although the rooms are still filled with furniture, clothing and medical records.
As my friends and I approached the building we discovered barbed wire and warning signs encompassing the entrance. But if you continue down the road past the fence for about 20 to 30 meters you’ll come to a light-coloured building on the roadside. Walk around this building and into its backyard area, following the concrete structure uphill into the woods where a trail will appear. Keep along the trail and, just like the movies tell you not to, you can easily walk through the gaps in the fence. When you get to the top it’s almost a cliché: the concrete, the weather-worn edifice overbearing its green surroundings. It would perhaps be even more sinister during snowy winter.
One of the biggest challenges of the day was getting inside the institution. Initially, we found a few extensions to the building that had open windows to climb through. During the first few attempts we were able to get into what looked like an old cafeteria, with a table and chairs left in their original place. After sighting a collapsed balcony and an outhouse, what became apparent was that the fear of ghosts wasn’t what might stop us but the abundance of Jurassic-sized bugs. Following a small breakdown thanks to a giant leaping spider, I managed to slow my pulse rate down enough to get through the next stage: breaking into the heart of the structure.
To get here, we had to squeeze through a small window located to the top left of the main stairway at the front of the hospital. Here is where you will need your valor as there’s a bit of a drop below. If you balance yourself on the step you’ll be fine, although the intimidation of the situation did lead to our second breakdown of the day, this time by my accomplice. As our time at the institute progressed, our fears were being realised. Although, ironically, due to every other factor aside from ghost sightings.
We were finally all inside. This is where the bruising and the palpitations paid off. It was almost too typical; like a scene from cheap B-movie. We found furniture and ragged clothing, water-damaged and rotting. Previous illegitimate visitors meant that graffiti, empty booze bottles and cigarette packets were strewn all over the floor.
As the day ended, I decided the trip had been a success. The trek was easy, the weather was sunny, and in a way we had discovered an unusual little pocket of Korean history — not to mention having gained a great anecdote to tell our friends. So, if you feel up to the challenge, visit Gonjiam Mental Asylum. But be warned: Bring some bug spray and a serious pair of balls.
One of the greater mysteries of this place is how to locate it. Although many of the blogs mention Gwangju in Gyeonggi Province, only one gives the exact route. However, after discovering the specific directions, the journey proved to be simple. To get there you can take bus 500-2 from Gangnam Station Exit 7 or the 1113-1 from Gangbyeon Station exit 1, straight to Gonjiam. From here you will need your smart phone as the Google Map navigation app will direct you on the 15-minute-walk from the bus stop, by typing in the co-ordinates 37.362433, 127.33474. Our total travelling time was around 2 hours.
Written by Daisy Phillipson
Photographed by Sarah Ryan