Location: The Vannacutt Sanitarium for the Criminally Insane is a distant
landmark located on the Pacific Coast Highway (U.S. Highway 1) between Malibu
and Santa Monica coast of California not far from the north edge of Los Angeles County.
Overlooking the cliffs near Malibu, the massive structure is reached by a
deserted driveway that weaves through the Santa Monica Mountains from Malibu
Description of Place: The abandoned and deserted sanitarium was built around 1929 around the base of a lighthouse from 1859 that reached four stories up from the cliff. Overgrown paths, patios and gardens surround the property which was chosen for its isolation. The partially restored interior is Neo-Modern with some very retro art and sculptures decorating the place. The basement is a maze of offices, operating and examination rooms, chambers and assorted other rooms, including a top floor kitchen and eating area for staff and below ground kitchen for the patients. An old-fashioned Otis elevator from the main entrance, now long out of service, reaches to the top sixth floor down to the labyrinth of rooms in the basement. The entry room to the basement is filled with preserved autopsy and dissection displays while the rest of the dark chambers and confusing catacomb-like chambers are littered with debris left over from when the locale was a hospital. One of the more unique features of the huge structure is the complicated “lock-down” system that seals the entire place up by dropping lead plates over every door and window in the house to the outside. Partially deconstructed, it is largely intact today. It was created in its years as a sanitarium to keep patients inside in case of a riot; a reported secret staff escape tunnel has never been found. Because of the damage of some parts of the foundation and the fact some of the abandoned equipment is still working, it is a very dangerous and hazardous area to explore alone.
Ghostly Manifestations: For a long time, the only thing that haunted Vannacutt Sanitarium was the memory of a psychopathic doctor who indulged in experiments on his patients and the cold, brutal murder of his staff and patients. Rumors that the place was haunted soon came from Watson Pritchett, the sole owner of the property. Although he never lived there, Pritchett has come to know the place intimately after having people, tourists and the morbidly curious pay him for a tour of the building’s grisly history.
“It’s my white elephant………” Pritchett admitted before interest in a horror movie filmed in the old hospital came out. “I don’t really want it, plus I can’t sell it. It’s too big to restore and no one wants to live in a place where almost two hundred people lost their lives.”
Pritchett and visitors have witnessed and documented enough manifestations to write a book. Sounds, sights, scents and psychokinetic activity have been recorded at all hours. Voices of conversations and heated discussions come from empty rooms. Phantom nurses prowl empty hallways and vanish in to nowhere. The sound of squeaking wheelchairs come from deserted corridors. Doors have slammed shut by themselves. A breathy gasp has been heard from the shadows. A cold breeze accompanied by moving black mist pours through the basement exploring the tunnels and twisting around corridors. A tourist in 1982 had a heart attack in the downstairs catacombs when she turned a corner alone and ran head first into the ghostly apparition of Dr. Benjamin Vannacutt, the sadist who killed all those people in 1931.
“If I…” Pritchett adds with a frustrated stare. “Had a quarter for every time I rushed downstairs thinking a tourist was left behind or to catch a prowler, I could retire.”
“It’s a very creepy place.” Geoffrey Rush is one of the actors who fictionalized the true events from one night in 1999. “I wouldn’t want to live there. You merely stand in one place for a few minutes and you feel like Vincent Price !”
“We had equipment problems on site.” Bridgett Wilson, another actress from the movie adds. “We heard noises as we stayed in the upstairs bedrooms. Knocking noises sometimes halted production. Both Taye Diggs and Famke Janssen complained of being watched. Props vanished…”
In 1999, Director William Malone started filming his movie about party goers trapped in a haunted sanitarium. Partly influenced by a real location on England, his location director focused on the former asylum and even worked into the script aspects about the location, such as the lock-down mechanism and some of Vannacutt's abandoned technology. "It was a really great location." He replies with a huge grin. "The location itself was as much the star of the movie with its presence and atmosphere plus the real stories truly gave me the inspiration to create what I think is one of my best films to date. I can't say I truly saw or felt anything, but at one time or another, just about everyone in the cast and crew had experienced at least something.
Crew members often found themselves watched by other individuals - people not affiliated with the crew. The script girl saw someone hovering near her as she looked behind her. Sounds of several people shuffling together down a hall spooked more than one person when they'd hear someone coming toward them from another hall, and then no one would appear. Secretary Janet Keijer had a scare in one of the old shock therapy rooms when she felt someone touching her. Writer Dick Beebe in an on-screen appearance felt he was being followed by a presence only he could feel.
“It’s a big place.” Wilson continues. “Sounds reverberate long after you’ve left a room and the reverb is incredible. The sheer openness contributes to the imagination that you think someone is around you at all times, and sometimes there is. You think you’re alone and then, boom, someone’s usually standing there.”
Bridgett remembers once blocking an early scene of the movie when they were planning the camera movements. Everyone, the whole cast and crew heard a loud scream from somewhere upstairs as if someone had just been pushed off the outside if the building. They stopped work, several technicians ran upstairs and outside to see who was horsing around and no one was to be found. Several scenes filmed for the movie had to be recast three to eight times because of a shadowy extra image in the background or because the scene was hazy with a thin fog through the room.
“Some of us….” Wilson looks away sheepishly. “Do smoke. But sometimes the scene looks like it's foggy day in London town, and no one has a cigarette except the one Geoffrey plays with for his character.”
According to Pritchett, it is very easy to get lost in the basement because of the eclectic layout and numerous rooms. Supposedly, the entire structure is constantly rearranging itself. People wandering through one way can get easily lost because when they come back the same way things will have moved and the halls will seem different. The truth of the matter is that the lights down there are constantly going on and off and while a passageway may not be lit up before, it may suddenly be revealed as lights that were once off suddenly flicker on. Abandoned wheelchairs sometimes appear out of nowhere and storage rooms of the old hospital gear often change positions. During Ali Larter’s footage in the basement, one wheelchair in a shot reportedly changed position no less than seven times between takes.
Since filming wrapped, tourists and sightseers have claimed to see either phantom nurses, wandering entities or a spectral surgeon wandering the crumbling edifice. Pritchett claims as well to have heard the disembodied screams from the basement. He has insisted that cell phones do not work in the house, and he is quite correct. In some places of the basement, cell phones inexplicably do not work. Neither do flashlights.
Shortly after the 1999 incident, Jennifer Jensen, the grand-daughter of one of the 1931 survivor paid a visit to the location and encountered Pritchett. She claimed she was shown to the place by a real estate agent, but just who she was talking about is unrevealed. There was no real estate agent hired to show the place.
"That entire basement…" Pritchett continues. "Is like the belly of the beast. It’s dark, intimidating, wretched and foreboding. Some people have had sudden inexplicable panic attacks from being down there even while surrounded by a bunch of people. It’s as if the walls are trying to close in on you, and digest you while you’re still alive."
He further insists that at least eleven people have vanished completely since he started giving tours.
History: In the 1930s, Dr. Richard Benjamin Vannacutt was a celebrated and most well respected doctor. He was a handsome dashing figure of a man who dated around as he was invited to nearly every social gathering, but in his private life, he was a sadistic madman who inflicted surgical tortures on his hapless patients. Believing that electricity was a valuable medical tool, he preferred to shock patients in excess of eighteen at a time. He also designed a chamber that inflicted and bombarded his patients with incoherent sounds and images. Supposedly, whatever could drive a man to go insane could drive him to go sane. The chamber still exists today as an oddity, but there is no record of it actually doing what Vannacutt predicted.
On October 11, 1931, the patients eventually grew tired of the screams of people being tortured and struck back by attacking, murdering, raping and in a few cases disemboweling the staff. Vannacutt, however, initiated the lockdown sequence and trapped everyone inside. Cut off from the outside world, everyone was trapped inside as the blaze consumed the interior. An outside trigger had to be initiated before the firefighters could break in and put out the fire.
There were five survivors who saved themselves by escaping to the basement as the heat went up: pathologist Franklin Baker, electro shock therapist Adolphus Jenzen, electrotherapist Thomas Stephen Price, surgeon Jasper Marr and head nurse Ruthie Ann Stockard. Vannacutt himself perished in the blaze with almost 113 employees and patients.
Rumors soon became passed that Vannacutt haunted the structure looking for his missing staff members. The area was nicknamed “Haunted Hill” and in 1955 Watson Pritchett Sr., the son of the builder, died in an accident while trying to restore the place and disable the lock-down mechanism. Because his grandfather had also died in the house, Watson Pritchett, the current owner is more than a bit nervous about the place. In 1958, a movie very loosely based on the hauntings named “House on Haunted Hill” was released starring Vincent Price, Elisha Cook, Richard Long and Carl Ohmart.
In 1999, shock master and amusement park owner Steven Price, the grandson of Thomas Price, apparently tried to reunite the grandchildren of the 1931 survivors for one night in the haunted sanitarium. Two of them were no shows reportedly uninterested in the deal, but also in attendance was a Dr. Richard Blackburn and Sara Wolfe who had had usurped the ticket to Adolphus Jenzen’s granddaughter (her employer). Pritchett himself was in attendance as well as Price apparently started the lockdown mechanism to trap his guests to the horrors created by his special effects man Carl Shecter. While no one is quite sure what occurred, everyone including Price seemed to act erratic, trying to get out and even started shooting at each other with guns as the atmosphere got to them. When Price’s associates let them out, they were all in relative stages of extreme paranoia. The 1999 movie was very loosely based on that incident.
Since 1965, the exterior and part of the interior has been used as a location in several movies including the 1999 movie filmed on location. However, for the 2008 sequel, Pritchett upped his price for film crews to use the site and they instead recreated it for far less on a soundstage. Of course, as he points out, if they were just to take the structure off his hands, they could use it as however they see fit.
"I've been trying to get it registered as a landmark to no avail." Pritchett adds. "I once had a guy interested in turning it into a hotel and resort, but something spooked him out of that deal." He mentions with a roll of his eyes.
A short time before the sequel, a relative of one of Price's guests invaded the residence for a party of their own and ended up shooting even more holes with a rifle through the structure in trying to force the ghosts to appear for them. Parts of that account were dramatized in "Return to House on Haunted Hill," the sequel to the first movie. Producers of of the TV-Series, "Most Haunted," were once interested in filing at the location, but Pritchett held off, convinced that perpetuating the hauntings was holding off his sale of the place. However, he did allow the location to be used in a few movies by Mammoth Pictures, particularly the teen horror movies, "Zombie High - The Movie," starring Jake Ryan and Tawni Hart, and "Haunted High School 3: Lilith's Revenge" with Mikayla, Chad Dylan Cooper and Vanessa Hudgins. The TV series, "Sinister Sites," filmed in the house shortly thereafter.
Since 2008, the property is now owned by Mammoth Pictures who uses the location for their corporate offices; the sale and transfer of the deed was part of the deal Pritchett arranged when the location was used for the movie, "Dark Hospital."
Identity of Ghosts: Everyone agrees that the ghost of Dr. Richard Benjamin Vannacutt haunts the place, but several theories are trying to link him to Emeric Belasco, the Nineteen Century madman who kept his party guests imprisoned in his home in Northern Maine for several months. Both men apparently forced such an extreme amount of negative psychic and psionic energies into their locations to make them haunted after their deaths, and both men in spirit form are commanding an obscene amount of haunted energies to completely overwhelm anyone who trespasses their respective locations.
Witnesses: Frederick and Annabelle Loren, Dr. David Trent, Lance Schroeder, Nora Manning, Ruth Bridgers, Watson Pritchett Sr. , Steven and Evelyn Price, Dr. Donald Blackburn, Eddie Baker, Sara Wolfe, Melissa Marr, Jennifer Jensen, Watson Pritchett Jr., Carl Schecter, Geoffrey Rush, Peter Gallagher, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgett Wilson, Chris Kattan, Jeffrey Combs, William Malone, Dick Beebe, Janet Keijer...
Comments: House on Haunted Hill (1958/1999/2008) Loosely compared with the Danvers Mental Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts, Waverly Hills Sanitarium in Louisville, Kentucky, Northern State Hospital in Seattle, Washington and the LaLaurie House in New Orleans, Louisiana.