A Natural History: Laura Marchetti


The Natural History of O.P.A.L.

Art and text by Laura Marchetti


The window was open this morning, swamp air filled the living room.  I woke up on the couch, which reeked of mildew and last night’s cigars. My friends, passed out on the floor, appear as flipbook ghosts jerkily moving back and forth as I open and close one eye at a time. First one eye, then the other.  No one wakes up from my mental prodding, so I make coffee and smoke a cigarette.  Church bells are ringing in the distance, but then I realize there are no real church towers left here.  What I’m hearing is the new speaker system bought by the First Baptist Church downtown.  This techno call to worship sounds flat, but it manages to stir up a longing within me I thought died years ago, or was possibly never born.  I imagine putting on a dress. I imagine walking up the steps, the pastor knows my name and greets me with a practiced nod.  My hair is long, curled at the ends.  My high heels click gracefully as I find my pew.  I know all the songs. My teeth are white in light pink never-swollen gums.  The hot water whistled and pulled me back to the moldy carpets and still-drunk friends.  “We will find something to believe in,” I thought solemnly as I bit into buttered toast.

Do you know how hard it is to research abandoned buildings?  Night explorers are more committed to recording hauntings, glowing orbs, supernatural sightings than street names.

Nice Bright Orbs at one of the main entrances

Red energy at the top right along with some Orbs and what appears to be Ecto

Nice multi-colored orbs!

Huge Orb to the left surrounded by smaller yellow Orbs

Sunland Boy Scout Troup (1967)

Cribs in Sleeping area (1967)[1]


I went looking for Sunland Hospital for the first time in August, 2003.  I sat on the floor of the van, picking out twigs and weed stems from the carpet and placing them in separate piles while the band tried to scare each other.  We’d only heard stories about the abandoned mental hospital, how dead children played in the hallways.  It was a site of negligence, an unsightly blemish on Florida’s not-so-pristine history.  Chris was pouring over a hand-drawn map of the place.  That was how this whole thing started.  Some acne-covered kid gave it to him at the end of their set; I’m not sure why.

The drummer, Avi, loved those ghost hunter shows you see on tv.  Couldn’t get enough of them.  He would always make us watch them late at night; I was the only one who was ever scared by it.  Since I couldn’t stand to watch another episode, fulfillment was the only way I could see to end Avi’s obsession.

The Ocoee Paranormal Ass-Kicking League (O.P.A.L.) was formed.  We started small: cemetaries, schoolyards, abandoned shacks in the lower swampland.  But soon we heard about the chain of abandoned children’s mental institutions known as Sunland Hospitals.  It was only a matter of finding the Orlando location.  I became the cameraman, since I owned a camera.

“Orbs are for amateurs, we got to scare out some real ghost shit, you know?”

Built in 1952, Sunland Hospital in Orlando, Florida, was originally W.T. Edwards Tuberculosis Hospital.  It was never a treatment center, at the time tuberculosis was without cure.  It was a waiting facility; the end of the line.  An entire side of the main building was windows, as it was a commonly held belief that sunshine and fresh air were agents of healing for the t.b. patients.

“Once lodged on a given ward, the patient is firmly instructed that the restrictions and deprivations he encounters are not due to such blind forces as tradition or economy – and hence dissociable from self – but are intentional parts of his treatment, part of his need at the time, and therefore an expression of the state that his self has fallen to.”[2]

Dust pushed up out of the dirt as our van slid to a stop a block away from the Fence.  We followed the map’s instructions, and were as discreet as drunk kids can be.  I looked at the pale, greenish faces floating around me.  Not ghosts, just my friends, scared shitless.  I took a breath.

“Let’s fucking do this already.”

This wasn’t like the tv hunters, and I was ready.  We made our way quickly to the hole in the fence, guided by that map, the anonymous voice of a scrawny hardcore kid.  The hole was small. Chris and I made our way through easily. Avi, Abe, and Dylan took more squeezing, but we were in.  I brushed my jeans off and sucked in a breath quickly.  A large field sprawled before us, the building rising up out of the middle of the earth perversely.  It looked like a person caught in the middle of exhaling, its collapsing middle parts soaked in years of rain and neglect.

Theories for the Sudden Abandonment:

1. Asbestos

2. Fire Hazards

3. Neglect and Abuse

We walked the perimeter of the hospital, I snapped photos without looking.  Teenagers and explorers had ripped open windows and smashed doors, beams and concrete chunks fell together to form haphazard cathedral arches.  Letting my eyes adjust in the main lobby, my flashlight scanned over the wreckage.  Overturned wheelchairs closed in around us and graffitied hallways grasped at the light.  These floors hadn’t seen electricity since 1983, and were thirsty for the grand fluorescence of their past.  We stood unsure, felt watched, as Chris nervously opened the map.  The basement.

Two of the following:

1. Delusions

2. Prominent hallucinations (through-out the day for several days or several times a week for several weeks, each hallucinatory experience not being limited to a few brief moments)

3. Incoherence or marked loosening of associations

4. Catatonic behavior

5. Flat or grossly inappropriate affect

6. Bizarre delusions (i.e., involving a phenomenon that the person’s culture would regard as totally implausible, e.g., thought broadcasting, being controlled by a dead person)[3]


Originally, the basement was a unglorified burial chamber for those t.b. patients.  Five round chambers line one wall.  To the right, large piles of firewood, crumbling and mold-furry.  “The crematorium of the damned” is scrawled in red paint in one of the furnaces, written by someone more brave than us.  It all feels too fresh, and the stories I read on the internet about missing disabled children and this place pull at the tingly place where my neck meets my back.

According to official records, the crematorium has not existed since 1962 during renovation.

Tap tap tap tap tap

We all freak out, I point my camera towards the corner of the room as Chris prepares to bolt. I take a picture, the flash illuminates a malnourished rat.  My first ghost.

1997: A young man fell three stories down an elevator shaft here and sustained serious injuries.

We climbed to the third floor, the door was locked.  This is where the map ended, with a skull and cross-bones drawing.  Chris sized up the door before pulling the rusted pins out.  The record room.  We read that the medical records were intact, that blood samples and pills scattered the floor.  But none of us had believed it, and then there we were.  An index taped to the inside of photo album devoid of pictures:

Arrival of the first eighteen children

Beauticians at W.T. Edwards Tuberculosis Hospital

Birthday party at Sunland 1964

Hospital Pet therapy at Sunland Center Hospital

Disabled child in the swimming pool of the Sunland Hospital

Sunland patients out for some air

Ward at Sunland Hospital

Activity room at Sunland Hospital

Residents brushing their teeth at Sunland Hospital

Boy Scout patients of Sunland Hospital[4]


The excavation continued for hours, these obscure histories scoured for abnormality or signs of a hidden agenda.  Like holy men studying ancient texts, we read the case files.  I bent down and picked up a once-orange bottle, full of sand.  It was time to leave.  I took more pictures, the sun was coming up.

At all four corners of the main fence, you should look out for security guards.  It is a Federal crime to trespass on this site, so don’t get caught.

In the early morning, we sat in the van, getting high to balance out our now senseless paranoia.  Everyone swore to encountering a ghost; I flipped absently through the photos while Avi pointed excitedly at asbestos orbs.  Those same faces, full of terror only moments ago, were now elated.  We had touched the void, maybe.  I drank a beer as the sun rose over the boys’ sleeping bodies.

1. ingestion

2. absorption into the blood

3. transport to the brain via circulation

4. penetration into brain tissue through the membranes that protect it from many chemicals that might disturb it (i.e. the brain-blood barrier)

5. association with the proteins whose function they control  [5]

Arrival of the first eighteen children. It does not matter if they left or not.  The thin high building was now haunted by the living; by inebriated teenagers in search of the mystical.

[1] Panhandle Paranormal, “Sunland Hospital.”   6 June 2004.

[2] Goffman, Erving.  Asylums; Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Chicago : Aldine Pub. Co., 1962.

[3] Rosen, Deborah. Mental Geography. Deborah Rosen, 1983.

[4] Panhandle Paranormal, “Sunland Hospital.”   6 June 2004.

[5] Rosen, Deborah. Mental Geography. Deborah Rosen, 1983.


Laura Marchetti is still learning to love oatmeal. She is better at loving sky colors while driving on the 101, making up jokes with a certain 3-year-old, and reading comic books.



“A Natural History of O.P.A.L.” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Laura Marchetti was raised in Ocoee, Florida, and currently lives and works in Los Angeles. She makes paintings and sculptures about growing up steeped in Southern Baptist rituals and linguistics, asking the viewer to consider the residual aspects of indoctrination. She binds books, curates shows, and makes comics. She graduated from California Institute of the Arts in May 2009, with a BFA in Art.


One comment

  1. […] Read my short story, The Natural History of O.P.A.L., here. […]

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