The Dunning Asylum, Chicago

This large facility, built using the Kirkbride Planned Institutions design, is a sprawling complex built on the north side of Chicago lost among rolling farmland. The imposing structure sits atop solid bedrock which is honeycombed with a natural cave system and abandoned coal mine shafts; some have been widened to facilitate easier movement throughout the hospital. A few rooms are used to store goods as the temperature in the tunnels is kept naturally at a cozy 50 degrees.

The largest Kirkbride designed Insane Asylum in the Midwest (4)
A sprawling complex with a well-known but haunting reputation (3)
Full of winding, dark tunnels that seem to go on forever beneath the hospital (3)

The Kirkbride plan is a large scale planning initiative that was in favor at the time and required a huge amount of land to hold the facility. When ground was broken, immediately things began to go wrong. Construction workers were killed accidentally, the lead engineer commit suicide, and the project ran massively over budget. Rumors of the land once being native American holy ground began to spread…never to be proven, or disproven. After nearly five years of construction the facility opened and soon was full of patients. Within a year, collapsing mine shafts caused the collapse of one of the out buildings. As a result, a portion of the underground tunnel system has been sealed off.

Doctor George Zeller became the director of the facility in 1881 and revamped the treatment of patients. His new mental health treatment system was so successful he was given wide leeway and ample money to widen the facility. Over the next ten years he enlarged the facility nearly three times its original size and nearly doubled the patient count. Over time, the facility has been very successful.

However, there has been talk. Rumors persist of patient maltreatment, people disappearing into the tunnels, patients speak of strange people in their rooms, nurses see things they cannot explain, disembodied screams in the middle of the night…..course, no one believes any of this madness. It is merely the talk of insane people.



I used the name of an actual Chicago based insane asylum, it was a smaller one that did not use the Kirkbride system to plan out the hospital, and has long since been torn down. I took the images from another insane asylum, a larger and Kirkbride design, called Danvers State Asylum. Danver is a massive and more imposing image that fits my need for this structure (you can see more images of Danvers here).

I simply stole the name of a real asylum in Chicago. Keep it simple, stupid. 😉

I grew up in Peoria Illinois and near where I grew up is the infamous (least locally) Bartonville Mental Hospital and throughout my childhood I remember playground tales of Zeller and the loony bin at Bartonville, so naturally I wanted an insane asylum in this setting. When I drive past the place today, I still get chills. I think it is just natural, there is a strong connection between the mentally unstable and horror. An insane asylum just…fits. However, I wanted a HUGE one, one I could throw players in and let them get lost. I wanted the ability to expand it on the fly without having that feeling that I changed something, so a huge, sprawling facility too big to explore in a single sitting is perfect. Throw in some tunnels…..hell! This place is an adventure all in itself!


2 thoughts on “The Dunning Asylum, Chicago

  1. Wicked cool. I love the consistent look of your selected images, btw. It’s establishing a perfectly creepy aesthetic Not nearly as Hellboy as I had originally envisioned, which is perfectly fine. The vibe I’m getting now is closer to the classic German silent films from the 20s (as perhaps reinterpreted like in the recent Shadow of the Vampire). Then again, I’m thinking it reminds me of something else entirely, but I can’t quite recall exactly what it might be.

  2. Thanks! I am really having a good time making the characters and the locations (have another one on the docket for this weekend). My aim is to throw out a good set of neatO places that the players can use in their story-jamming. I am aiming to have a very freeform game where the players can literally help form the story as we go along. When I think of Blackwood, I think it is similiar to the movie Constantine, with a good dose of Hellboy, maybe something like “The Thing” (but not alien per se) but then something much darker and sinister tossed into the mix. Maybe the movie “The Mist” too, the absolute horror of the ending is perfectly in line with Blackwood. A good tag line might be: “Sinister. Evil. Unknown…and it wants to kill you.” I am not seeing any campiness or humor much at all. If a character commits suicide due to the things they have seen…I think it would fit perfectly.

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