Hunting the asylum's secrets

Most beds are gone from the asylum in Weston, W.Va., but a few remain.
Most beds are gone from the asylum in Weston, W.Va., but a few remain. (VICKI VALOSIK)

 

Posted: October 28, 2012

WESTON, W.Va. - Though I consider myself an uneasy agnostic when it comes to ghosts, it's 9 o'clock in the evening, and soon my husband and I will be locked in a shuttered, 19th-century insane asylum to spend the witching hours of a cold, soggy West Virginia night seeking out their company.

As we wait shivering on the steps of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, which predates the Civil War, the darkness is penetrated only by a tungsten sliver of light escaping between the mahogany doors. The nine-acre stone building looms over the small town of Weston, W.Va., with the forbidding command of a state penitentiary and the mysterious elegance of an Edwardian mansion.

My husband, Khair, fiddles with the ghost-radar app on his phone, which has alerted us via a glowing green orb to a concentration of paranormal energy just on the other side of one of the building's 921 windows. A just-the-facts-ma'am scientist, Khair is not impressed, even though the app has gotten thousands of positive online reviews from novice and professional ghost hunters.

But when the words "Come in" appear on the screen, he admits, "That's creepy."

I'm inclined to agree, but before I can get back in the car and make a beeline for the Beltway, we hear a key scratching like brittle bones in the arthritic lock, and the front doors swing open. A (thankfully) normal-looking young man in jeans and a fleece jacket smiles and introduces himself as our guide, Mark. We step tentatively into the grandiose, turquoise lobby, the only part of the building that visiting family members were allowed to see during the years patients were admitted (1863 to 1994). We each receive a "certificate of admittance" - Khair for epileptic seizures and me for rabies. I'm thankful it's not for burning his dinner, which Sue Parker, a former nurse at Weston State Hospital (as the asylum was called by the time it closed) and now historical guide, told me happened in the past.

Mark, a veteran of the fighting in Iraq who has been a hobbyist paranormal investigator for nine years, explains that he will walk us through the entire building, pointing out hot spots before cutting us loose until 5 a.m. to conduct our own "hunts." Judging from the equipment some in our group of eight are packing, they've done this before. Mark bolts the door and gives a few pointers: Don't be surprised if you get touched, feel strange breezes, or experience equipment failure. Be sparing with your flashlight because too much light will "keep anyone from coming out."

We pass through a metal door and make our way to the oldest section of the asylum, which was under construction when the Civil War broke out and was used as barracks at times by both Confederate and Union soldiers. Mark's swaying flashlight beam brings shaded details into sharp relief. White paint curls from the walls like sunburned skin. Narrow, rusty pipes cling to the ceiling. And wooden doors hang open at odd angles like menacing invitations. Cold seeps through the stone walls, saturating everything.

The building's "bat-wing" floor plan follows the Kirkbride design, named for Thomas Story Kirkbride, a Philadelphia physician who believed that hospital wings divided into sections set continually farther back from the entrance soothed mental patients with their order and repetitiveness. In the burgeoning 19th-century mental-health industry, his blueprints were used as a model across the country, but with declining support for state institutions, most of the remaining Kirkbride buildings have closed and fallen into disrepair. Now, the hospital smell of disinfectant and disease is long gone, and all that remains is the dank, earthy scent of abandoned concrete and stone.

As we walk the 24 dark wards, Mark regales us with stories of self-locking doors and phantom noises, and describes the asylum's cast of characters: Lili, a 9-year-old girl who is "cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs" and sometimes accepts offerings of chocolate; Dean, who neither hears nor speaks but has been known to give hugs; Chef, a clanger of kitchen pots; and a specter dubbed the "chubby chaser," who sometimes follows Mark's ample frame through the asylum.

I had my reservations about visiting a place that witnessed so much suffering. According to Parker, who worked at Weston State Hospital until 1991, up to 50 lobotomies were once performed in a single day. "At one time, there were 2,600 patients here," she says of the asylum built to accommodate 250. "With that many patients, they couldn't have all been given that one-on-one personal care they should have been, so a lot of tragedies have happened here." When the empty asylum reopened for tours in 2007, the new owners adopted its original name, despite outcries from mental-disability advocates, adding to my fears that the tour would prioritize fun-house thrills over respect for former patients. I'm oddly comforted, though, by the way Mark speaks warmly of the spirits who live here - referring to them as people rather than ghosts. He warns us not to provoke them or ask about their deaths.

"Imagine they don't know they've passed, and you let them know," he says. "That would kinda suck."

Mark stops to point out the auditorium in the middle of the second floor, where the town's first movie was projected and the high school held its proms. It's a reminder that the asylum was once the lifeblood of Weston, a town of 4,200 that still hasn't recovered from the economic blow of the asylum's closure.

The official tour concludes at midnight, leaving us the most "active" hours of the night for our own paranormal investigations. Though Mark's over-the-top stories of the supernatural have actually made me less nervous, when Maggie, a guide-in-training, invites Khair and me to join her, we gladly accept, still not eager to roam the asylum alone.

We head first to the kitchen, hoping to interact with Chef. Khair and I prepare the ghost radar and digital recorder, and Maggie readies her KII meter, a device that measures electromagnetic energy and looks like a toy from the 1980s, combining the simple gray design of a Nintendo Game Boy and the colorful lights of Simon Says.

"Chef, if you're there, could you please light up this little gray box like a Christmas tree?" asks Maggie. It remains dark, like a lump of coal.

She invites me to try. I was voted friendliest by my high school senior class, but I feel suddenly shy about making small talk with a ghost.

"Chef?" I say softly, feeling rather foolish as I fog up the frigid air. "My name is Vicki. Please let us know if you're here."

After a pause, Maggie asks excitedly, "Do you hear that?"

I strain to detect a faint rhythmic noise coming from the shadowy end of the room.

"It sounds like something dripping," says Khair.

"No, it was something banging," Maggie replies with the certainty of a true believer.

The three of us move in a tight clump toward the noise.

"Look." Khair points his flashlight on the ceiling. "It's just water dripping from that pipe."

Maggie's follows his gaze, and her short frame slumps dejectedly as if he had told her there was no Santa Claus.

We continue our hunt, and our efforts are rewarded with the occasional hit on our equipment and a few scattered bangs and creaks. When it comes to ghost hunting, though, your threshold for coincidence and beliefs about the supernatural determine how you interpret these "encounters." As the wee hours wear on, my feet numb with cold, and the wards become dizzyingly similar, like the maze of halls in The Shining, differentiated only by a random wire bed frame or wheelchair eerily parked in the middle of a hallway.

Around 4 o'clock in the morning, in a final effort to make incontestable paranormal contact, we head to the violent ward, a chilling section of the asylum full of seclusion rooms, sites of murders and violent attacks, and concrete smears - messy attempts at covering the evidence of shackles bolted to the walls. Given how much suffering and high emotion took place on this ward, it's no wonder it is said to be the most active floor in the asylum.

We prep our equipment at the nurse's station near a door that has been sandbagged open ever since, according to Mark, it slammed itself shut on his arm.

The KII flashes almost immediately. "Hello?" Maggie says breathlessly. "Is someone there?"

The name "Mike," appears on the ghost radar.

"Mike, are you a nurse?" Maggie asks.

"A patient?"

The lights flick from green to red in the darkness.

"Are you a man?"

Another frenzy of color.

"Are you a woman?" Maggie asks to verify the last response.

One word appears on Khair's screen:

"Enough."

Moonlight sneaks through the metal window grate behind us, illuminating our faces as we exchange nervous glances.

"Do you want us to leave?" Maggie asks.

The KII flashes brilliantly.

"If you want us to leave," Maggie says, "light up the box again."

It remains dark. This is like the moment in every horror movie when I roll my eyes at the characters who have more curiosity - or testosterone - than common sense.

"I think we got our answer," Khair says as we inch backward toward the stairwell and as Maggie gives it one last try.

The next morning, while driving back to Washington, Khair and I replay the night's events. In the light of day, the equipment seems unscientific and the readings coincidental. We decide they were good for an evening's entertainment, but probably little more.

We arrive home around dusk, and I open my laptop to download my recorder's audio files. There's more than an hour of recordings from the group tour and a 5 a.m. interview with Mark - and nothing in between.

All of the files from our hours-long hunt are missing. Despite having checked the red "record" light dozens of times through the night, the "conversation" with Mike, the drips and bangs, and all of our other attempted encounters on multiple wards are simply not there, like they never happened.

When I tell Khair, he says it isn't possible. He saw it recording, too.

Always the scientist, he makes a list of every plausible reason the recordings could be gone, but none of them holds up, considering what we both saw and the difficulty of deleting files on my idiotproof recorder.

I can tell it has gotten under his skin.

"Now, I feel like I want to go back and try it again," he says, a bit too excited.

I guess this is how it starts.


Ghost Hunt in the Mountain State

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum offers a variety of tours that cater to every paranormal comfort level.

If it's a spook-free daytime excursion you're after, historic tours ($35) cover much of the Trans-Allegheny's nine-acre main building and tackle topics such as changing mental-health norms, the use of lobotomies and other now-disgraced psychiatric practices, and the asylum's role in the Civil War.

Or, if you prefer to hide behind the lens of your camera or to capture the beauty of the decaying asylum grounds with your single-lens reflex, you can do either through the photographic tours ($40).

Do you want to enjoy a brief flirtation with the paranormal, but are still prone to nightmares and bed-wetting? You'll want to consider the two-hour guided paranormal tour ($40), where you will be accompanied through the ghostly "hot spots" of the asylum, or the flashlight tour, which amps up the spookiness of the historic tour by setting it in the dark.

If danger is your middle name, or you're out to prove or disprove that the place is haunted, the overnight ghost hunt ($150) is for you. On this one, You'll be locked in the asylum for the eight most "active" hours of the night, given a tour of all floors, and then left to wander the dark halls alone to seek out the spirits. Equipment such as KII electromagnetic-field meters

are available to rent for the

ghost hunts.

Information on all tours can be found on the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum website: trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com/main/hauntings.html.

- Vicki Valosik

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