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AAA World Article

In The Shadows

Our writer braves three of the most haunted places on the planet just to tell you about them.

By Rich Warren

AAA World Article

The east cell block at Ohio State Reformatory
Photo Courtesy of Destination Mansfield

For those who seek a rendezvous with a shadowy specter, your otherworldly wish awaits at a former tuberculosis sanatorium in Kentucky, an abandoned prison in Ohio and a shuttered psychiatric hospital in West Virginia. These sites profess to be among the most haunted places in the world, offering absolute humdingers of spooky stories to substantiate their claims. Just the exterior architecture of these places is enough to send shivers up your spine. Enter if you dare!

Ohio State Reformatory, Mansfield, Ohio
This menacing former house of incarceration, built between 1886 and 1910 and in operation until 1990, has appeared in several films, most notably the 1994 blockbuster The Shawshank Redemption. The mammoth east cell block, six-tiers high with 600 cells, played prominently in the film, as did the ominous exterior with its mix of Richardsonian Romanesque and Victorian Gothic architecture.

Visitors can take a variety of both guided and self-guided tours, including a History Meets Hollywood tour. Especially popular are the two-hour Ghost Walks, which take place at night and roam through most of the facility. During the walks, guests have reported spectral figures photo-bombing their selfies, a sensation of being pushed on the many stairs and the batteries of their cameras rapidly draining of power.

Ohio State Reformatory, Mansfield, Ohio
Ohio State Reformatory at night
Photo Courtesy of Destination Mansfield

Tour guide Becky McKinnell has had many eerie experiences in the reformatory during the 19 years she has been leading visitors through the facility. She’s felt the sensation of walking into a cobweb and seen another guide struck by a dark orb that she says looked like a black tumbleweed. She’s even heard a recording of a spirit assessing her tour. “She talks too much,” the voice said. On the night of my tour, a number of us distinctly smelled cherry tobacco, which McKinnell says is associated with a former long-time warden.

During McKinnell’s Ghost Walks, guests take turns using a dowsing rod to pose “yes” or “no” questions to any spirits that might be present. McKinnell herself uses the rod to keep in touch with a spirit by the name of Mr. Anderson, an inmate who died in 1943, as well as a number of his fellow inmate friends, all of whom she’s discovered are big baseball fans. McKinnell occasionally reads them baseball scores and has even brought a boom box so that they can hear the games narrated on the radio. “They were particularly excited when the Cleveland Indians went to the World Series,” she says.

McKinnell has only ever seen shadowy figures, never full apparitions, and feels no threats when spirits make their presence known. “They’re the residents there, and I respect them,” she says. “They seem very comfortable around me. We’re on the same wavelength.”

Waverly Hills Sanatorium, Louisville, Kentucky
When it opened in 1926 as a tuberculosis sanatorium, Waverly Hills was a state-of-the-art facility offering patients nutritious food, fresh air and ultraviolet-light therapy (which proved ineffective). At least 6,000 patients took their last breath at the sanatorium before it closed in 1961. During periodic spikes in the death rates, as many as one person died per hour.

Even the approach on a winding road to the huge Tudor Gothic Revival structure at the top of a hill is creepy. Nighttime guided tours cover all five floors of the facility, and the swift pace of the tour in which participants walk in single file through near-total darkness is terrifying in itself.

Waverly Hills Sanitorium
Waverly Hill Sanatorium
Photo by Marty Pearl Lou

So are the stories told by the guides. On my tour last summer, our guide, Dale Clark, told us he has seen the entity known as The Creeper, a dark cloud that crawls along the ceilings and floors of the facility, as well as the so-called Big Black, a large, nebulous blob of darkness. He hasn’t seen what are called “doppelgänger” spirits that mimic the appearance, voice and mannerisms of those who encounter them, but he says that several of his fellow guides have witnessed them.

Many of the spookiest stories center on Room 502, a nurse’s station where one pregnant, unwed nurse reportedly hanged herself and another jumped out a window to her death. I noticed a heavy, oppressive atmosphere in that room, especially notable because there were open windows nearby. One floor down, the dimly lit corridors of the fourth floor supposedly teem with spirits. To see them, Clark instructed us to “keep blinking, use your peripheral vision, and don’t stare.” I saw odd swirling shadows on the floor, and I was thankful that they were moving away and not toward us.

Tristate Haunts
Body Chute at Waverly Hill Sanatorium
Photo by Rich Warren

The grand finale of the tour is a glimpse of the infamous Body Chute, a 500-foot-long passageway down the hill where bodies of the deceased were shipped out so that the living patients wouldn’t see the depressing scene of the steady parade of hearses arriving to remove the dead. Our guide’s flashlight could illuminate only a small portion of the chute, making it look as if we were staring into oblivion.

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, Weston, West Virginia
When it closed in 1994, this facility was known as the Weston State Hospital, but the current owners reverted to the name it originally had when it opened in 1864. With a signature 200-foot clock tower and foreboding Gothic Tudor architecture, the enormous structure has wings branching off from wings. The spirits of the hundreds of patients who died during the asylum’s long history allegedly swarm the hallways. Most popular with visitors is a little girl named Lily who occasionally moves dolls or plays a music box placed in a room dedicated to her.

Weston Hospital
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Photo Courtesy of West Virginia Tourism Office

Many of the other spirits are not so benign. Visitors have reported being tripped, having their hair pulled and even finding strange scratches on their arms. Tour guide manager Brandi Butcher says the fourth floor is especially rife with activity—Butcher has befriended a spirit there who likes to collect Matchbox cars—whereas a spirit known as Sarge in the Civil War wing has taken an intense dislike to her. “He’ll run me out of there if he can,” she says. And in the infamous “stabbing bathroom,” where one patient murdered another, Butcher claims that the two spirits, John and Charley, remain and are very social with their guests. “They’re friends now and don’t like to talk about the incident,” Butcher adds.

Weston Hospital
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Photo Courtesy of West Virginia Tourism Office

The scariest thing on the tour I took was when I somehow managed to get separated from the group. With the building’s many wings offering ample opportunities to get hopelessly lost, I decided the best bet was to try to find my way back to the lighted entrance, with only the glow from my iPhone to guide me in the pitch-dark hallways. I made it, of course, and the staff on duty there were able to escort me back to the tour in time to hear many more spooky stories.

Visitors to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum who find the darkened hallways too frightening can opt to take a ghost tour in the daytime or other tours that focus on the building’s history. But just remember, even by daylight, the ghosts can pull your hair.

 

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 edition of AAA World.


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