By Bill Lynch, The Charleston Gazette-Mail
Moundsville, W.Va. (AP) – It has been a long time since I believed in actual ghosts, but I was willing to go looking for them at the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, as part of my month of exploring fears.
While I don’t think I’ve ever given up on the possibility that spirits of one kind or another could be lurking unseen in places where bad things had happened, my actual experiences with the supernatural are dubious at best.
I’ve never really gone looking for ghosts, but there was a time when I knew someone who thought a ghost had come looking for her.
Throughout the fall of 1990, stories circulated of a strange shadow trailing people in Wilson Hall at Concord College, where I was a student.
One cold night, my girlfriend Amanda called and told me she and her roommate Brenda were coming over. Now.
I met them outside of my dorm minutes later. Both were in their pajamas and agitated. Brenda had lost a slipper in the 200-yard sprint between the two buildings.
What they thought they saw was a little vague and came out in a jumble, but they quietly stayed in my dorm room with my roommate Mike and me for much of the remaining weeks before Christmas break.
At the end of the semester, Amanda left school. We kept in touch for almost a year through phone calls and letters, but I never saw her again. And I never heard any more about ghosts at Concord College.
Over time, I came to regard the episode as an improbable story told by an unreliable narrator to a likely gullible audience (me).
I stopped believing, but lots of people do, and one of the most haunted places in the state is alleged to be the former West Virginia State Penitentiary.
So I emailed the people who run it, asked if I could come up and maybe spend the night. They said, “sure.’’
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, so I contacted Tim Vickers with Mountain State Paranormal Investigations to get a few pointers and some general advice on looking for ghosts.
At the Shocka-Con horror convention earlier this month, the group had a panel where they talked about debunking alleged hauntings as much as chasing actual ghosts.
Often, they said, there were reasonable, though sometimes weird, explanations for what seemed supernatural.
I liked the healthy skepticism.
Tim told me “haunted’’ attractions sometimes follow a pattern.
“You visit one, they take you around and tell you stories about the place,’’ he said.
Then you’re turned loose in the place to roam around in the dark, and your mind will start filling in the blanks.
As far as entertainment goes, there’s nothing wrong with that, he said.
Tim told me to bring a camera, an audio recorder and a flashlight.
“If you hear something, go see what it is,’’ he said. “Don’t wonder – and just have fun.’’
It took nearly three hours to get to the penitentiary from Charleston, but I couldn’t have asked for a better drive. The weather was nearly perfect for autumn.
Courtesy of the Moundsville Economic Development Council, I was granted several hours to explore the penitentiary.
The council arranged for Steve Hummel, a tour guide and paranormal investigator, to let me in and show me around, if I wanted, or let me wander on my own.
Like practically every other institution of its age and type, the history of the Moundsville Penitentiary is ugly. The foreboding structure housed some of the most violent men to ever draw breath, including a serial killer or two.
Over the retired prison’s 119 years of operation, 94 men were put to death by the state – 85 by hanging and nine by the electric chair.
Many more were killed by their fellow prisoners and, if you believe the stories, maybe by the occasional prison guard.
The murders inside the grounds were typically gruesome – stabbings with improvised knives, men beaten and kicked to death, others hanged in their cells or strangled.
The worst incidents, it is said, happened in the “sugar shack,’’ a subterranean recreation hall used when weather didn’t allow for prisoners to go outside into the walled yard for their meager allotment of fresh air and sunshine.
The broad but low-ceilinged room contained pool tables and a bowling machine, but it was difficult to police. The worst of the prison’s rapes, assaults and murders are alleged to have happened there, but there was scarcely an inch of the prison that wasn’t part of some scene of horror.
It was full-on dark when I arrived. The air had grown cold, and I could see my breath under the lights in the parking lot.
Steve ushered me in and locked the gate behind us. Later he explained that people have been known to show up at all hours, looking to join a tour.
Inside the penitentiary gift shop, he loaned me a flashlight to fill in for the one I’d left on my kitchen counter and then led me to a few places not on the daytime tour, including the prison infirmary and psychiatric ward, and “the hole,’’ a literal dungeon underneath the prison.
These were the places where television ghost hunters had said they’d encountered something.
There were a few places I couldn’t go because they weren’t especially safe, but they were marked.
“If you get into trouble, call the office,’’ he said and then gave me the number. “There’s a menu, and just press to get to the gift shop.’’
Calling for help never works in the movies.
Alone in the dark
Steve waved me on, closed the door leading into the penitentiary behind me, and left me to wander.
I had until midnight.
Originally, staying the entire night was discussed, but it was impractical to do so alone. I had to drive up and back, and sleeping inside the penitentiary seemed like science fiction.
I clicked on the small light I’d been given and set out.
Most of the rooms on the first floor were entirely empty with only uniform, black letters stenciled on the doors to explain they’d once been shops or storage or a classroom.
In the gloom, the flashlight beam emphasized the crumbling decay of the old prison and underlined the lines and cracks in the floors and wall.
The cells, which had caged men, seemed to have suffered the most from time and neglect.
Like layers of skin, the coats of paint added over many years to iron bars had blistered and burst to reveal festering rust, which was slowly spreading everywhere.
No building is ever completely silent, and old buildings are the worst. They never stop settling, and on a cool night, ancient pipes will groan. Water will drip steadily and sound like footsteps walking across a floor.
There are mice and rats that will scurry underfoot or overhead, but remain unseen.
Orphaned sounds echo.
I ambled in the direction of the north wall and the isolation block, a group of cells that housed prisoners being punished for things they’d done while incarcerated.
The entryway led into a commons space used by the prison guards. A couple of steel tables were bolted to the floor, and chain-link fencing formed a protective canopy around the space. It was meant to protect guards from debris hurled from above by prisoners, in the event they escaped their cells.
Such things had happened.
I stood near the tables, but could not will myself to sit down or walk deeper into the cavernous dark, back into the line of cells where terrible men had died screaming.
From the door behind me, something skittered past and ran up the steps. I turned the light toward the noise, jumped and spat out my very best profanity before catching my breath.
It was a young cat, barely more than a kitten, who’d probably come in to get out of the chill.
I laughed weakly, but then backed out of the room. I went outside, stood where I could see lights and the sky, and for the first time in a great, long while, wished for a cigarette.
After a few minutes, I continued on.
Looking for ghosts
I walked the halls, visited the general population cells and made my way down the stone steps into the very bowels of the prison.
I saw nothing, but whenever I walked inside the building, I could not shake the oppressive feeling of being closely followed.
I walked the prison yard to relieve the tension. I walked to where I thought had been the prison death house, where prisoners were hung and later electrocuted for their crimes.
I visited the prison chapel, a small, white building paid for by the prisoners. It was the only place on the property that felt actually abandoned.
Someone had left a microphone on a table.
Outside again, I followed alongside the rough prison walls, imagined attempts to escape and looked at the stars above. It soothed me. I can only imagine what it was like for men resigned here for 20 years.
Turning at the south wall, I looked up at the guard house above the wagon gate, a set of huge, reinforced doors, big enough to allow delivery trucks, heavy equipment or even a tractor trailer.
In the windows of the room above that gate, I saw a dark shape glide from one end to the next.
I stopped, but remembered what Tim had said about my mind playing tricks in the dark. I imagined it was a shadow cast by headlights from a passing car. Maybe a light had hit a derelict chair or forgotten file cabinet.
I watched to see if it would happen again, but nothing.
So I moved on.
I could not bring myself to climb the stairs to the infirmary and the psyche ward. Steve had shown me these rooms and given me some idea of the treatments used there, all of which seemed barbaric and cruel by current standards.
I just didn’t have it left in me.
Instead, I returned to the cell blocks I’d visited before and ducked my head into the sugar shack before deciding I’d had enough.
Steve, waiting behind the glass counter in the brightly lit gift shop told me, “You still have an hour.’’
“A man has to know his limits,’’ I replied. “I’ve had enough, I think.’’
He shrugged. It was all the same to him.
“Did you see anything?’’ He asked.
I shrugged, told him about the cat and said a rabbit out in the yard had spooked me.
We laughed at that.
“But you didn’t see anything?’’ Steve asked.
I told him I’d felt the oppressive paranoia of the place and the unshakable feeling of being watched. That relentless feeling of being pursued had finally been more than I could take.
Then I told him about what I thought I saw above the gate.
“That had to be a headlight or something,’’ I said.
“It’s too high up,’’ Steve said, off-handedly.
He marveled, “You might have seen something after all – an actual apparition.’’
That seemed awfully convenient.
“Nobody would believe that,’’ I said.
I drove home at midnight. I don’t know what I saw.
Photos: Main entrance to the West Virginia State Penitentiary; The Gate House