7 Women, 100 Ghosts

When I read the email asking if I wanted to take a weekend road trip to the historic Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum—one of the most haunted asylums in the country, the TV show Ghost Hunters’ favorite client, place of murder, suicide, full-bodied apparitions, and, well, 150 years of bedlam—my immediate response was:

“Hell, yes!”

I wanted to go for several reasons: A fun group of friends. A fascinating learning experience. The adrenaline rush that comes with stepping out of my comfort zone and facing fear. And I’m not sure how to interpret this, but my husband thought a weekend away at the lunatic asylum would be good for me.

Seven of us signed up for the adventure. Reservations were made, along with instructions for the husbands left behind: Don’t forget to feed the kids. The day started dreary and wet, I suppose to set the mood. We packed two cars with overnight bags and the appropriate amount of snacks and “beverages.” A few blown kisses and we were on our way.

So the first thing women talk about when they have a weekend away from their husbands and children is their husbands and children. Sports, ear infections, good or bad teachers. The usual mommy talk. With that and a few other conversations out of the way, we talked about the asylum. Specifically, the numerous “Reasons for Admission 1864–1889.” Here’s a sampling:

Bad habits & political excitement
Deranged Masturbation (in addition to “suppressed masturbation”)
Disappointed affection (as opposed to “seduction & disappointment”)
Egotism
Exposure & quackery
Feebleness of intellect
Imaginary female trouble (not to be confused with “female disease” and “women trouble”)
Indigestion (also asthma, cold, fever, gastritis, and sunstroke)
Jealousy
Kicked in the head by a horse
Menstrual deranged
Novel reading
Parents were cousins
Rumor of husband’s murder or desertion (yes, a rumor was sufficient reason)

We agreed that all of us in the car and most people we know would qualify for a room at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. (Fact: Built between 1858 and 1881, the hospital was designed for 250 patients. In the 1950s it housed over 2,500.)

Somewhere along the 3 ½-hour drive the sun came out. After a majestic drive through mountains about to burst with fall color, we rolled into Weston, West Virginia, and checked in to the hotel. In the spirit of the season, we accessorized with plastic spider rings and named ourselves the Black Widow Brigade. After dinner (with more conversation about husbands and children), it was on to the asylum.

The Black Widow Brigade ready to take on the ghosts.

The Black Widow Brigade ready to take on the ghosts.

Our first stop was Hysteria, the asylum’s October haunted house. (This production takes place in the former tuberculosis building, the basement of which once housed convicts from the Moundsville Prison. Two great reasons to go inside!) Logically, there was no reason to be afraid here. The “ghosts” were college kids with grease paint and wigs, lurking around smoke machines and strobe lights. A well-choreographed scare fest. Not knowing when they were going to jump out—the anticipation—that was the source of terror and adrenaline.

The Weston welcoming committee.

The Weston welcoming committee.

The tallest and bravest of our group, let’s call her Other Cathy, took the lead. I immediately grabbed her purse strap and held on with rigor mortis grip. The other women formed a single-file line behind me and we moved like a human Slinky, expanding and contracting, but never parting. We followed Other Cathy through narrow passageways with blackened walls, around blind corners, up and down creepy stairwells, jumping and screeching at every costumed kid that tried to spook us.

Perhaps because it takes an effort every day not to scream—at the kids, the spouses, the idiot other driver who just cut me off—it was great to have an outlet for some pent-up frustrations.

Here is a translation of my screams:

Ghoul: “I can smell your soul.”
Me: “Dirty dishes go IN THE DISHWASHER!”
Ghoul: “I’ve been waiting for you….”
Me: “HANG UP YOUR WET TOWEL!”
Ghoul: “Your soul belongs to me….”
Me: “Why do I EVEN BOTHER MAKING DINNER?!”
Two ghouls directly in my ears: “Caaaaathy…. CaaaAAAthy…”
Me: “STAY IN YOUR OWN FUCKING LANE!”

The bipolar altering between screams and laughter surely would have had us all committed in 1890. Take your pick of reasons: “dissipation of nerves,” “mental excitement,” or “periodical fits.” After 30 minutes our 7-woman Slinky made it out alive, in one piece. Thankfully, I only peed a little.

Now it was time to face the “real” ghosts. We lined up for a 30-minute flashlight tour of the asylum. Flashlight tour. Meaning: no lights except for the EXIT lights casting a red glow at the end of long, dark corridors. Actual flashlights (or, in 2015, cell phone flashlights) were allowed, but had to be pointed at the floor at all times.

[Editor’s note: I cannot confirm nor deny that there was any alcohol consumption on this night, including the rumor of 3 shots of tequila to recover from the haunted house and prepare for the asylum. There was no evidence of “intemperance.”]

It is difficult to describe the immediate feeling I had upon entering the un-restored mental wards of the Weston Hospital. Even in the dark, the deteriorating interior conjured an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. When I ran my fingers lightly along the bare walls I could almost feel a current—the energy of decades of confinement and suffering. I heard no bumps in the night, saw no unearthly shadows hurtling about, but I definitely felt the weight of those anguished souls.

The violent women's ward at night.

The violent women’s ward at night.

We joked throughout the day and evening that we had to remember to back out of the building—the superstitious way to leave any “attachments” behind. Of course, in all of the excitement most of us forgot to do it. Hopefully, if any unwanted poltergeist came with us, they found the Holiday Inn Express a suitable place for relocation.

The next morning we returned to the asylum for a 90-minute paranormal tour. Driving up the main entrance under a brilliant, clear sky felt more like a visit to a Gothic castle than a mental institute. The building’s stunning architecture—hand-cut sandstone, coped gables, turrets, leaded glass transoms, 200-foot clock tower—disguised the structure’s grim purpose. To me it was beautiful. But what did the committed (or often abandoned) person feel upon seeing the imposing structure for the first time?

The former Weston Hospital is the largest hand-cut stone building in the Western Hemisphere. The only hand-cut stone building larger than it in the world is the Kremlin.

The former Weston Hospital is the largest hand-cut stone building in the Western Hemisphere. The only hand-cut stone building larger than it in the world is the Kremlin.

Inside, a young, less-than-energetic guide led us to specific areas, briefly described the area’s use (arts and crafts wing, lobotomy room, elderly ward, etc.), told a haunted tale or two (here is where so-and-so was pushed from behind, here an EMF meter picked up a strong signal, etc.), and then we were free to explore on our own.

In daylight, the interior of the former hospital is no less bleak than at night. In fact, daylight amplifies the somber history. Curls of paint curls peel off the walls. Frayed curtains hang limp in front of barred windows. Plaster crumbles. Wires dangle from the ceiling. Rusted exposed pipes line 2 ½ miles of empty corridors. Spidery veins spread from cracked windowpanes that at least allow the spirits a draft of fresh air.

The building was designed to let in as much therapeutic sunlight as possible

The building was designed to let in as much therapeutic sunlight as possible.

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As a mother, I found the most sobering section of the hospital to be the infant ward. I didn’t smell the traces of baby powder as others did, but my heart ached for the innocent souls born and raised in this dismal place. If a committed woman was pregnant (or became pregnant—I hate to imagine under what circumstances) her baby was usually deemed ill-suited for society as well. If no family member claimed the baby, and they rarely did, the child grew up in the asylum. They lived in the children’s ward until age 12, then were placed with the adults. I couldn’t begin to imagine a life growing up inside these walls.

Toward the end of the tour, a friend and I were in one of the abandoned storage rooms. Cabinet doors hung open, some off their hinges, as if they’d been ransacked for some apocalypse. Peeling masking tape still labeled the cabinets’ former supplies: gauze eye pads, butterfly closures, tongue depressors. I stood reading the labels with my iPhone in my left hand, my arm relaxed at my side. We heard a voice.

“I’m sorry, I missed that.”

My friend and I looked at each other, our eyes asking the same question: Did you just hear that?

I looked at my phone. The voice was Siri’s. Since I never use Siri, I checked my phone’s settings. “Allow Siri” was definitely turned off, meaning the home button has to be held down to activate it. My fingers were nowhere near the home button.

We remembered to back out of that ward.

A column of light sheds a bit of hope in an otherwise dismal environment. We left Weston already making plans to come back in 2016 for the overnight lock-in.

A column of light sheds a bit of hope in an otherwise dismal environment. We left Weston already making plans to come back in 2016 for the overnight lock-in.

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