The Ghosts I’ve Carried: My Journey into the Paranormal

History grounds us, provides us with our foundation, and if we listen to its scars and screams, we can learn to accept the ghosts around us — the ones who watch us while we sleep — and learn from them rather than fight their existence. For me, I’ve always felt drawn to medical history and its psychiatric practices, so my journey began there. At a young age, the human body fascinated me, and the more I read, the more I realized that our path to handling trauma and fear was very much born out of trauma and fear.

Five years ago, when I sat down to write my poetry collection, Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, I put myself on a journey. I wanted to go to the places where spirits were broken, where minds were erased. I told myself that if I could see where people were tortured, touch the instruments that left behind invisible marks as well as physical lacerations, I could understand what madness was, both how it was born and how it was bred. What I didn’t expect to find behind the yellow wallpaper was compassion and heartbreak, and I couldn’t have prepared myself for the amount of horror and disgust that followed in its footsteps.

I’ve visited the Museum of Death twice, once in Los Angeles, the other in New Orleans, and I’ve spent my morning praying in Congo Square and fawning over the alters at the Historic Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street. There were afternoon drives out to Philadelphia to study at the Mutter Museum, and there were cemetery walks in the evening to close out the hauntings in my head. But even still, there were three places that stayed with me, their stories and pasts so horrific that even to this day, when I think of them, it’s hard not to feel a coldness in my chest.

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was, and remains to be, one of my favorite stomping grounds for paranormal activity and psychiatric history. Also known as the Weston State Hospital, it was built under the Kirkbride plan and operated from 1864-1994, until it was closed due to overcrowding and the less than humane treatment of its patients. The asylum itself is beautiful, one of the most gorgeous examples of Gothic and Tudor Revival architecture that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. But beauty aside, the hospital has a dark history. It was built to hold 250 patients, but by the 1950s held approximately 2,400. I’ve spent the night there twice, gone on historic and paranormal tours, walked the museum and the grounds myself countless times, and I can assure you, what lies in the shadows of its halls is very much real, and very much alive, albeit not by our conventional standards.

Note: The children trapped there are very eager to play. Bring a flashlight and a toy and you’ll find out soon enough for yourself.

After my stay at the asylum, I wanted something a little more…rough. In all the time I’ve spent at Trans-Allegheny, I’ve never once felt threatened, even though I did have the spirit of an old man scream at me to leave his room once. The West Virginia State Penitentiary gave me exactly what I was looking for, and the nightmares I have now remind me daily that I am not alone. This prison was built with prison labor, the blood and sweat of the inmates buried in the hand-cut sandstone and Gothic Revival architecture from the start. Home to the city of Moundsville, this slice of hell was listed on the Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities list, and much like the asylum, experienced its own share of overcrowding.  I, too, spent the night here with my paranormal team, and we rented out the entire prison for the night. I have never, not once, been so afraid to walk the halls of any building before as the air there is thick with tension and blood. No matter where I went in the prison, I felt eyes on me. Not once did I ever feel alone. I hung out in prison cells, traced artwork on the walls, held hands with my team down in the Sugar Shack, but it wasn’t until I went to the psychiatric ward/infirmary that I met my muse, Hysteria.

Note: I had my best paranormal experience when sitting in solitary confinement in the psychiatric ward. There is also a hydrotherapy tub that is worth checking out…if you can handle the surrounding nail marks on the walls.

Eastern State Penitentiary was next on my list, and how could it not be with it being the home to Al Capone’s prison cell. Also known as Cherry Hill, this prison opened in 1829 and functioned on a platform built around solitary confinement. It instilled practices surrounding reticence and repenting, i.e., if you can’t talk to others, you’ll talk to God, and this will, in fact, save your soul. Hell, prisoners were even hooded if they were moved so they literally couldn’t see or interact with anyone or anything outside of their vaulted, sky-lit cells.

The layout of this prison is exquisite (based on the New York State Auburn System and the Pennsylvania’s System), and while the living conditions were less than desirable, you can almost feel the mental break of its prisoners while walking down the halls. Torture is torture after all, silent or not.

Note: Eastern State has recently opened their medical wing to the public for the first time, so you can expect that I’ll be visiting again soon.

Next on the list was a visit to Fall River, Massachusetts to the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast. Now I don’t know about you folks, but I certainly grew up with the infamous nursery rhyme in my head while I played as a child — Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks — so call it morbid curiosity, but I needed to see where the deaths took place. For those who aren’t familiar with her, Lizzie Borden was an American woman who was tried and acquitted for the murders of her father and stepmother in 1982. Sure, sure everyone has their opinions about whether she did it or not — she totally did — but I will tell you that I slept horribly in this house and never once felt alone. I slept in the maid’s quarters in the attic, and the rocking chair rocked several times through the night, waking me up, as did the sounds of children laughing from the room next door. Fun fact: there were no children saying with me during my visit.

Note: There historical tours are lovely there, and I highly recommend taking one before you spent the night. I did my research and watched a ton of documentaries and read a ton of books, and because of that, it was easier to take the evidence at hand into consideration and walk through an invisible murder scene when I was there. Needless to say, it really heightened the experience!

The last place I want to talk about is Hill View Manor, originally known as the Lawrence County Home for the Aged. This geriatric hospital opened in 1926 and closed its doors in 2004 due to financial issues. While I didn’t have anything happen to me there, the history in its walls is rich and thriving. I sat in a rocking chair in the autopsy room and prayed in their chapel, walked the halls of treatment rooms and storage closets. In fact, one of the coolest experiences I’ve had was going down to the basement and going through the leftover possessions of those who have passed on.

Note: There is a cemetery on the grounds as well, and most of the graves are unmarked.

So yeah, people ask me if I believe in ghosts, my answer is always yes, and I don’t skip a beat when replying. I had my first experience with the paranormal when I was about four or five, and I still feel the woman I saw then around me today. But that’s a story for another time. Today, however, this Halloween, I want to ask you to get in touch with your ghosts, and if you need further proof, I urge you to check out the places I’ve mentioned here. If nothing else, you’ll realize that not all fiends are dead, and that the living is oftentimes more monstrous than anything that goes bump in the night.

Pleasant nightmares.

4 Comments

  • Shara White October 31, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    What a fantastic piece! Stephanie, thank you for sharing your experiences! I equally want to both visit these places and NOT visit these places ever!

    Reply
    • Lane Robins October 31, 2017 at 10:20 pm

      Agreed 100%! This was a great read, and also kind of oddly terrifying. 🙂

      Reply
  • sharonpatry October 31, 2017 at 1:22 pm

    LOVE THIS!!!! #vacationgoals

    Reply
    • Shara White October 31, 2017 at 7:33 pm

      Sharon, I thought of you when I read this. I still want to visit that prison you talked about in Missouri.

      Reply

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