By Kathy Legg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 5, 2008
It rose up out of nowhere. The looming clock tower was like an apparition from some other place and time, and I risked wrecking my car to get a better look at the mammoth stone building atop which it stood. What was this place? And how could I get inside for a closer look? What had been a spur-of-the-moment side trip on the back roads of West Virginia was about to get more than a little strange.
It turned out to be the Weston State Hospital, an enormous mental hospital in Weston, W.Va., begun in 1858 and completed in 1882. It is now the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, a moniker that doesn't sit well with advocates for the mentally impaired. And it was open for tours!
As I was pulling out my credit card to pay for my tour, I did feel a momentary twinge of conscience. Was it ethical to play voyeur in a place where so many undoubtedly had suffered? Possibly not, but there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to see this unbelievable structure, like a castle out of a storybook.
The first patient was admitted in 1864, a female housekeeper from Ohio said to suffer from domestic trouble. The hospital closed in June 1994 and has stood empty since. For 14 years, the ghosts have had the place to themselves. They were free to wander the 2 1/2 miles of corridors in the main building. They could slam any or all of its 906 doors. Actually, I hadn't even thought about ghosts until I began reading the brochures the new owner supplied. In August 2007, the hospital was auctioned off to a Morgantown businessman whose hope is to turn the buildings and grounds into a resort. In the meantime, he has opened the hospital to the public, and it has become a favorite haunt of eager ghost hunters. For the truly brave, nighttime tours begin at 9 and last until 5 a.m. Doug Johnson was to be my guide for my daytime tour. A relaxed, affable guy with a wide grin and sandy bangs brushing his forehead, Doug had at one time been a charge aide at the hospital and had made a career in the field of mental health. There was just one tiny, little thing: He looked remarkably like the demonic doll Chucky.
As luck would have it, Doug and I had the place to ourselves that warm afternoon. In the 200,000 square feet of corridors, treatment rooms and patients' quarters, there were the two of us and the quiet woman at the front desk who took my admission fee.
Doug led me down a long, wide hallway past room after tiny cell-like room, all the while filling me in on the hospital's history. In the early days it was not uncommon for a husband or a family to have a spouse or relative committed for afflictions as vague as cerebral softening, female disease or novel reading. Political excitement, religious enthusiasm and seduction also were symptoms that could merit a few years, or a lifetime, of confinement.
As we walked deeper and deeper into the hospital I learned from Doug that the building, built of blue sandstone by Irish masons, is believed to be the world's second-largest hand-cut stone masonry building. The only other such building that is larger is the Kremlin. Doug's mobile lecture on the history of the treatment of mental illness was riveting. Before the advent of psychotropic drugs, electric shock and lobotomies, there virtually was no treatment other than behavior modification, he said. Patients who couldn't be controlled often were caged. It chilled my heart to picture the anguished children Doug described living their lives caged for their own protection and for that of others.
The state basically abandoned the building in 1996, allowing nature free rein. The dozen years of rain and moisture have taken an alarming toll. Walls are crumbling, and paint hangs from them and the ceilings like the rags of a shroud long buried.
The place was getting to me.
Doug had taken me to the farthest reaches of the hospital. No one knew where I was. My cellphone was in the car. And he was telling me murder stories. "People did die here," he emphasized, and then proceeded to describe the death of one patient at the hands of two others. By this time we had reached the seclusion cells, which once housed violent patients. Doug pointed out the thick metal ring embedded deep in the wall, to which a patient would have been shackled so nurses could attend to him without fear of injury. He had me test the heavy metal mesh of the inner door by pushing against it with all my might. I couldn't budge it. Then he ever so subtly stepped slightly aside, and it was clear from his stance I was meant to step inside. Like the clueless blonde in all the slasher movies, I did.
The doors closed with all the finality of a coffin lid. Um, Doug? Doug? I'm feeling a little weird in here. Doug?
I wouldn't say I burst out of the cell when Doug opened the door after only a few seconds. But I didn't waste any time, either.
After three hours we were back at the main entrance. I was blathering my thanks for a memorable tour and silently counting my lucky stars I had made it back with my sanity and carotid artery intact. Doug suggested I come back for a nighttime ghost hunt. Perhaps then I'd see Old Ruth, who trips the unwary; Jacob, an apparition from the Civil War; or an angry nurse who prowls the halls.
Backing out, I thanked Doug one last time, all the while thinking you really would have to be out of your mind to spend a night in this building.