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Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is spooky

WESTON, W.Va. -- Haunted places aren't born. They're made. And if ever there were a place in West Virginia that earned the dubious honor of being called haunted, it would be the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, formerly Weston State Hospital.

Nearly a quarter of a mile long and carved from native sandstone, the imposing Victorian-era mental hospital treated and mistreated, housed and incarcerated generations of the ill and the misunderstood.

Stories about the institution and its inhabitants have become legend. Newspaper reports spoke of Weston residents hearing screams coming from the hospital at night -- and the staff says ghosts roam the halls.

"I don't want to believe in ghosts or the supernatural," manager Rebecca Jordan Gleason said, "but I've seen things here that are hard to explain by any other way."

One afternoon when she was on the fourth floor, 40 doors suddenly closed all at once.

"One would be pretty scary," Gleason said. "Forty at once was terrifying."

It all sounds like a pretty convenient story for someone who, for the past six years, has put on what's becoming one of the state's more popular Halloween destinations, but Gleason isn't asking anyone to believe her. People can come and, for $10 per person, they can take the tour and make up their own minds.

A lot of them have.

Bill Slaughter of Buckhannon made a return trip with his family.

"We came up two years ago and bought the VIP package," he said. "There were people everywhere, and you had to wait four hours just to get into the haunted house."

The haunted house is a separate attraction and is overseen by Gleason's brother, John Jordan. It's a mainstream Halloween haunted house with about 65 volunteers waiting on the other side of the creaking door to scare the living daylights out of anyone brave enough to come through.

Last Saturday night, during the asylum's annual fall festival, parking along the West Fork River was packed tightly. Visitors parked wherever they could, pulled up on the sidewalk in front of the grounds or else hoofed it from down the road somewhere.

The crowd easily numbered in the thousands, and the tours of the asylum ballooned from quiet groups of six or eight people to chaotic mobs of nearly 30.

"We saw about 25,000 people last year," Gleason said. "On our busiest nights, we had maybe 2,000 people standing around on the lawn, waiting to get in."

They've even had to turn people away.

"You hate to do something like that," she said.

Fun is fun but, eventually, everybody has to go home, and a lot of the volunteers over at the haunted house have school in the morning.

Visitors to the asylum seem to mostly come from out of town.

"We get a lot of people from Morgantown and Pittsburgh, some from Ohio and people from Charleston and other parts of the state," Gleason said, but acknowledged that locally, they're not a huge hit.

Local people, she said, are wary of the place and aren't especially happy with what her family is doing with the property.

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, later renamed Weston State Hospital, was constructed through the mid-1800s. It was built following the Kirkbride plan, a popular system of asylum design developed by eminent 19th-century psychiatrist and mental-health advocate Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride.

Kirkbride advocated open space, fresh air, sunlight and seclusion from many of the urban pollutants sometimes considered the probable cause of certain mental illnesses. The asylum was surrounded by hundreds of acres, including woods, gardens and farmland. Patients were encouraged to work and help make the facility self-sufficient.

Kirkbride advocated humane treatment of the mentally ill. However, a century of overcrowding, declining public funding and interest, lack of oversight -- as well as numerous treatment fads -- led to scandalous conditions, neglect and the sort of incidents that are the fuel of nightmares.

The hospital closed in 1994 and, nearly two decades later, much of the building's interiors could pass for Hollywood horror movie sets. By the yellow light of tour guide Andrea Lamb's flashlight, it doesn't take much encouragement to imagine there might be things lurking in the corners of the ceiling, watching.

Some of the other guides talk a bit more about spectral experiences and ghostly encounters. In one room, people claimed to have seen a boy standing in a corner. A few of the guides have seen and felt things themselves.

Lamb sticks mostly to the history of the place. Children with Downs syndrome were locked away, along with some with diabetes, epilepsy or those who just happened to like horoscopes a little more than their very religious parents could tolerate.

Some never left.

Lamb said there were decades when the federal government packed rooms full of disabled veterans because they had nowhere else to send them. Before the advent of penicillin, there were wards full of people put away because they had syphilis. In the 1980s, the asylum housed a married couple. They were given a tiny apartment among the patients kept on the first floor.

The couple had AIDS.

"They still weren't sure how it was spread back then," Lamb explained, although she seemed unsure about what became of that couple.

It's a story without an ending. The former asylum has a lot of stories without real endings. Records of the people who lived and died at the Weston hospital are incomplete. Headstones on the property's graveyards are missing or else were never more than numbered bricks.

For decades, the families of patients at the hospital were discouraged from maintaining contact with those committed for treatment.

"They were told, if they ever got a letter from them, to never even open it," Lamb said.

After the hospital closed, would-be developers floated plan after plan to rehabilitate the historic property. Some suggested turning the building into a resort, a hotel or a casino, but nothing much came of them and the property remained unused and decaying for more than a decade.

In 2007, Huntington businessman Joe Jordan bought the property at auction for $1.5 million and brought his children on to help him turn the former hospital around.

Gleason said she remembered her father calling her after the sale and saying, "I just bought an asylum and I'm not sure what to do with it. What do you think?"

The place needed a lot of work -- millions and millions of dollars of work to repair, renovate and remove asbestos.

"But my father is in the demolition and asbestos removal business," Gleason said. "That's what he does, and he could do that for pennies on the dollar."

Since her father purchased the property, Gleason said, they've been steadily making improvements, taming the wild growth on the grounds and repairing what they can or removing what they can't. Just keeping the lights on and taking care of basic maintenance costs a fortune for something the size of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

Gleason said that when her father asked her to manage the property, he asked her if she thought she could raise $4,000 for the upkeep.

She laughed and said, "Ha! $4,000 a month? Sometimes it feels like we need $4,000 a day."

Gleason is certainly trying to come up with the cash. Aside from the seasonal tours, the asylum is used for meetings, rock concerts, dinner theaters, and it attracts many amateur ghost-hunter groups, who pay a premium for the opportunity to go looking for spooks and spirits.

It's also been featured on several ghost-hunting television shows, including SyFy's "Ghost Hunters."

With all the attention paid to the supposed supernatural elements of the former state hospital, Lamb said they try to be respectful of the people who lived and worked here. At the end of the tour, she told a story of a man who'd spent 60 years as a patient there.

He came to the place as a teenager and lived through many medical advancements and breakthroughs, as well as the sad decline of the facility. In 1994, as the hospital was being shut down, old and thoroughly institutionalized, he said he didn't want to leave.

"It was his home," Lamb said.

Unlike some of the other stories she told, Lamb knew what became of the unnamed old man. Like some of the other elderly residents, he didn't have any family to take him in and was sent to another facility.

"He died a few weeks later. He lost his home," Lamb said. "We remind people of that. Whatever else, this place used to be someone's home."

For more information, visit www.trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com or call 304-269-5070. Tickets to the flashlight tours at the asylum start at $10, but there are several packages, including daytime and overnight visits, as well historic and Civil War tours.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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