Everyone has a ghost story, or at least that's how it has always seemed to me. My mother's best friend used to tell a doozy about a soldier she met when she was a bookkeeper in the Air Force. He claimed to be a ghost, then proved it by walking into the middle of a moonlit airfield and disappearing before her eyes. Another friend of my mother's used to bring over a Ouija board when she baby-sat for me. As that plastic pointer whizzed around the board (with seemingly little help from her fingers), she spoke of the messages that the spirit world sent to her on a regular basis.
Blame my mother's friends, blame the hundreds of people who have since answered my favorite question, "Do you believe in ghosts?" with tales of lost loved ones appearing at the foot of their bed or disembodied voices heard in some shadowy hallway. But for as long as I can remember, I've been desperately searching for my own ghost story to tell.
That is how I ended up listening for suspicious sounds in the middle of the night at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, W.Va. The building is rumored to be a hotbed of paranormal activity, and it is easy to understand why. Constructed between 1858 and 1881 to accommodate 250 patients, it housed nearly 10 times that number by the 1950s. They were a discontented bunch, and not just because they were in a mental hospital -- many had been severely mistreated by other violent residents and a few were eventually murdered by them.
The place closed in 1994 (a more modern facility was built in the state), but Weston Mental Hospital, as it was known, has been reborn. Inspired in part by the demand created by popular shows like "Ghost Hunters" and films like "Paranormal Activity," the asylum has for the last six years offered public tours with increasing frequency. A sample includes "October Ghost Hunt" (six and a half hours for $100), "Medical/Forensics/Geriatrics Ghost Hunt" (six and a half hours for $100) and even the fast and budget-friendly "Flashlight Tours" (30 minutes for $10).
There were so many options that I called the phone number listed on the asylum's Web site, trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com, and asked Rebecca, the rough-voiced woman who picked up, which tour would give me my best chance of encountering a spirit. "The 9-to-5 tour," she said. "That's when the best stuff happens around here."
For $100, overnight visitors break into groups and are assigned a guide to tour the four floors and multiple wards of the asylum, attempting to make contact with the spirit world along the way. As if that wasn't promising enough, in the wee hours of the morning, visitors are allowed to wander free, staying up until dawn, in search of ghosts.
Enthralled, I asked Rebecca if there was anything more I could do to up my chances, before spitting out an idea, "What if I brought someone with me, and we camped out in the most haunted part of the building?"
"I'd know just where to put you," she said, giving me an offer that she said was exclusive. "The ward where patients recovered from lobotomies. It's off limits to everyone else. No electricity. No running water. I'm going to make you sign a waiver, cuz if one of you breaks a leg running from a ghost, I ain't going to be responsible. Got it?"
I pretended to think things over, though the truth was Rebecca had me at lobotomies.
A week later, the gothic asylum loomed before me as I rolled up the long drive toward the front doors. Beside me, my boyfriend, Thomas, made the sign of the cross for easily the fifth time since we'd left Manhattan early that morning. When I first told him about the trip, he made it clear I'd have to find some other sucker to come along. Like everybody else, Thomas already had his ghost story -- something to do with a door inexplicably slamming in his father's basement. But after I ticked down a roster of friends, all of whom flat-out refused, Thomas reluctantly agreed to come along. To keep us safe, he brought a pendant blessed by Mother Teresa.
We arrived hours early, and the place was mostly deserted. Waiting for us on a rocker outside the entrance was Miss Sue, a nurse who actually worked at the place from 1966 to 1990. As if to prove it, she wore an old nurse's uniform. Instead of taking us to the lobotomy recovery room, she deposited us in a former office that was freshly painted and had electricity. No self-respecting ghost would be found there, I thought.
When evening finally came, we met our guides, who gathered in a paranormal-free area on the first floor of the asylum that could very well have been a waiting room in any hospital. They showed us their vast array of tools, including electromagnetic frequency meters, motion sensors and something called a spirit box, which mostly seemed to record a lot of static and occasional voices from a nearby radio station. As if that wasn't enough, some of my fellow ghost hunters had apps on their iPhones, like Ghost Radar Classic, that were sensitive to spectral vibrations. And someone carried along a Raggedy Ann doll that was supposed to light up when it sensed paranormal activity.
Our little group would be led around that night by Copperhead, a man with shock-straight hair that looked as if it belonged on Gwyneth Paltrow and tattoos up his arms. The tools that he first chose in our hunt were relatively old-fashioned: flashlights. He led Thomas and me, as well as another couple, down a dark hallway, where he lined four of them on the floor, about 10 feet apart and facing the ceiling, all turned off. When it came to communicating with the beyond, I expected some sort of special language, but Copperhead began speaking in a tone one might use to coax out a recalcitrant teenager who locked himself in the bedroom. "Eddie, I know you're upset with me," he said, "but I'm hoping you'll come on out."
This one-sided conversation carried on for some time, until, at long last, Eddie, a former patient who had a penchant for playing poker, made the flashlight closest to us blink on and off. For one glorious moment, I felt that I was living my very own ghost story. But as Copperhead and Eddie kept shooting the breeze, the skeptic in me surfaced. I found myself wondering if perhaps that flashlight was placed on a specific floorboard with some sort of control hidden beneath it, or if maybe he had a miniature remote.
When Eddie grew tired of chitchat and the flashlight stayed dark, Copperhead relocated our group to a dingy room with mountains of cigarettes on the floor. This, I learned, was something of a tradition: visitors bring smokes to the ghosts in hopes that it might lure them out. When no ghost reached forth from the beyond to communicate with us, or at least to toke on a Marlboro Light, he even pulled out the big guns: "We've got a girl with us, Fred, and I know how you like the ladies."
Amy, the sole woman in our group, later told me that she hadn't felt vulnerable, sitting on the floor in the dark with four men, being used as ghost bait. Not that she'd been in much danger. She was a brunette, and that ghost is said to prefer blondes.
By 2 a.m., I was getting sleepy, and my hopes of coming face to face with a spirit were fading. It was time for Copperhead to take us to the lobotomy recovery room. He led us along a warren of hallways, through a locked rusted cage door and down a flight of stairs. When we stepped into the room, I shined my flashlight to reveal platter-size slivers of paint peeling from the ceiling and shattered glass on the floor. Even though the only ghost I sensed in that room was the Ghost of Asbestos Past, I heeded Thomas's objections to the place, and we settled on a hallway that led to dozens of isolation chambers instead.
As soon as we set up our cots, a strange noise -- like something heavy being dragged across a floor -- started coming from a distant part of the asylum. Thomas sat up and asked if I had heard it. At first, I told him that it was coming from that ghost-free waiting area, which was not far away. But then we heard the sound again, this time unmistakably coming from the space near that rusted cage door that led to the lobotomy area. When we heard the sound a third time, louder than before, Thomas bolted.
He returned with Copperhead. The three of us walked quietly with our flashlights through a series of rooms, some with old hospital equipment still in them and bars on the windows, until we entered a room that had what looked to be roofing material on the floor. Copperhead stepped on it with his boot, and we heard that distinctive dragging sound. We were in the off-limits part of the asylum, where no one else was supposed to be, so that meant the noise we had heard had to be otherworldly. I couldn't help but feel as if we were in a "Scooby-Doo" episode, and at any moment we would figure out who had been trying to scare us away.
But Thomas had no interest in speculating. He soon gathered his things and headed out to the rental car, refusing to come back inside. Eventually I got in the car too. As we pulled out of the driveway, I looked back at the dim lights of the asylum and thought of all the people I knew who had a ghost story to tell. If only I could make myself believe it, I would finally have one too.
John Searles is the author of the new novel "Help for the Haunted."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 13, 2013 2:00 PM