Tuesday, May 24, 2011

signs of death and (after)life

location: WAVERLY HILLS SANATORIUM / Louisville, KY

At first glance, I was hardly intimidated by the Waverly Hills Sanatorium. during daylight hours, and from the parking lot entrance, the exterior resembled a state college - uniform brick in routinely square structures. none of the flair i expected from a hospital built in the 1920s. the inside, too, was a letdown. it appeared more as a sign of suburban decay where bored teens went to drink and screw than a place rich in paranormal activity. 

However, its history and mind-bending architectural layout made for an eerie experience, heightened to a frenzy of sound and shadows once the sun disappeared over the Kentucky hills.

WHS opened its doors as a tuberculosis hospital in 1926 and closed in 1961. It then reopened as Woodhaven Mental Facility from ’61 - ’81, after which it was abandoned.  during its run as Waverly Hills, it made its mark as the TB hospital with the highest mortality rate in the country. at its height there were so many deaths that patient morale was terribly low - mostly due to the sight of the hearse driving in and out all day. In an attempt to rectify this, orders were given to have bodies sent to the freight chute - a 500ft long, steeply pitched underground tunnel used for loading heavy supplies into the main building. the bodies of the recently deceased were sent down this chute to the opening below where, if they were lucky, they were picked up by the hearse or a nearby train. however, due to widespread fear of the TB contagion, many unfortunate souls were deserted by their loved ones, leaving them to be dumped into a mass grave across the tracks. this “body chute” is a dark abyss with only a small door at the bottom. the absence of light combined with the folding resonance of deep echos makes this a highly unsettling place to spend any amount time. of course, I was rigging cameras and microphones in there for hours.

The main WHS building was equally disquieting. Four floors of askew hallways, each exactly the same - so much so that everyone at some point was found wandering around the corridors, lost. furthermore, there was only one main hallway on each level, flanked by rooms with wide open windows. this caused endless shadows criss-crossing each other across the hospital floor - an effect that added to one’s disorientation.

The top three floors were designed specifically for TB treatment. Back in the early/mid 1900s, no one knew the proper way to handle the disease, so their methods seem cruel and ill-advised by todays standards. at WHS, these floors have huge open-air terraces running the length of the building. it was believed that fresh air was good for diseased lungs, so nurses would wheel the gurney-bound patients out on to the terraces and leave them there all day - regardless of the weather. There are a few archive photos showing patients outside, covered in snow, while nurses watched from indoors. I wonder who was making use of the shuffleboard court.

Another example of malpractice came from the radical surgeries used to to treat the worst cases. At that time measures went to far as to purposefully collapse the patient’s lungs in an effort to smother the infection. It was here, in this operating room, where i experienced an unexplainable phenomena.

One of the key instruments used by paranormal investigators is a “Mel Meter” - a handheld device which generates a small elecro-magnetic force field around its antenna. If anything breaks the field, the Mel Meter will make a beeping sound. the closer something gets to the antenna itself, the more frantic the meter will beep. If the antenna is touched or grabbed, the meter goes crazy with lights and sounds. Normally, the best use of this is to place it in the middle of the floor and step away, insuring that no one in your party is contaminating the evidence. Then, you start asking questions into the void. If you’re “lucky” the Mel Meter will register a disturbance in the air around it, indicating a presence very very close by. in my eyes, this was modern day snake oil and was immediately skeptical of this machine. but, in the operating room in the middle of the night, that Mel Meter started beeping and flashing. okay, it kinda had me spooked, but still i dismissed it as junk science... that is, until it talked. when used properly, the meter can be a means to communicate with spirits, who can respond to our questions by touching the meter to a series of yes/no questions - like a supernatural morse code.  on this night, i had a complete conversation with the spirit of a patient who died on the operating table at Waverly Hills Sanatorium, gathering information about his life and death through a series of beeps and flashes emanating from an electro-magnet in a pitch-black empty room.

For the remainder of the week, i wandered around the halls of Waverly Hills with an intensified sense of awareness and curiosity. i wanted to speak to every spirit in every room. i wanted to know the secrets of life and death. i wanted to learn from those who have experienced things we can only have nightmares about. i was hoping the investigators i would be working with here felt the same. if you were given the unique opportunity to speak to the dead, would you not seek real answers? instead, most amateur ghost hunters seek only evidence so their line of questioning is superficial at best, and downright mortifying at its worst. in places where the mentally disturbed were abandoned by humanity, it makes no sense to talk to the spirits about YouTube, when more logical interests would be apples or soup.

I began to get very morose in that place. i took to wandering the MC Escher corridors, taking in the simple beauty of decay - whether caused by Mother Nature breaking through the windows to reclaim her children; or from a 15yr old me, a six-pack of Milwalkees Beast and an isolated outlet for solitude and aggression.

Even though the first floor is now an annual haunted house and is painted and propped as such, and the top floors are all dizzingly alike, i was able to uncover otherwise unseen places with their own bizarre history... for instance, there was homeless man and his dog that lived, unnoticed for some time, behind the elevator on the 3rd floor. even after his was discovered, the staff was lenient towards this wayward soul. that is, until he was pushed to his death down the elevator shaft.

I was not the only one to let this place have a depressing effect one me: two nurses committed suicide from the higher floors - the weight of sickness, death and sorrow too much to bare.

At Waverly Hills Sanatorium, I would not find the answers i now sought; nor would i ever return to the peace of ignorant bliss which had previously blinded me. my only choice now is to press on anew in the hopes that my senses, now attuned to a unique frequency, will guide me towards the harmony of insight.

Possibly i will find it at our next location - but, judging by the stories i’ve heard about the upcoming prison, i might not want to be so in tune with another realm...


Monday, May 16, 2011

forms of violence

Location: OHIO STATE REFORMATORY / Mansfield, OH

OSR is a famous place for many reasons: The most obvious being a popular location for films such as The Shawshank Redemption. but, there in another side to its notoriety - one that spans the history books, and into the present. It’s one of pain and suffering; of violence and death... and it and it doesn’t end there.

The night we began setting up for the show, an ominous thunderstorm settled over the prison. For hours, an endless torrent of rain pounded the roof - a sound that was only drowned by the deafening thunder which rolled throughout the cell blocks and dark, empty hallways. the flashes of lightening that immediately followed created the most frightening tricks on the mind. this pattern of incessant rain and back-to-back thunder and lightening continued - impossibly, it seemed -  the entire night of each night we were there. it was only during a few brief moments of reprieve at dusk when I was able to properly explore the grounds and take a few pictures. 

Any available light was detrimental to my photos, for this prison had many black and lonely corners. one such place was Solitary Confinement: three of the darkest hallways you will ever see, each with only one almost-useless window on each floor.

Another room which swallowed daylight was the prison chapel. located on the top floor, adjacent to the West cell block, the chapel was considerable in its scale; yet even with the obvious height advantage and the larger windows, there were only a few moments throughout the day which afforded enough exposure for a photo.

The prison grounds had numerous secret places, only visible during these fleeting moments when the sun fought its way through the opaque sky and revealed them to those interested in finding them.

At over 100 years old, OSR is still a structure to behold - from the outside, it’s gorgeous. the stone masonry is a sublime cohesion of architectural genius and physical prowess. the front section of the facility is innocent-looking enough and housed the offices of the warden and the employees. but, upon closer inspection, the true nature of the behemoth is revealed in the oppressive bars on the windows - even on ones sealed from the inside. 

 Behind the facade are two enormous cell blocks. one of which, the East block, is the largest in the world - six stories of incarceration where over 150,00 inmates over time were stacked upon each other. 

 The unique layout of the prison - a wall of cloudy windows casting helpless light on the stretches of cells - creates a disquieting effect of shadows and shapes. my eyes were constantly adjusting to the surrounding contrasts caused by the single light source and the seemingly endless expanse of bars. 

There were bars on every entrance. in every exit. there were bars on the door to the library, the chapel and even bars from floor to ceiling along the walkway to the cells. i imagined being in one of those small, dank cells, looking out of my cage door - through bars along the catwalk, then through the third layer of iron along the windows - desperately attempting a glimpse of the outside world.... it would be enough to drive a man incredibly mad - which it did.

One memorable tale of an OSR inmate was that of Tomás, an already mentally disturbed man driven further down the path of despair. In the middle of the night, the men inside the West cell block would lie awake, listening to Tomás repeatedly bang his head against the firm iron bars of his cell - the hollow sound reverberating off the epic heights of the ceiling, and come crashing down upon the cold, hard prison floor. after quite some time, Tomás’ torment finally ended when he hung himself in the community shower - the pipe from which remains bent from his weight to this day. 

Another tragic case belonged to the poor soul in cell #13 in the East block. it was here, on the top bunk of this tight, double occupancy cell, where he secretly amassed a sizable quantity flammable liquid - one thimble full at a time. then, one night, as his bunkmate was likely fast asleep, he bathed in the fuel, struck a match, and incinerated himself.

Similar tales are abundant in most of the places we visit. they are used as anchor points for the show’s paranormal researchers to conduct their inquiries into the fate of the human soul. yet, even with this rich vein of human suffering, i find myself disappointed by researchers’ conduct. when i joined this crew, i imagined the goal of a paranormal investigator to be some grand soul-searching endeavor where the end result is either the answer to one of life’s burning questions, or to help those tortured in limbo. however, it appears the end game here is simple confirmation of the unknown, fueled by fear and adrenaline (and ratings), with no honest follow through. the team simply packs up after a night of stirring the agonized memories of a crumbling location, only to move on to the next one - leaving behind only the sound of their collective high-fives echoing through the empty halls.
i suppose this is what “the people” want in their television entertainment: fast-food style programming high in fear calories but low on nutritional value; where the audience can immediately shake off the last hour of horror, turn off the box, and snuggle in bed knowing everyone involved left safely. everyone except for those who have been there for decades, trapped in between two planes of existence we have yet to comprehend on any real level. but who wants to think about that?

 Now, unsure of the point of it all, i travel to our next location: an asylum and turn-of-the-century TB ward with a gruesome history and a body-count so high as to to make the angels weep.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

coup d'espirit

location: ROLLING HILLS ASYLUM, east bethany, NY


     this place is downright terrifying. everything about it: the peeling paint, the ghoulish furniture and decorations, the long dark corridors where clouds of anguished dust linger in the sparse shafts of sunlight which themselves barely resonate through the murky windows... And thats not even the basement. Oh, the basement!

    originally named the Genesee County Poorhouse when it was established in 1827, the institution began as a working farm where the most able-bodied of the inmates (of which included everyone from orphans to the enfeebled to the mentally unstable and even criminals) would work the farm to offset the cost of their care. these government-run poor farms were commonplace in the 19th and early 20th centuries. basically, homeless families, unwanted children and the burdensome elderly were shipped to these poor farms to live out their lives, forgotten by the world at large, and forced to work for their boarding alongside lunatics and the “morally corrupt.” furthermore, after their (undoubtedly grateful) demise, many were dumped into unmarked mass graves behind the main facility. anyone who thinks Social Security is government hand-out program should take a serious look at what the prior alternative was. (I highly recommend reading the full history on the RHA official site). the grounds have been abandoned since the doors closed in 1974 until recently, when the property was bought by Sharon and Jerry Coles. as Sharon told me: “This place has way too much (paranormal) activity going on... I had to buy it.” 
this is where I spent a week of my life.

    on the first day, everyone on the crew knew that something was off. the sky hung heavy over the building. the trees had no leaves and untamed fingers of ivy choked the cracked brick facade. within the walls, the air was stale and any natural light fell in dim pools on the hospital floor - only to quickly decay into shadows leading to the absolute darkness of each endless hallway.  for some unspoken reason, most people chose to work in groups of two as they prepped for the shoot: placing night-vision cameras, microphones and IR lights throughout the buildings’ labyrinth of wings and floors. 

    everyone’s experience here was unique. mine consisted of an overall sense of unease, the genesis of which was unnamable, but was heightened by the bizarre arrangement of furniture sporadically settled in various rooms - their casual manner leaving a sinister shadow on my being. Some rooms felt as if their occupants had simply vanished, leaving their possessions behind. Whereas others held the c
illing air of imminent return -  their hosts having never truly left.

     I find an odd pleasure in the eeriness of the unknown. i want to be afraid, to be insecure and out of control - my senses on high alert. so, in this place, my experience was relatively harmless. the same cannot not be said for others...  

    there was one encounter in which a video engineer and a production assistant were walking in a basement corridor - a long windowless tunnel where the only light comes from what you carry - when they were confronted by a grimy old plastic lunch tray hurtling towards them from the depths of a darkened kitchen. The tray, narrowly missing them, landed on the center of the floor and spun in circles. After a thorough search of the kitchen revealed no obvious source for the projectile nor prankster giggling behind a door, the PA kicked the tray back into the empty room - only to have it immediately come sliding back towards them from the furthest reaches of the all-consuming dark. Understandably, they ran.

    also in the basement was the morgue. at one time a bakery, it’s enormous freezers were soon put to use as storage for the deceased. and, even though the freezers have been inactive for decades, there is an undeniable temperature change the moment one dares to cross the threshold. in here, the darkness was so oppressive it swallowed all light attempting to illuminate its grotesque history.

    there have been countless reports of paranormal activity in RHA, many backed by some form of “evidence.” there are even consistently recurring events, day and night, that are attributed to a number of ex-residents of the asylum. near the end of the shoot, i overheard the owner, Sharon, asking an apparently very active spirit named “Roy” if he was responsible for the incident in the basement kitchen. the answer, according to Sharon, was inconclusive. 

  without hesitation, we packed up the gear and left Rolling Hills Asylum (and Roy) behind - heading on to our next stop: a prison in ohio with a notoriously evil reputation.