If haunted locales tend to be spooky places imbued with a past saturated with pain, suffering, and death, then the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum of West Virginia certainly qualifies with flying colors. Built between the years of 1858 and 1881, the complex would become a vast, sprawling Gothic Revival and Tudor Revival style building that looms over the landscape looking more like something from a dark fairy tale than a state run institution, and it is so immense that it is considered to be the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in North America. It also had sprawling grounds and farms and livestock, with the intention to make it totally self-sufficient. Of course, considering its creepy gothic façade you know where this is going, and yes, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is incredibly haunted.
Even before the building was completed it was opened as a medical hospital during the Civil War and to psychiatric patients in 1864, and although the psychiatric facility was designed to house only 250 people at first, it was soon overrun with way more patients than they knew what to do with, representing all manner of mental illnesses and psychoses, as well as “epileptics, alcoholics, drug addicts and non-educable mental defectives,” usually all stuffed together 4 or 5 to a room in hideous cramped conditions with no concern whatsoever given to what their problem was or how they would mix. By 1938 the facility was six times over capacity, and by the 1950s there were an estimated 2,600 very troubled individuals living here in absolute squallor. This is perhaps where the facility’s many problems would start.
The living conditions at the asylum were described as nothing short of horrific. Patients lived in filthy, overcrowded conditions, often among their own urine and feces, with squabbles over limited food supplies common. They slept upon freezing floors in unheated dim rooms patrolled by roaches and rats, and there was a lack of sanitation services and lighting. Patients were supposedly known to murder each other and attack staff, and this only exacerbated the abuse staff directed at them. Especially unruly patients were kept in cages like a wild animal or chained to walls, and torture and beatings were allegedly not uncommon.
Adding to all of that is that this was an era in which treatment of the seriously mentally ill was very primitive and barbaric by today’s standards, including lobotomies, electric shock therapy, ice-cold hydrotherapy, in which treatments are thrown into freezing water, as well as treatments using toxic chemicals and others that were highly experimental, using patients like guinea pigs. Drugs that were dispensed were often dangerous concoctions or even hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, and others. In was by all accounts a miserable hell on Earth, and although things got slightly better in more modern times, it was still considered an overcrowded, underfunded facility that was crumbling away and poorly maintained when it was finally officially closed in 1994. Although it still stands today as a museum and tourist attraction, it looks more like a haunted mansion than a place that once was supposed to help people, and it certainly lives up to its grim appearances.
Considering all of the dark history held within these walls and warrens of dim halls and corridors and the overall rather creepy appearance of the place, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum has attracted to it all manner of legends and tales of paranormal phenomena. One persistent tale is that it was all designed according to ancient Masonic designs using stones important from Europe and that it lies on precisely 666 acres of land. More prominent than these stories are the numerous spirits said to remain here, and paranormal activity at the asylum is said to be intense. Moaning, crying, and screams of pain, the disembodied sound of rolling gurneys, banging pipes, or rattling chains, anomalous footsteps, cold spots, and being poked and prodded or even roughly shoved or hit by unseen hands are all par for the course here, especially on the fourth floor, and strange apparitions such as shadow figures and even a black demon dog are also said to prowl about.
There are some especially famous resident ghosts here as well. Apparently one of the most active ghosts at the old asylum is that of a little girl named Lilly, whose mother was once a patient and was born on the premises. There she grew up among the insane and often used a playroom set aside for such children, and sadly died here at a young age. Lilly apparently likes to hang out at the play room or in a darkened corridor that leads to the wing that used to hold violent woman prisoners, perhaps seeking her mother out even in death. She is said to be a playful spirit who will giggle and brush up against or poke visitors, but she is also at times known to wail and cry, which is quite a bit creepier. Other prominent ghosts are that of a Civil War soldier named Jacob who apparently died here, another patient who was brutally murdered by his roommates, and then there is perhaps the most well-known among staff, the ghost called Jim James. It is unclear who James is supposed to be, but he is known for his love of cigarettes, and it is said he will perform paranormal feats if you offer him one. One trick that ghost tour operators often try is placing a mag light on the floor and offering Jim James a cigarette to turn it on or off, which he will occasionally do much to the delight and horror of onlookers. Purportedly Lilly will sometimes do this too, and one Marisa M. Kashino, who tried a ghost tour there says of this in an article for The Washingtonian:
Julia and I set up in a room allegedly haunted by a spirit named Jim James. We placed a Maglite on the floor and asked Jim to turn it on. The light was Julia’s, but I inspected it and it seemed totally ordinary. A few beats passed—then it came on. By itself. I offered Jim a cigarette to turn it back off. It went dark. I don’t smoke, but our guide gave me a couple of cigarettes because she said some of the spirits liked them. We tried the flashlight trick again and again—in a room where Lilly supposedly plays, in a pitch-black corridor once reserved for violent women, in a lobotomy-recovery area—without luck. Even so, exploring the crumbling building and learning its history were plenty thrilling, ghosts or no ghosts.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is often considered one of the most haunted places in the state, if not the country, attracting paranormal researchers from all over the world, and it has been featured on TV programs such as SyFy’s Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters Academy, as well as the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Paranormal Challenge. Looking at this spooky place and taking in its eerie ambiance, it certainly seems that it checks off all of the boxes of a place that should be haunted. Is it? If so, why are these ghosts here? Is it the history of pain saturating it or something else? It is certainly a very spooky place no matter what the answers to these questions may be, and a location with a unique and frightening history that makes it ripe for such tales.