MOUNDSVILLE - Guests see the former West Virginia Penitentiary looming out of the late evening fog as they approach, its gothic stone parapets casting shadows on the dimly-lit street.
Then they embark on a pitch-black tour lit only by flashlights, featuring stories of more than a dozen grisly murders and executions within the walls.
Stories of botched hangings, deadly riots, vicious attacks, daring escapes and inhumane conditions remain with guests as they are left for five hours to explore the old facility alone in the dark. Lights turn off and on by themselves, strange noises come from the shadows, the air hangs still and visitors feel chills despite the unusually warm late September weather.
West Virginia Penitentiary tour guide Lori O'Neil leads a group of amateur
paranormal investigators through the wagon gate where many condemned prisoners were hanged. -- Daniel Dorsch
"There were 998 documented deaths here from 1866 to 1995," tour guide Lori O'Neil said as she walked the corridors alongside visitors during an all-night ghost hunt on Sept. 18. "That includes murders, deaths from disease, suicides, accidental deaths and executions."
According to O'Neil the penitentiary remains one of the top 10 most popular destinations in the United States for thrill seekers and ghost hunters. On Saturday nights when the Moundsville Economic Development Council offers a large group ghost hunt, O'Neil said at least 60 people show up every week. Private tours like the one on that September evening are usually more intimate with only up to about 20 people.
After the latest night tour was over the guests reflected on what they had experienced. Not being professional ghost hunters, the journey was unique for them.
"I'm not going to lie, I was scared in the boiler room," Weirton resident Katie Newbrough said as she recalled an instance where a flashlight turned off and on by itself, leaving the room in total darkness. "I definitely would not do this by myself."
Despite having what she called a "strange experience" in the psychiatric ward, Follansbee resident Sara Holloway said she was not convinced.
"I'm glad I did it," Holloway said. "But I think it's just me making myself scared most of the time."
"It's worth the lack of sleep," Francis Newbrough said as the clock struck 4 a.m. and the group's energy wore down.
Despite having free reign over the building until 6 a.m., the amateur supernatural investigators left by 4:30 a.m.
For Newell resident Kent Andrew Sayre, the prison was fascinating, but his interest had nothing to do with ghosts.
"It's a marvel of industry, the structure of this prison," Sayre said. "It's just so massive and it worked for so many years and it was built to last with minimal upkeep."
Francis Newbrough said hearing the stories of the prison's dark past set the mood perfectly to make a spooky experience.
"That's what really makes it creepy, the history," Sayre agreed.
One unusual trend O'Neil said she notices among the prison's nocturnal visitors is the fact that most of them come from out of the area.
"It's very seldom we get guests from around here for this," O'Neil said. "Personally, I find it fascinating. You just don't know what went on behind these walls until you take the tour. I don't think anybody's ever left here feeling disappointed."
Further thrills are available for the Halloween season as the annual Dungeon of Horrors recently began. According to MEDC Director Suzanne Park, there are plenty of surprises in store this year even for those who have visited the haunted house before.
"We've made a lot of changes to the haunt this year," Park said. "There are a lot of new and exciting props, technology and scare factors in place this year. We have a lot of our old characters back this year and some new characters that are going to be a lot of fun."
"The haunters that we get are the best," O'Neil said. In addition to giving tours O'Neil said she works on the haunted house alongside penitentiary tours' Internal Coordinator Tom Stiles. She said the haunted house this year features between 50-60 haunters who all pull double duty as technicians and professional spooks.
"They give of their time and they keep coming back," O'Neil said.
Returning after a successful trial last year is the North Hall Walk which takes place parallel to the Dungeon of Horrors. The walk features a 30-minute tour of the older northern part of the prison without spooky decorations but also without lights, much like the ghost hunt tour. Visitors have only a tour guide and a flashlight for the North Hall Walk. North Hall housed the most violent and dangerous criminals and numerous murders occurred there.
"People tell us that is just as scary on a different level," Park said.
The Dungeon of Horrors operates on Fridays and Saturdays now through Nov. 2, with tours starting at 7 p.m. and lasting as long as demanded. Park encouraged those interested to purchase their tickets on www.wvpentours.com.
Sunday Dungeon of Horrors tours begin on Oct. 13 and continue weekly until the season ends.
Oct. 29 has been set aside as a special "Dungeons of Fun" for younger visitors, Park said, featuring a scaled-down version of the haunted house for children age 7-12.
On Oct. 28, the MEDC will host a special Halloween festival for children age 0-6 at the training center featuring games, treats and fun with Dungeon of Horrors haunters present but not creepily attired. All proceeds going to the Shriner's Children's Hospital, Park said.