Former Lunatic Asylum Now a Lure for Ghost Hunters

Normally, Rebecca Jordan will take all the free TV exposure she can get for the psychiatric hospital that she's turned into a tourist attraction known as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. SyFy's "Ghost Hunters." Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures" and "Ghost Stories." Discovery's "Forgotten Planet."

She even hosted an episode of CMT's "My Big Redneck Wedding" on the 307-acre grounds. But she drew the line when producers for A&E's "Paranormal State" called. They didn't want to meet the ghosts behind the 2½-foot thick walls, she says. They wanted to get rid of them.

"And I was like, 'Well, maybe you're not the right fit for me. We do not want to get rid of our spirits! We want them to stay in the building!' "Unless they want to go home," she adds with a laugh. "And then they can go home. I'm not trying to keep anybody here who doesn't want to be here."

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Spirits, after all, make money. And the property that Jordan's father bought three years ago for $1.5 million is now generating enough revenue from overnight public ghost hunts at $100 a person and other types of tours to pay a staff of 33 and fund a never-ending list of maintenance and repair projects.

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The main Gothic Revival building is one of the world's largest hand-cut sandstone structures and a National Historic Landmark. Virginia legislators authorized its construction in 1858, but it wasn't until 1864 that the first patients were admitted.

The hospital repeatedly changed hands during the Civil War, ending up with West Virginia when it became a separate state. Originally intended for 250 patients, it housed nearly 10 times that many during the 1950s.

Known in later years as Weston Hospital, it eventually closed in 1994, when the state moved patients to a more modern facility. Then it stood empty for nearly 15 years, inhabited only by rats, security guards and the occasional paintball-playing trespasser.

In 2008, Jordan's father Joe, a Morgantown asbestos abatement and demolition contractor, bought it at auction for $1.5 million. He's since sunk at least another $1 million into the place, hiring crew after crew to repair the showpiece clock tower, the disintegrating floors and the forever-leaking roofs.

Running the asylum is a family affair. Rebecca handles marketing and sales. Her historian husband applies for grants. Her brother handles advertising and maintains the website. Her 13-year-old daughter, Breonna Childress, is a full-time volunteer who hosts overnight birthday-party ghost hunts with her friends and talks about the day she'll inherit the business.

Mainly by capitalizing on public interest in the paranormal, the Jordans have lured more than 115,000 visitors to the property since they bought it. Chris Richards, director of the Lewis County Convention and Visitors Bureau, calls the following "phenomenal," noting that people are traveling from all over the world to visit Weston.

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The Jordans and local hotels co-sponsor each other, and the operators of gas stations, convenience stores and restaurants all tell Richards that business is up. "We're all tickled to death that someone is in there and using the space and bringing its back to its heyday and letting it be all it can be," she says. "If you love architecture and you love history and you love the paranormal, you're going to love that building, and that's just all there is to it."

Not that there aren't critics. Some mental health advocates were outraged by the name change, and still are. "I still think it is inappropriate to capitalize on the sad history of that place and to promote the stereotypes that are attached often to mental illness," says Ann McDaniel, executive director of the Statewide Independent Living Council.

"There's enough fear out there about people who have mental illness. We don't have to make it scary. "It sensationalizes," McDaniel says. "If they were just educating people, that would be good. But when you have haunted houses ... when you have trails called the 'Psycho Path,' that kind of thing is negative."

About once every six months, Rebecca Jordan gets a call from someone concerned about the name. "And then they book!" she says. "So who cares?"

The Jordan family has experience with mental health issues, she says, and its exhibits educate people on treatments once considered state of the art and now considered horrifying — electroshock therapy, lobotomies, cold-water baths and cage-like cribs that were hung from the ceiling, to name just a few. The seven museum rooms also feature more than 120 pieces of artwork — pottery, paintings, quilts — that patients made in therapy.

Disassembled for the winter, when the building is cold and damp, the displays include the superintendent's books, nurses' logs and more. The asylum is working with West Virginia University to create an interactive exhibit featuring story boards, photos and recorded interviews with former patients and staff. And the museum is a popular stop with not only junior high and high school history classes, but also nursing and abnormal psychology students.

"Primarily, there were people here who were trying to make it better for the mentally ill," Jordan says. "But there were still people who believed in what they called 'thump therapy' ... and that's just the people who came in angry and would just beat the patients. Unfortunately, that did happen."

The key to the Jordans' success so far has been a diversity of offerings, from Civil War and hospital history tours, to "mud bogs" for four-wheelers and trucks, and a 25-band Moonstruck Music Festival. It hosts year-round paranormal tours and ghost hunts, even inviting TV celebrities to give seminars and lead special private hunts.

Jordan says the asylum is making about $600,000 or $700,000 a year now, but she still doesn't take a salary, and every dollar goes back into the business.

"And I'm fine with that," she says. "As long as we're able to keep the building open."

At the end of October, her payroll totaled about $161,000. But maintenance expenses were more than $295,000 — and that was before the wintertime shutdown and the ramping-up of repairs. And so she adds attractions, with an eye to running a year-round business in 2012. In the spring, she'll open three new museum rooms, plus a Macabre Museum "with all the oddities, all the strange stories" in the basement.

Jordan's also working with bus companies on a "Kooky Christmas" and dinner-theater tour that will keep people coming through next winter. But she faces on expensive hurdle: The unheated building is frigid, colder inside on a rainy December day than it is outside. Employee Eric Skinner leans over and fake-whispers in Jordan's ear.

"If you heat it," he tells her, "they will come."