I visited the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virgnia. The prison was built in 1866 and decommissioned in 1995, and now it is used as a museum. During its 129 years of existence the prison executed 94 inmates (85 by hanging and 9 by electrocution), but close to 1,000 other inmates died due to disease and violence. The guide that took us on the tour of the penitentiary regaled us with horrific stomach-churning tales of life in prison. From a mess hall and kitchen awash with maggots, roaches, and rats, and two and sometimes three inmates housed in 5 by 7-foot cells, to corruption, riots, escapes, beatings, stabbings, shootings, suicides, torture, dismemberments, rapes, and grisly botched executions. As we walked the hallways of the penitentiary and our footsteps echoed off its walls, we could vividly imagine the suffering that its denizens experienced for many years. The West Virginia Penitentiary was once listed in the Department of Justice’s “top ten most violent correctional facilities”. One of its nicknames was “Blood Alley”.
Tourism of the West Virginia Penitentiary can serve as a reminder of the history of incarceration in our country and how it is still transitioning to avoid cruel and unusual punishments and to focus on rehabilitation of inmates. But apart from that, this prison has become a hub for a different kind of interest: paranormal tourism and investigations!
Due to its violent past, the prison is said to be a place where paranormal phenomena are common. It has a rich lore of both inmates and guards hearing “voices” in empty rooms or seeing “shadows” or other apparitions walking the halls. Besides its regular tours, the West Virginia Penitentiary offers guided and unguided paranormal tours such as “Public Ghost Hunt”, “North Walk”, and “Thriller Thursdays”. There also are events with actors such as “The Dungeon”, and an escape room experience: “Escape the Pen: The Execution”. Paranormal investigators with their gear can also pay to stay overnight in the most haunted areas of the prison, and the prison hosts paranormal conferences with guests, speakers, vendors, music, and concessions. The prison has been featured in many programs and documentaries. When we asked our guide if he had seen any ghosts during his walks through the prison, he replied in a very matter of fact way that he has been occasionally prodded, poked, and scratched, or has had his cap swatted from his head when there was no one around, but that he has learned to ignore these events. He figured out that these are the things ghost do, so he doesn’t mind them.
So what’s a scientist (that would me me) to make of this? Well, the question is whether you regard the paranormal as a belief or as a physical phenomenon. If it is a belief, then you accept the paranormal as a matter of faith, and that’s the end of that. But if you claim it’s a real physical phenomenon, you have to produce reproducible evidence of high quality if you expect others to accept it.
For example, when you eat and the glucose level in your blood goes up, your pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which increases glucose uptake and metabolism by your organs, which brings the levels of the sugar in the blood back down. You can measure insulin and glucose concentrations in the blood. You can measure insulin release by the pancreas in response to glucose. You can show that insulin triggers glucose uptake and metabolism. You can work with isolated cells, or organs, or whole lab animals, or quantify the process in human beings. Many scientists from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and political and social persuasions, using different sources of funding and methodology, have obtained this result. This is a real physical phenomenon. It is considered settled science. The problem with the paranormal is that evidence of such quality is lacking.
The discipline of the investigation of paranormal events has not unified behind a leading theory or even a set of hypotheses to explain paranormal phenomena within the framework of modern science, and despite decades of “research” by thousands of individuals, paranormal investigation has yet to produce one battle-tested reproducible result that we can all accept as real. The reasons for this are many, and include a multiplicity of criteria regarding what constitutes a paranormal event, and how and when to detect it. Paranormal investigators who keep churning out testimonials, photos, videos, and sound recordings obtained in uncontrolled environments and in a fashion which does not rule out alternative explanations, will never convince any scientists. This is even more true today when there are many sophisticated methods of altering photographs, videos, and recordings.
But there is an even bigger problem with the whole paranormal research field. The West Virginia Penitentiary has over 100,000 paying visitors a year, which represents a sizeable source of income, and many of these visitors are drawn there not merely by the history of the prison, but by its ghostly reputation. The truth is that ghosts, or the possibility that they exist, sells. Paranormal investigators who produce videos or programs must provide their viewers what they want to see if they wish to earn any income. If they produce a string of videos or programs where they come up empty handed, their viewers will get bored and leave. If people are paying to see ghosts, you have to entertain them, you have to give them ghosts, or at least the impression that they may have felt, or seen, or heard something resembling the evidence for one.
With the commercial pressures to sell the existence of ghosts and the potential for self-delusion, dishonesty, and hoaxes, I am afraid that nothing short of capturing an actual ghost or finding one that appears or at least performs its antics regularly in the same place at the time and/or date (and can thus be studied reliably) will convince scientists that ghosts are real. Paranormal investigators may balk at these requirements calling them unfair, but I think that this is the high bar they need to clear to have their findings regarded as real.
The photographs belong to the author and can only be used with permission. Part of the information presented here was obtained from the book: Images of America West Virginia Penitentiary by Jonathan D. Clemins published in 2010 by Arcadia Publishing.