MTV's "Fear" and the Haunting of the West Virginia State Penitentiary

According to the MTV show, entitled “Fear”, the old (and now abandoned) West Virginia State Penitentiary is a haven for the ghosts of the prisoners who once were incarcerated there. It certainly seems possible that the deeds of the past could leave a terrible impression on a place such as this... for when compiling a list of the places in America where ghosts are most frequently found, prisons and jails are normally high on the list.

The trauma, terror and pain experienced in a jail cell can leave an indelible mark, as can the terrible deeds that placed the men in these iron and stone cages. Even the horrible events that often occur in the prison can cause the spirits of the men who lived and died there to linger behind.

Nearly every jail is a scene of chaos. They are filled with noise at every hour of the day and night. The cells and corridors echo with shouting, laughter, crying, screaming, cursing and just about every other sound that a human can make. It is has often been said that these sounds can leave an indelible mark on the atmosphere of the location.

The West Virginia State Penitentiary is certainly no different!

The prison was built on the edge of Moundsville in 1866, just three years after West Virginia was admitted to the Union. Within a short time, it was surrounded by the town and the tall stone walls created the illusion that a gothic fortress loomed above the city. The prison remained open for 129 years, finally closing down in 1995. During that time, the structure housed thousands of prisoners. Many lost their lives here, through both state sanctioned executions and during prison violence.

Legends of the area have it that the original prison buildings were constructed on the site a early Native American burial ground. As other such locations have certainly provided more than their share of supernatural events, it's possible that at least some of the reported encounters in the old prison spring from the destroyed burial mound that once stood here.

The prison, which covers more than 20 acres of ground, was originally built using convict labor to house the worst criminals in the state. In addition to the Warden’s Office and residence, the complex had building to house inmates, an Administrations Office, Visitor’s Reception areas, Dining Hall, Chapel, Mail and Laundry rooms, Boiler House, Central Receiving Building, Execution Chamber and the “Hole”, a solitary confinement and punishment area for prisoners who caused problems or committed offenses against other inmates or officials. Two other sections were the “North Hall”, where the most dangerous inmates were housed in solitary cells for 22 hours each day and “Rat Row”, an area of 32 cells that were set aside for informants and witnesses under house arrest.

Located along the north side of the prison was the North Wagon gate, a narrow building that temporarily housed both men and women prisoners at one time wooden trap doors on the second floor were used for hangings in the early days, before the electric chair was put into use. One of the chambers in the prison still houses “Old Sparky”, the prison’s electric chair. Originally, all executions were held in the Death House, a separate building that was located in the north recreation yard. It was removed in 1965 when West Virginia banned public executions.

Just inside of the main entrance on the first floor is a unique addition to the prison. Inside of the first room, where prisoners entered and were searched, was a large wheel by which the prisoners were escorted to their cell. A small opening in the hallway allowed the guard to operate the double, circular cage that was installed in 1894. There was a single entrance to the center cage, which was then spun for the front of the hallway to the corridor. This wheel prevented the prisoners from making a break for freedom down the hall and out the main doors. The latter-day stories of the prison (after it closed down) maintain that this wheel occasionally operated by itself... as though the ghosts of the former prisoners are still arriving to serve their time in the building!

Perhaps the most famous inmate to spend time in this penitentiary was Charles Manson, the infamous cult leader who is still imprisoned today for inciting members of his "Family" to commit the "Helter Skelter" murders of the late 1960's. In the years prior to the closure of the prison, Manson even wrote to the warden on several occasions in hopes of being transferred back here. Apparently, he had relatives living in the area.

The maximum security area was located to the north of the main entrance, and had two levels of cells. The upper row of cells were constructed to hold inmates who were given less time outside. They rarely left the cells and were even forced to eat there. Like the dreaded “Hole”, such solitary conditions often led to suicide.

Death, violence, murder and suicide... each of these can contribute to the haunting of a location, but combine all of them and you have the setting for a truly terrifying spot! At least that is what has been said about the place by those who have investigated the location and who have spent time there after dark. Visitors claim to have experienced the sound of phantom footsteps, voices and noises that have no explanation, inexplicable cold chills, overwhelming feelings of panic and more!

Is the old prison really haunted? Find out for yourself! The West Virginia Penitentiary offers tours of the location that will take you into the darkest corners of the old building! Give them a call for more details at (304) 845-6200!

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Copyright 2000 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

Thanks to T. Walton for additional information.