Each October haunted houses pop up like mushrooms around the United States, elaborately decorated structures designed to scare the bejeezus out of visitors. But at Waverly Hills in Louisville, Ky., I learned that fake blood and grisly props aren’t nearly as interesting as the real thing.
Billed as one of the most haunted places in America, Waverly Hills is a former tuberculosis sanatorium that offers an array of visitor options ranging from a daylight historical tour for the faint of heart to an overnight ghost-hunting expedition for the brave (or perhaps foolhardy). I took the middle road, signing up with some friends for a two-hour tour that began at 10 p.m.
After a half-hour drive from our downtown hotel, we pulled into the long and winding driveway that leads to Waverly Hills. As we exited our vehicle, the Gothic-style structure towered above us, its dark and forbidding appearance muting our laughter into a few nervous titters.
Our first step was to sign release forms (I didn’t read the fine print but I assume it included clauses keeping us from suing in case of ectoplasm stains or damage to our etheric field). Then our guide, Dale Clark, gave us the ground rules. No lingering behind the group or poking into areas that are off-limits. No yelling “boo” at other tour members or tapping them on the shoulder from behind.
Once we had agreed to these guidelines, Clark launched into a history of the sanatorium. The hospital was built between 1924-26 to accommodate the large numbers of area residents with tuberculosis, a malady that was particularly deadly in Louisville because of its humid climate. During Waverly Hill’s 35 years of operation, thousands of patients died within its walls.
The abandoned building was even more eerie on the inside than it appeared on the outside, with rusted lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling, paint peeling off its graffiti-marked walls and a musty smell. As we walked its hallways and rooms, the only illumination came from Clark’s flashlight and a half moon barely visible through the trees.
Along the way, Clark frequently stopped to tell us about paranormal happenings that had been reported in the building — voices in empty rooms, ghostly apparitions caught on cameras and other recording devices, odd smells and unexplained physical sensations. But I must admit my primary reaction was a blend of creepiness and sadness. While Waverly Hills has a reputation as one of the scariest places on Earth, to me it seemed more sorrowful than frightening.
As we entered the fifth floor, though, a friend in the group whispered to me that he suddenly felt an oppressive weight. “Do you feel anything?” he asked. “Not a thing,” I whispered back. But Clark corroborated my friend’s intuition by explaining that a great deal of paranormal activity had been reported in this room over the years, perhaps connected to the suicide of a nurse that had occurred here many years ago.
A few minutes later, I had my own brush with the inexplicable. We had paused in a corridor where visitors sometimes reported seeing what Clark called “shadow people.” He asked for a volunteer and the two of them walked slowly down the hall and back again to the main group, giving us time to compare their real shadows to the supposedly ghostly ones.
That’s when I saw something — perhaps. Let me say first of all that it was late at night. I was tired. I had been walking through a desolate, abandoned building for more than an hour. I had heard multiple stories from someone who clearly believed there are actual ghosts in the place. So there are a host of reasons to be skeptical. And yet as the two of them walked slowly down the hall toward me, I think I saw two white, misty, human-sized forms on either side of them, one brighter than the other, for about four seconds. I was the only one in our group who saw this, which makes me doubt they were lighting effects staged by our guides.
I’ve gone over that scene again and again in my mind, trying to recall exactly what I saw. It probably was my imagination, as I’m pretty gullible even when I’m not in a spooky building late at night. But what I experienced makes me wonder if there isn’t some truth to the stories connected to Waverly Hills.
As we ended our tour, Clark told us there is talk of renovating Waverly Hills into a hotel — surely not a very good idea. Given the building’s reputation, the number of guests who’d want to stay overnight seems limited at best. But I also think it would be a shame to turn this atmospheric ruin of a place into a bright and modern hotel. Waverly Hills is a place to test the limits of our fears, allowing us to peer over the edge into mystery, knowing we’re safe but enjoying the thrill of imagining we’re not.
And on Halloween this year, I’ll be thinking about those shadowy figures I saw in the hallway. Looking back, I’m almost certain they were my imagination — but to be honest, not entirely certain.
— You can go ghost hunting closer to home at the Mason House Inn, a historic hotel in the southeastern Iowa town of Keosauqua. More than 20 ghosts are said to haunt the 1846-built inn, ranging from Harold, a Civil War soldier, to a long-dead cat who likes to curl up on people’s legs as they sleep. Christopher Moon, a paranormal investigator from Colorado, leads several Ghost Hunting 101 classes each year at the Mason House, but even on an ordinary stay at the inn you might experience something out-of-the-ordinary.
— For more information, call (800) 592-3133 or see Masonhouseinn.com. The next Ghost Hunting 101 class will be Nov. 10 and Nov. 11.