Real Scary: The Ghosts of Waverly Hills
Locals who dabble in the paranormal have been granted a kind of respectability from Introduction to Ghost Hunting and Advanced Ghost Hunting, courses offered by Lexington Community College's Community Education service. For fifty (intro) or a hundred (advanced) bucks, you too can learn how to catch your thumb or a camera strap in a flash picture and call it a ghost. But the more discerning tightwad paraspychologist would be better served by watching Fox Family's Scariest Places on Earth (Insight Cable Channel 34).
Scariest Places is the latest in a crowded parade of "Reality TV" shows clogging the cable lines of American television. Episodes of Scariest Places have included "Cemetery of the Angry Undead" where two generations of Scots clergymen attempt to exorcise the ghosts in Greyfriars Cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland; an episode entitled "The Senator's House of Sin" dealt not with Gary Condit's booty pad, but a haunted house in New Mexico. The latest entry is Kentucky's own Waverly Hills Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Louisville.
The Waverly Hills episode is scheduled to air October 23rd, just in time for Halloween. Producers would be hard pressed to find a better venue for their program. Keith Age, head of the local chapter of the American Ghost Society, described Waverly Hills as a place deserving of the title Scariest Place on Earth. Cold spots, ghostly figures in windows, recorded voices that demand "Turn off the light!" Light bulbs burn although there has been no electricity at Waverly Hills for 20 years.
Last Spring, Reality TV bestowed its mantle of celebrity on Kentuckian Rodger Bingham on Survivor. Now five young women from Kentucky: Amy Brown, Christina Mattingly, Somer and Brittney Richardson, and Tisha Paine, and one Hoosier, Jessica Schell, have their chance at stardom, if only they can survive the horror that is Reality Television.
The Horror, the Horror
The latest cultural cul-de-sac that TV programmers have traveled down is Fright TV, a brand of reality television that exposes contestants to frightening stimuli in the hopes of plumbing the depths of human nature (or at least selling some crap). Fright TV is especially good TV because the programming itself whips contestants and audiences into an anxious frenzy, increasing the likelihood that viewers will reach for the phone and buy that AB-Rocker, Aussie Nads, or put in a call to Miss Cleo for psychic insider info during the commercial break.
Fright TV is a dubious entry into the Reality TV genre since it concerns itself with encounters with the paranormal, a topic that is decidedly unreal unless you are among the many who think that X-files is a docudrama. That ghosts and hauntings are not usually filed under R for Real begs the question: how real are reality shows?
One argument is that they cease to be reality the moment the camera comes on. This phenomenon, the Hawthorne Effect, is named for a GE plant near Chicago where researchers found that their very presence changed the outcome of a study they were doing on worker productivity.
The most compelling, or at least the loudest entry in the Fright TV genre is Fox Family's Scariest Places on Earth. Allegedly real individuals, or in many cases whole families, visit a new haunted house in each installment.
Scariest Places is hosted by Linda Blair. Having exhausted the subject of demonology in Exorcist I and II and Repossessed, Blair has moved on to ghosts. Blair introduces each segment with nary a hint of vomit or head-spinning, with voiceover narration is provided by Zelda Rubenstein, the tiny, creepy medium from Poltergeist. Psychics and true believers are trotted out for each episode and interviewed about the haunted places about to be visited. Viewers actually interested in ghost hunting have to run a gauntlet of these talking heads to get to the goods, but the actual ghost hunt rarely pays off with anything more than a few creaky doors and some spooky noises. And screaming, lots of screaming.
Scariest Places is at its best when it has a good storyteller aboard. Regardless of their empirical reality, ghosts certainly do exist within a well-crafted story. Episodes like "Satan's Dormitory" about a haunted dorm at Ohio University was especially effective, aided by a Resident Dorm Advisor, who knew the stories and used the dorm's darkly lit halls as merely props for his chilling tale of possession, suicide, and hauntings.
Waverly Hills first opened in 1911 and initially housed only eight patients suffering from tuberculosis, which was treatable only through rest and constant care. By 1926 the sanatorium was completed and had expanded to 400 patients. At the time, Jefferson County had one of the country's highest rates of tuberculosis. The highly contagious bacterial infection required that patients be quarantined, and Waverly Hills provided isolation and had a good reputation for care.
With the discovery of streptomycin by Selman Waksman in 1944, TB was the first of several other 20th-century horrors like poliomyelitis to lose its hold on the American psyche. Today, the TB infection rate in the U.S. is at its lowest point ever, although two million worldwide die of TB every year.
Waverly Hills closed in 1961. The space was used as a nursing home until 1980, but while Waverly Hills TB Sanatorium was a model of patient care, the nursing home was found lacking. The Courier-Journal quoted state regulators in 1980 who reported locked doors to patient rooms, urine puddles in the hallways and "some patients lying unattended for hours; of poorly kept, even falsified medical records; and of roaches in one patient's bowel movement."
One wheelchair-bound patient who had managed to escape her locked room, died when her wheelchair tumbled off a loading dock. Meanwhile, the good folks that ran the place were receiving state Medicaid funds and somehow sleeping soundly.
Since the nursing home's closing, Waverly Hills has been something of a white elephant in Louisville. The renovation required to turn the hospital into a prison made that plan untenable. Tearing it down would be expensive as well. A local artist, Ed Hamilton, had planned to build a 150-foot statue of Christ atop the hospital, but fund-raising by then building owner and itinerant preacher, Bob Alberhasky, fell well short of the $4-8 million price tag required to renovate the buildings and raise the statue. Alas, local pilgrims who want to see a Giant Jesus must go to Rio de Janeiro or Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Finally, the property, listed on the National Register of Historical Places, went up for auction on e-bay last spring right beside vials of Madonna's sweat and WWF chess sets. No one would pay the minimum bid of $495,000. The property was finally purchased by Charles Mattingly for around a quarter of a million dollars, most of which went to paying Alberhasky's back taxes, according to Mattingly.
Mattingly says he is working to renovate the facility in time for a Haunted House this Halloween. He and security guards have to chase off dozens of curiosity seekers every night, most of whom are teenagers and twentysomethings off on a dare or a place to copulate. Signs of these more corporeal visitors are everywhere. The walls of the 800,000 square foot facility are covered with graffiti. Last year, in an enthusiastic experiment in natural selection, a local teenager was seriously injured falling from one of the hospital towers. Mattingly, a bit of a local P. T. Barnum, figures the curious may as well pay for the privilege of being scared.
Chances are they will be scared.
Waverly Hills looks like it came right off the back lot of a forgotten movie studio. The old red brick and stone building stands 5 stories high. A bell tower looms above the roof. Windows and doors of the building are conspicuously empty, like eye sockets staring out over Louisville. When such a daunting man-made presence sits empty long enough, human imaginations will inevitably inhabit it with projections of their own fears.
Over the past half of a century, legends and stories have arisen to fill in the emptiness. A small boy appeared at a recent Halloween Haunted House. He stood off at a distance, holding a tennis ball. When people approached, he asked, "Why are you at my house?" and disappeared (the tennis ball is scheduled to make an appearance on the Scariest Places episode). Faces have been seen peeking out from behind curtains on the third floor.
Ghost Hunter Keith Age says paranormal activity occurs in several places in Waverly Hills: The Morgue, The Tunnels, Room 502, and the Draining Room, where rudimentary preparation of corpses was performed and the bodies were drained of blood. "The first floor is the morgue wing with a corpse holding area, the body trays are still there, the actual morgue, autopsy room, food storage lockers and the draining room. . . In the early 20s TB was so fast spreading and it took so long to embalm a body they would hang them to drain by slitting them from the sternum to the groin and down the leg to the femoral artery in this room. People who were there recall the bodies on gurneys from the fourth floor and going all the way down the body chute which ended at the railroad tracks at Dixie Hwy. This wing is still experiencing a lot of paranormal activity.. . .(EMF) readings have been so high it literally burned an EMF meter in my hand. While the meter is going off we usually get cold air rushing down this hallway and this hallway is completely sealed off and very dark in the daylight."
Room 502 is the favorite of local ghost hunters. "This room has a lot of very strong activity," Age said, "and this is the first place that we had an EMF meter burn up." Legend says a nurse, tired of being sequestered in hospital housing, grew increasingly panicked from the isolation, sickness, and death and hanged herself in Room 502. An urban legend tells of a homeless man who was killed by gangbangers there. Patients who were mentally ill and suffered from TB were housed on the fifth floor. This combination of death and madness is irresistible to curious visitors. A local rock band even took the name "Room 502."
"Vagrants over the years that have broken into the building looking for shelter have told of a nurse that wakes them up with a cold-handed shake and vanishes in front of their eyes," Age said. "You have to remember people literally came to this place to die. Most had no hope of recovering." On some nights, the specter of an old woman can be seen staggering around the building, her wrists and ankles bleeding. In the Tunnel or "Chute," used to transport dead bodies down the hill (lest the other TB patients grow unsettled by parades of hearses), ghostly footsteps can be heard.
Whoever said "art imitates life" surely had it backwards where the paranormal is concerned. Fear left over from every horror film or book and every childhood nightmare reemerges when visitors are confronted with a structure like Waverly Hills. And tuberculosis is a "romantic" disease, killing its victims while they are still young and beautiful: Mimi in La Boheme, Doc Holliday, Keats, the Bronte sisters.
The old hospital has an effect on everyone. Even owner Mattingly admits, "It is really spooky. There are weird things going on up there." Anderson agrees. "It's a legitimately creepy building. It's dark. It's intimidating, stuff is falling from the ceiling and there's graffiti everywhere; 25 years worth of graffiti - a lot of it is frightening. . ." In the midst of all of the paintings of skulls and demons, the number "502" appears all over the graffiti-covered halls as a warning (or an enticement) to go upstairs.
Hear No Evil, See No Evil
Enter the victims.
The six young women arrived at Waverly Hills one hot, summer evening last July with a film crew of four and a dare to stay in the old building until dawn. A guide, Jay Gravette, of the Louisville Ghost Society, filled them in on the history and the horror stories surrounding Waverly Hills. Gravette's job, according to Anderson, was to "Whip them up." He succeeded. By midnight, two of the women "were so disturbed and freaked out they left," Anderson said.
Gravette's job was easy. "They were into the whole idea of being scared," Anderson said, "they didn't want to go up there and have nothing happen. They were mentally primed. Scariest Places didn't have to try very hard to convince these girls the place was haunted. They were ready to believe it."
Often on Scariest Places, contestants are asked to perform tasks, such as retrieving an item from a particularly scary part of a haunted building, but our performers were so scared they refused to perform their "tasks," preferring instead to move about the hospital in a huddle with the film crew.
Hedging their bets, the crew had assistance that was less than metaphysical. "The director had told us the day before," Anderson said, "'okay I'm working with one of the guys,' it was actually the owner's son helping him, but it was real minor stuff. It wasn't anything elaborate. He was basically there to make noise." The owner's son Joe begged to be on board for a chance to terrify his sister, Christina, one of the young women taking the dare.
One trick Joe set up was to play a recording of sound effects in the cafeteria as the women walked around the floor above, but in a lapse of memory that may haunt Joe's future in Hollywood forever, he forgot to bring batteries for the tape recorder.
Other tricks were less troublesome and perhaps more effective, Anderson said. "The morgue gag was the other one that tore them up." The crew had purposely closed the doors during the tour. When the women returned to the morgue later in the night, the drawers had been reopened. Cue screaming.
Based on the women's reactions, no tricks were necessary. Amy Brown claims to have seen a figure of an old man peering out of a second floor window. There were door slams and cold chills. At times she felt she "was surrounded by lots of people. . . it was stuffy." The girls reported "images going past doors, where you'd look and they'd be gone." Lights went off. Bottle caps and tennis balls flew around, apparently without assistance from Joe or anyone else. "I was scared to death," Christina said.
Finally, by about four a.m., the women had seen enough, according to Anderson. "They basically said that if we went out, we're finished and the director said 'okay if you want to leave that's fine you just have to give me a shot of you running screaming from the building.' So they said fine we'll do it. So we went out and set the camera up... it's so silly... out in front, and he said okay, run. Of course, we had to do two takes."
The sublimely scary nature of the hospital immediately struck one visitor; "'oh my God!' æ She made some remark like that," Anderson said. The director, unhappy with the lighting or something, asked the women to re-enter the building. On the next take, "the same woman said 'oh my God!' at the exact same moment. It was like they were doing their lines."
"I think at some level they knew they were on camera, and they have seen this type of show enough that they know what to do. Maybe they were just feeding off one another. One screamed. The other screamed. It just built up to four women hysterically screaming in the hallway."
But perhaps what's most frightening about Waverly Hills is the preternatural silence that pervades the place. We can't change the channel or turn up the volume. The place is too big, too empty, and too quiet. We respond like Poe's traveler in The Fall of the House of Usher, "with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit."
Filling the old place with ghosts and screams and terror obscures what Waverly Hills really is æ an old, empty, hulking reminder of death and disease, specters much more real and frightening than the white-sheet variety.
Tim Arnold is a medical writer at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
|l||Move Over, Kentucky Joe
Kentuckians looking for a hometown boy to root for on the current version of Survivor are left with the surly Tom Buchanan of nearby Rich Valley, Virginia. Buchanan doesn't come close to filling the shoes of Crittenden, Kentucky native Rodger Bingham who lost the last Survivor series but won over fans all over the country.
But fear not, Kentucky Reality TV enthusiasts, there is hope on the horizon. Brandon Salsman, a history teacher at Lexington Catholic High School was a finalist for the upcoming CBS Reality shindig The Amazing Race.
Salsman and Chad Martin, also of Lexington, nearly made the cut for the next incarnation of The Amazing Race and are potential contestants on a future third version of the show. The show teams best friends and couples in a race around the world with typical Reality TV hijinks along the way (think Hope/Crosby's The Road to Morocco meets Apocalypse Now).
Salsman and Martin filled out the contestant application for the show - a ten-page document only slightly less intrusive than a Donald Trump prenup - and sent in a three-minute audition video.
"We tried to be as zany as we could," Salsman said; their video included wacky squirrel wrestling and a harrowing attack by several Jack Russell Terriers.
Producers were impressed by Salsman's and Martin's rodent wrangling, but had a quota to fill: they needed more young marrieds and fewer buddy teams.
Undaunted by their disappointing failure and encouraged by producer reactions, Salsman and Martin are applying for the third season of The Amazing Race, and Salsman has some advice for potential contestants: "Be yourself and hope that's what they want."
Watch out Squirrels. -TA
Merely a week after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., after the news divisions of the major networks were allowed to stand down from their 24-hour coverage of the attacks and their aftermath, "Reality TV" was back on the air. Big Brother 2 and The Amazing Race re-appeared on CBS.
The distance between what passed for Reality on television before September 11, 2001 and what we witnessed on television that day is a good barometer for the change in American culture that has taken place. The banal Eden that was "immunity challenges" and "alliances" is gone, if only temporarily, exchanged for the horror of watching the deaths of nearly 7000 innocent victims.
That chasm is best exemplified by the presumed death of New York City Firefighter Angel Juarbe, who weeks earlier had won on the Fox Reality TV show Murder in Smalltown X. Juarbe's Ladder Company Twelve helped evacuate a hotel next to the World Trade Centers the morning of the attacks. Juarbe is missing and presumed dead.
Will networks persist and will viewers continue to watch Reality TV even now that the shows pale in contrast to real events? According to an Initiative Media Internet survey, 57% of viewers are less interested in Reality TV shows in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, but as the new fall season belatedly began, networks showered viewers with Love Cruise, The Amazing Race, The Mole, and Who Wants to be a Princess?
Americans have voiced a desire for things to "return to normal" after the attacks. Be careful what you wish for. -TA
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