The castellated Gothic West Virginia Penitentiary may appear foreboding and cheerless—just stepping onto the grounds elicits an eerie sense of unease—but if you take a tour, you’ll be talking about it for years to come. It’s no wonder. The West Virginia Penitentiary is considered by many paranormal groups and travel guides to be one of the most haunted prisons in America. Once the most violent prison in the nation, crowded to the brim with maximum-security criminals, the building has seen more enmity and brutality than most. Maybe you believe this past has imbibed its walls with hostile energy and lingering spirits, or maybe you’re just interested in the voluminous history underpinning its sinister reputation. Either way, a trip to the West Virginia Penitentiary is guaranteed to be a memorable experience.
The stories alone are enough to induce chills in even the most stoic visitors. For the better part of 50 years, conditions within the cold stone walls of the penitentiary bred one of the bloodiest penal environments in the country. There were nearly 40 homicides, each one haunting in its own gruesome way. One inmate was attacked by three prisoners who had fashioned dull shivs out of slivers of the cell bars. Another inmate was burned alive in his cell. One man was stabbed to death in the single hour of freedom he got from the confines of his cell each day. Before capital punishment was abolished in 1965, nearly 100 men were executed—nine in an electric chair that inmates made called Old Sparky. In all, the death toll stretched to nearly 1,000 people.
After the penitentary operated for more than 100 years, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that the conditions there constituted cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the prison to be decommissioned. The former prison was leased in 1998 by the Moundsville Economic Development Council and has become a tourist facility. Visitors can come take a historic day tour or take a paranormal tour and stay overnight. The penitentiary is especially well known for its haunted house. The Dungeon of Horrors occurs throughout the month of October and was rated No. 5 in the country in 2017 by Scare Factor. The former prison also has an escape room game called Escape the Pen, where you are given clues to try to get out before your time is up. The site hosts various events throughout the year in the Moundsville Center, which also acts as a training center for corrections facilities throughout the state.