I’ve written thousands of words on this website, but to the best of my knowledge spirits—as in ghosts—have never made an appearance on Spiritual Travels. That long drought ends as I tell you about one of the most haunted places in America: Waverly Hills. This may stretch the definition of “spiritual travels” a bit, but my experiences there were intriguing to me and you may find them of interest too.
Some of you might already be familiar with Waverly Hills, a former tuberculosis sanatorium that’s been featured on several of the ghost-hunter shows that proliferate on cable TV. I signed up for a late-night tour in part because I have a long-standing interest in ghosts, a curiosity that dates back to the early years of my writing career when I wrote three collections of ghost stories from eastern Iowa. And I must admit that part of my motivation was simple peer pressure, as a number of my friends in the Midwest Travel Writers Association were going and I didn’t want to be left behind (come to think of it, that’s just the sort of reasoning that got me into trouble in high school).
We set off from our Louisville hotel at 9:30 p.m., late enough that my early-rising husband changed his mind about joining us (the coward). On our drive to the outskirts of the city we grew increasingly boisterous, particularly when we realized that our brave group numbered 13. With so many former English majors in the group, it was probably inevitable that someone would begin quoting the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V (“we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”) I had a more prosaic concern, reminding everyone multiple times that I have a last name. “It’s Erickson–remember that,” I said. “On TV shows it’s always the people without a last name who end up getting killed first in scary places.”
After a half hour we turned into a long and winding driveway that led us to the entrance to Waverly Hills. As we exited the bus, 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 were 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—who works in an auto supply store when he’s not volunteering as a guide at Waverly Hills—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. At the height of its operations, Waverly Hills housed more than 400 TB patients and was considered a model facility using the very latest treatment methods. Before the development of antibiotics, TB patients endured a regimen of fresh air in all seasons and the occasional surgery to remove ribs (it was thought this procedure would make it easier for patients to breathe). Not surprisingly, those treatments didn’t work very well, and thousands of patients died during the 35 years Waverly Hills was in operation.
“Any questions?” Clark asked at the end of his recitation.
“Ever lost anybody on a tour?” asked someone from the back.
“Nope,” Clark said. “That’s why you need to stay close together and do what I say.”
Waverly Hills 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. We kept in a tightly clustered group, with Clark’s assistant bringing up the rear. Nobody was quoting the St. Crispin’s Day speech anymore.
While the building seemed run-down, Clark explained that it actually had undergone quite a few repairs in the past decade. “When the current owners bought the place, every window was broken because for many years this was a favorite place for local kids to party,” he said. “We’ve gradually replaced the window panes and now we have security cameras to catch trespassers. Part of the reason we started offering tours, in fact, was to cut down on trespassers. If people want to see Waverly Hills, they can take a tour instead of break in.”
The main reason visitors come, of course, is not to tour a run-down building but because of the many stories of paranormal activities here. On our expedition through the hospital Clark frequently stopped to tell us about these happenings—voices in empty rooms, ghostly apparitions caught on cameras and other recording devices, odd smells, and unexplained physical sensations. When I asked if he had experienced anything first-hand, he promised to tell us his best story on our way to the fifth floor. “I’ll show you the scar, too,” he added (honestly, how could one resist a teaser like that?).
As we walked the forlorn rooms and hallways of the abandoned sanatorium, I found myself experiencing a blend of creepiness and sadness. This is billed as one of the scariest places on Earth, but to me it seemed more sorrowful than frightening. While many patients who came here recovered, thousands more left via the “body chute” by the main entrance. So much death seemed to have steeped the walls of Waverly Hills in melancholy.
On the stairway leading to the fifth floor, Clark fulfilled his promise by telling us his most dramatic paranormal experience at Waverly Hills. He had been walking up this stairway several years before, he said, when suddenly he felt a strong push from behind, even though he was alone in the stairwell. The shove caused him to fall and hit his shin against the stairs, leaving a scar that he showed us as proof of his ghostly experience. While ghost-caused scars look mighty similar to ordinary ones, I found it quite impressive.
As we entered the fifth floor, 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 then 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. (Another friend reported a strange tingling in her hands that stopped as soon as we exited the room.)
My own intriguing experience came when we headed back down to the floor below and paused in a corridor where visitors sometimes reported seeing what Clark called “shadow people.” There did indeed seem to be some inexplicable flickering shadows, but nothing very dramatic. Dale then 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 creepy, 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 why you should be skeptical of my story. And yet as the two of them walked slowly down the hall towards 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 an abandoned 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 explained that there is talk of renovating Waverly Hills into a hotel, which in my opinion is a monumentally bad idea. For one thing, given its reputation the number of guests who’d want to stay overnight in such a place 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.
We finally emerged from the building around midnight, a bit dazed and tired. “Come back another time and you can spend the entire night inside,” Clark offered. “We rent the building out to groups on weekend evenings.”
No, thank you. I doubt I’ll ever return to Waverly Hills, and I may not ever do another ghost tour. But I was happy to have had the chance to visit this place, to walk along the thin ledge of my fears, and to have an exceedingly unusual travel experience.
Dear readers, what do you think? Was my experience the result of too many mint juleps at Churchill Downs Racetrack earlier in the day? Peer pressure? An over-active imagination? Whatever it was, it still has me thinking about Waverly Hills.