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As Autumn comes to Radford and Halloween is only a month away, RU students have started looking for seasonal sources of entertainment. One of the most popular, St. Albans Sanatorium, is a historic building over the New River, and is well-known to the Radford community. Infamously used as a psychiatric hospital, recently they’ve been doing something new: in order to preserve the building and field costs, they now run haunted houses and ghost hunts.
This year, the representatives from St. Albans Sanatorium plan to host Fairy Tale Nightmares: their new “haunted house experience.”
On their website the staff offers ‘ghost hunts’ at $60 a person, citing “reports of full bodied apparitions, shadow figures, levitating objects, and disembodied (often threatening) voices and physical contact.”
In their background page, St. Albans discusses the old uses of the building- as a boys’ school, and (of course) a sanatorium. They also cite the 1980 murder of Gina Renee Hall, a Radford student enrolled over the summer, as being evidence of possible ghost presence. Although Hall was never in St. Albans, her sister’s car (the vehicle she had been driving) was disposed of at the Pulaski County end of a railroad trestle, near Hazel Hollow Road, after she was killed. (NamUs.gov, a missing persons database, keeps case information on the murder, the first conviction without a body ever to take place in Virginia.) More recently, before it was renovated and opened to the public, the building was used as storage for prom decorations by local schools (although this is not mentioned on the St. Albans website, since it has no bearing on ghostly presences.) St. Albans uses these misfortunes as well as videos on their ‘evidence’ page to claim hauntings, something the students of Radford University have almost all heard of.
Johnny, a Computer Science Sophomore, believes the claims. “I went last year,” he said. When asked if he believed in the ghosts, he said, “Absolutely- I experienced it when I was there. Just weird things happening you couldn’t explain.”
Kelley Oberne, a first year criminal justice grad student, agrees with him. “I think it’s legitimately haunted. It’s a good historical landmark… if it’s really haunted and people are getting hurt, you have to be cautious- at least have someone who went with you inside the building. Don’t go alone. Don’t be that person.”
Dan, a Computer Science sophomore, and Mike, a Geology sophomore weren’t so certain.
“I, personally, haven’t been, and I’m not sure that I buy it, but I have quite a few friends that most definitely do… people will walk out with scratches on the backs of their legs, and people will want to go for Halloween: I would say that if I went, and there was evidence, I would probably believe something was going on,” Dan said.
Mike, his friend, elaborated: “Whether or not there are ghosts: I don’t know. I went through both of them last year, and I didn’t see anything remotely related to mental disease or defect. I mean, there were people that were crazy, but there’s a line between crazy and mentally ill.”
This ‘fine line’ is something that rubs some RU members the wrong way.
In 2011, a group of Psychology graduate students protested the “asylum-themed haunted house” put on by the Mountain Ridge Paranormal Research Society in order to raise funds to save the St. Albans building from demolition, according to WTOP, a local radio station.
According to Mike, recent attractions have included “zombie clowns and ax murderers- neither of those are really mentally ill,” he says. “I don’t think they chose the sanatorium because it’s scary- I think they chose it because it’s old and abandoned. It could be an old abandoned Twinkie factory and scary stuff could go on there.”
Twinkies aside, Halloween events named: The Asylum- A Haunted Experience, and Bloody Valentine’s Weekend have bothered some community members. The Tartan contacted St. Albans through their official facebook page to see if they had a response to allegations that their handing of the sanatorium contributed to negative perceptions of the mentally ill, and was told by them that they felt answering these questions would be “a waste of your, and my time.”
Amanda, a first-year graduate student in the school of Experimental Psychology, remembers the protests made by students from when she was an undergrad.
“I was invited, but I couldn’t go,” she says. “The haunted house was making people with mental illness look almost terrifying. I’m sure that wasn’t their main goal, but that was how it came across… it offended everybody in the Psychology department, especially the Psy D. students, because they worked around or with people who have mental illnesses… so they realized they were just like us. They didn’t think it was fair that the haunted house was stating that we should be scared of people with mental illnesses, and they protested it because it gave people the wrong ideas- that they’re scary, and you need to stay away from them, which is not the case.”
Tucker Winstanley, a junior in Journalism, added to the idea of appropriate representation: “If they’re using it as an Alcatraz-y type of thing, that would be a little more respectful, but if they’re like, ‘oh, here’s the ghost,’ and someone jumps out at you- that’s a little disrespectful. Making light of the peoples’ circumstances that got them there- I don’t believe that’s moral.”
Framing a sanatorium- meant to be a place of recovery and rest- as a place that’s frightening may be a ethically questionable choice. Where there is horror in early medical procedures, there are always questions of treating people who were there by no fault of their own badly.
“My main concern about the situation is that people seem to be speaking in very insensitive ways about people with mental illness,” Deborah Miller, a counselor at RU, said.
“Bottom line is, if your family member were in the former St. Albans, I doubt you’d appreciate having people talking that way about them. Same goes for if you had to go.”