Does any country do ghost stories as well as the United States? Maybe it’s the New World nature that makes the hauntings seem so visceral. Stories from the States seem poised and ready to jump out of our imagination and do real harm, while European tales have transformed into folklore, so deeply ingrained in our collective conscience that they’re more like Aesop’s fables than real threats. Or maybe it’s the influence of Hollywood that has helped light up our imaginations and how we imagine hauntings.
Whatever the answer, the sheer size of the US and the suffering that’s swept the land from European colonisation to the Civil War, there’s no shortage of hauntings stretching from coast to coast. We’ve found five of the scariest spots in America that will make you want to sleep with the lights on.
The story of Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California
For some people with a ghost on their trails, a few dabs of holy water and burning of sage just won’t do. Take Sarah Winchester for example. She was the heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. She also believed she was being haunted by every restless soul ever killed by a Winchester rifle.
Her fears were affirmed by the untimely death of her husband and infant daughter. But with tragedy came money — lots of it. In 1881, Sarah had an income of $1,000 a day (equivalent to $25,962 today).
She put all that cash into the continuous construction of the Winchester House in San Jose, with the help of a medium who supplied the building plans. The result of this seance-influenced architecture was the Winchester Mansion – a massive Queen Ann Revival-style house. There’s 160 rooms, 10,000 windows, spires, staircases that end at ceilings, secret passages, and doors that open up to 15-foot drops, all aimed at confusing spirits. Perhaps, the most absurd building choice is a decadent array of expensive Tiffany stained-glass windows, carefully placed where they would never catch a ray of light.
The Winchester Mystery House is often cited as being the most haunted place in America. The hammer literally dropped when the eccentric heiress died (of natural causes) in the house itself. Construction halted, but rumors say Sarah Winchester never did stop fussing about her house.
The Grey Lady at Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana
Rumors of the Grey Lady haunting the stacks in Willard Library are rich around Evansville. Indiana’s River City has been populated since 8,000 BC and during the European expansion into the new world, the burgeoning populace would have seen its fair share of bloodshed and turmoil.
The city’s most famous ghost story, though, surrounds the specter so many have spotted in the Willard Library. The library began as a passion project for Willard Carpenter, a former Underground Railroad agent, and it’s now believed that his daughter haunts the ground after her father gave up his estate to his business and the library rather than her.
The building has even set up cameras to try and catch the phantom roaming the halls, although more chilling is the lingering scent of the Grey Lady’s perfume on the air and her poltergeist actions.
The history of Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia
Asylums have become a bit of a horror cliché and Arkham’s done no favours for their name. (You’d think a billionaire would invest in better mental health facilities rather than more creative ways to punch rogues in the face, but you can’t argue with the Batman.)
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was originally meant to hold 250 people, but by the 1950s it was crowded with 2,400 patients. The stonecut building – thought to be the second largest in the world, after the Kremlin – is a National Historic Landmark.
Patients in the 1930s included “epileptics, alcoholics, drug addicts and non-educable mental defectives”. By 1949, The Charleston Gazette was reporting on the asylum’s poor sanitation and insufficient furniture, lighting, and heating. As time passed, conditions worsened. In the 1980s, uncontrollable patients could be found locked in cages.
The asylum was shut down in 1994 and converted to a museum in 2007, although not before police damaged the building’s four stories in a game of paintball in 1999. Since then, the location has been a popular location for ghost hunters and has even featured on shows such as Syfy’s Ghost Hunters and Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures.
The haunting of Littlefield House in Austin, Texas
If it’s Victorian, it’s probably haunted. If someone died there, it’s even more likely to be haunted. If you’ve got frat boys throwing parties in there and messing up your carefully designed interior, you better believe it’s haunted.
Littlefield House in Austin, Texas ticks all of the boxes above and the stories from visitors further confirm that weird things have been going on inside. George and Alice Littlefield had the house built in 1893 and lived happily, even having a Himalayan cedar tree planted with soil from the same region, although Alice later developed a mental illness and lived in a state of paranoia, fearing murder and kidnap. Alice went on to outlive her husband, dying aged 88 in 1935. Her spirit doesn’t seem to have wanted to leave the house, though.
There’s been reports of hearing Alice playing the piano in the house, and residents in the nearby Littlefield Dormitory report feeling chills. Even skeptics have walked away with horror stories, including tales of Alice, the former mistress of the house, haunting photos.
Ghost hunting at Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio
When the location’s been used in a Stephen King adaptation, you know it’s got a darker side to it. Judged “overcrowded and inhumane” the Ohio State Reformatory – sometimes known as the Mansfield Reformatory – was the filming location for The Shawshank Redemption, but while in fiction there’s hope, in reality, there seems to have been none.
The building was designed to help prisoners find salvation through a blend of architectural styles, Victorian Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque, and Queen Anne. But, appearances don’t count for much – during its tenure, more than 200 died there, including two guards who were murdered during attempted prison breaks. The imposing, six-tier high eastern cell block remains the largest of its kind in the world and the stories of changing temperatures and apparitions only add to the horror of the aesthetic.
Looking for haunted places near you?
Not in the United States? Don’t worry – or do – we’ve rounded up Europe’s most haunted spots too. If you’re looking for a more controlled scare then check out Tiqets Halloween events.