Haunting Tales from a Local Paranormal Investigator

It’s that time of the year where everyone is watching scary movies, going to haunted houses, and doing all the spooky activities, but did you know there is a local paranormal team based out of the Ohio Valley? Moundsville native Ryan Zacherl has been investigating the unknown since high school while volunteering and working at the nearby West Virginia Penitentiary. During his time at the penitentiary, it opened his eyes to the paranormal which ultimately led him to diving full force into the paranormal.

Ryan Zacherl
Ryan Zacherl

I attended high school with Ryan, where we both were a part of the broadcasting class. Many of his projects revolved around the paranormal investigating he and his friends were doing in our sleepy little town of Moundsville. While I was being lectured about staying up late due to watching paranormal shows on TV, Ryan was creating his own in his spare time with his group, Paranormal Quest. I recently caught up with Ryan to learn more about the work his team has been doing as well as some tips for those who might be interested in pursuing their own investigations.

Paranormal Beginnings

Ryan was drawn to paranormal investigation after going on his first ghost hunt during his freshman year of high school in 2008. Thanks to Lori O’Neil, a paranormal guide at the Penitentiary, he immediately became enamored by the strange and unexplained events that happened in the prison. His ghost hunt took place in Moundsville, home to one of America’s most violent prisons, the West Virginia Penitentiary. The penitentiary was a maximum-security prison for 129 years and has a deep, dark and violent history. Ryan volunteered at the penitentiary, helping with the historical and paranormal tours frequented by tourists. During his time volunteering, he met a mother and son duo, Polly and Dave Gear, who saw his interest in the otherworldly and took him under their wing by allowing him to join their group Mountaineer Paranormal. “Polly and Dave helped teach me the best ways to capture paranormal activity when strange phenomena presented itself,” said Ryan. “Polly is locally famous for capturing one of the most quintessential examples of paranormal evidence the West Virginia Penitentiary has ever produced, ‘The Shadow Man’ photograph.”

Shadow Man
Image credit: Polly Gear, Mountaineer Paranormal

Ryan strongly credits Lori, Polly, and Dave for helping him begin his journey into the paranormal. In March 2009, his interest in paranormal experience would be cemented permanently after a life-changing experience during an investigation. Ryan and friend, Joe Richmond, were in a psych ward alone together capturing an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) session when they heard a sound Ryan can only describe as deafening. The sheer volume of the sound was so palpable he said it sounded as if waves had crashed over them. In that moment, shock didn’t even cover what he was feeling but they sat in silence for what felt like eons but was truly only seconds.

Luckily their digital recorder captured the entire event, so they grabbed the recorder and regrouped at the bottom of the stairs to discuss what happened. Ryan describes what happened, “When I listened to the audio file, captured by my digital voice recorder, I discovered more unexplainable phenomena within the sound waves. Just after the loud blast, there is a much softer sound that identically resembles an object made of both plastic and metal hitting the concrete floor. That was when Joe and I started to put the pieces together. Was this a shotgun blast in the room with us? We were alone. That was when we discovered the most chilling piece of the puzzle. A faint but authoritative, human tone, voice. A voice that says, ‘I told you not to make a move.’” This is when Ryan had discovered his passion and hasn’t looked back since.

In September 2010, he established the group Paranormal Quest with two of his best friends, Dave Gear and Steve Hummel. The trio has gone on to create documentary videos to allow people to follow along on their investigations. A decade later, Paranormal Quest has 60,000 subscribers on YouTube and thousands of viewers on Amazon Prime Video.

Paranormal Quest
The Paranormal Quest Team (left to right): Dave Gear, Jason McKinney, Ryan Zacherl, and Steve Hummel) Photo provided by Ryan Zacherl.

Investigating Local Lore

When I asked Ryan about his favorite investigations, he said that while each event is unique, there are a few stories that stand out among the rest. The first took place here in Wheeling when the Paranormal Quest (PQ) team visited the former home of Kristen Anderson. Kristen went missing from her friend’s apartment in Martins Ferry after leaving her husband, James Anderson. She was never seen or heard from again and to this day she has not been found. Tragically, her husband James committed suicide in the living room of their Wheeling home after admitting to killing his wife and stating, “I put her in a place you’ll never find her”.

Wheeling Haunted House
The house in Wheeling investigated by the Paranormal Quest Team.

Since this incident, the home has sat empty and the current owner was kind enough to let PQ perform an investigation inside the house in hopes of communicating with James or Kristen to find where she could be located. During the investigation, the team brought in Molly, a friend who also happened to be a medium. Molly had no previous knowledge of the history of the home and the tragedy that struck, but she was able to retell the story using only her psychic gifts. During their visit, Ryan recounts that they captured strange voices, footsteps and their equipment led them to the conclusion the house was truly haunted by its past.

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The second paranormal event Ryan recounts took place in a tiny log cabin tucked away in the mountains of Southern West Virginia for investigation they titled, “The Cursed Cabin.” Polly and Dave had traveled to this same cabin many times over the past 15 years and had a firm suspicion this cabin would be the most haunted place they’d ever investigate. The family who owns the cabin not only believes that it is haunted, but that it is also cursed, as almost a dozen of their friends or family who have visited the cabin all have died of mysterious circumstances either while living in the cabin or shortly after leaving to live elsewhere. Those who are considered victims of the cabin’s curse were generally in good health and not elderly.

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Polly and Dave believe to have experienced this curse first-hand, making the cabin a must-see location to investigate for the Paranormal Quest team. This investigation was so profound that it turned into a three-part series on the Paranormal Quest Youtube channel and was even featured on the Travel Channel series Paranormal Caught on Camera. Recalling this particular investigation, Ryan said, “We experienced extreme paranormal activity that included disembodied voices, emf spikes, objects moving, and Jason was even scratched across his back. It appeared this family wasn’t lying, and they had very good reason to be absolutely terrified of this cabin.”

“The most bizarre occurrence happened after we concluded our investigation and in the following days,” said Ryan. One of the paranormal investigators from Mountaineer Paranormal, Rena Lambert, discovered a coin in her jacket pocket while they were packing up equipment. The coin wasn’t anything Rena had ever seen before in her life, and that’s because it was from Israel. No one on the crew had been to Israel and could not explain how it ended up in her pocket. Shortly after the investigation and Rena discovering the coin, she was hospitalized with symptoms of a heart attack. Doctors were unable to find an arterial blockage and all of her tests came back negative leaving the doctors unable to find an explanation for her symptoms. Rena was released from the hospital with no answers but her symptoms subsided. This left all of the crew terrified.

Addressing the Skeptics

Who hasn’t had a long conversation with friends that eventually leads to a debate over whether or not ghosts are real? I decided to get Ryan’s point of view on people believing in the paranormal. Ryan said, “It really just depends on their own personal opinions. Some people accept the paranormal but do not believe in ghosts. Others believe that both are a farce.” Ryan notes, “Believing in the paranormal does not in any way mean that ghosts are real. By definition, ‘paranormal’ means ‘not normal’. Paranormal investigation, at its core, is about finding explanations for unexplainable activity. The answer may not necessarily be ‘a ghost made it happen.’ So generally, I find middle ground with a skeptic by sharing the evidence that I’ve captured, and helping them see that there are things in this world we don’t fully understand.”

Ryan Zacherl
Ryan at the West Virginia Penitentiary.

There are a few different theories he references to people who may be skeptical, those are The Stone Tape Theory, String Theory and other scientifically-based theories to help explain things that may go bump in the night. Ryan so greatly says, “Once we as a species concede to the fact that we don’t have all the answers, we can start to find explanations to enhance our understanding. As for the question, ‘are ghosts real?’… I don’t even have an answer to that. The way in which they are portrayed in fictional movies and TV shows is just that, fiction. Is there an afterlife where we can communicate with the living and consciousness lives on? I don’t know. If I did know, there would be no point in continuing to investigate the paranormal. Why would I investigate something, when I believe I know the answer? I guess my point is, we all have to be skeptics. The mystery is the most fascinating part.”

Start Your Own Investigation

With Halloween creeping up, I asked Ryan where I could have a haunted experience locally. He suggested the former West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville since it is considered to be one of the most haunted locations in America. West Virginia is also the home to one of the most haunted asylums in the world and is a two-hour drive from Wheeling. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, located in Weston, WV, is the second-largest sandstone structure in the world and was the state’s mental hospital for over 100 years. The asylum is said to be haunted by the dark history of the development of mental health care with procedures such as lobotomies, electroshock treatments, brain surgeries and abuse.

West Virginia Penitentiary
The West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville.

Additionally, just across the river in Bellaire, OH sits The Bellaire House, a home that was built by a family stricken with grief. “In that grief, séances were performed to contact the lost family members and it is believed portals were opened to the spirit world. Today, The Bellaire House is thought to be one of the most haunted houses in the country or even the world,” said Ryan. To book a tour to investigate you can contact the owner, Kristin Lee.

Regardless of where you end up exploring, Ryan expressed how important it is to not trespass, “There are so many haunted buildings, cemeteries, and public spaces where you can gain permission to perform a paranormal investigation. Sneaking into private property without permission to look for ghosts is not only disrespectful, but it’s dangerous and illegal. As paranormal investigators, we need to have respect for the property owners and gain permission to enter the establishments. Only then can we all share the evidence we capture and search for answers in this strange and mysterious world.”

Ryan’s advice to anyone who wants to get involved in paranormal investigation is to start simple and don’t spend thousands of dollars and fancy or flashy equipment as it’s unnecessary to capture unexplainable activity and can be easily misused. He suggests, “Like any hobby or fascination, you have to learn as you go. When I first started, I was just a 14-year-old with a digital voice recorder. With that, I was able to capture a piece of paranormal evidence that after 12 years still sends chills up my spine. As you learn through experience, you can keep collecting more equipment and incorporate it into your investigations.” Always keep a skeptical mind, and remember not everything you see or hear is paranormal, that’s where the investigating comes in.

Miranda Tharp grew up in Moundsville, WV, and has lived in Wheeling since attending college at West Liberty University. She graduated from college in 2016 and holds a Digital Media Design degree with a minor in Photography. She works full-time at Highmark as a production artist and does side work as a photographer. In her free time, she loves to rollerskate, tend to her plants, and hang out with her dog momo.