Moundsville at the Movies: Penitentiary a Haunting Draw for Hollywood

It’s cold. Not just cold, but a bone-deep chill that wraps around you until it feels like it’s crawled inside to keep itself warm.

It’s dark. The can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face kind of dark where your senses heighten, and your body knows before you do that you’ve become prey.

It’s still. But only in that ancient way of a place that remembers, like a battlefield echoing long burned-out cannon fire.

It’s a place that’s been scarred by multiple deaths, broken by a changing world and restored for the most unlikely of glories: the bright lights of Hollywood.

The West Virginia Penitentiary has had quite the second act. After it closed as a state-run correctional facility in 1995, locals believed a longstanding employer and a storied institution would become nothing more than another abandoned specter to haunt a Rust Belt town. It wouldn’t stay that way for long. No, much like the aging actor who knows he just hasn’t yet found the right role to make his big break, the West Virginia Penitentiary was just warming up.

If a building could have a resume, this one would tick off big names like Netflix’s Mindhunter, Hulu’s Castle Rock, and major motion pictures like Out of the Furnace (2013) and Fool’s Parade (1971). That’s not to mention the smaller cable television productions that have investigated the prison’s paranormal landscape like Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Syfy’s Ghost Hunters.

  • Scene from the feature film "Out of the Furnace."

“This all started back in 2000 when MTV’s Fear contacted us and wanted to film their original episode here,” said Moundville Internal Coordinator Tom Stiles. “They came in, and that put us on the map. As soon as they aired that program, our phone started ringing. People wanted to come here to investigate and be part of the paranormal aspect of the prison.”

I can tell you exactly where I was (my parent’s basement) and exactly how I felt (so terrified I didn’t sleep well for two days) when we gathered around the TV as a family to watch that episode of Fear. I saw immediately how a place that had been a part of the background of my life could come so stunningly center stage with its very presence.

After Fear, ghost hunting tours sanctioned by the West Virginia Penitentiary soon followed. It wasn’t long before the Gothic-style prison drew the attention of more TV crews.

“Once we got in the map with that, Ghost Hunters called us and wanted to film an episode here,” Tom said. “Again, we’d never had anybody of that caliber come in, and they spent three or four days here filming. From that point on, … we can’t accommodate everybody because we put our bookings up in early January for the entire year, and people start filling the dates in.”

Moundsville Internal Coordinator Tom Stiles

Ryan Zacherl has been working as a tour guide at the prison for the past 12 years. He has translated his experiences there into opportunities as a production assistant on Castle Rock and in his own YouTube show, Paranormal Quest. As he took our merry band of Weelunkers on a tour of the prison grounds, he explained how each showrunner’s vision became a reality whether it was through paint, lighting or building false walls.

“They’ll spend tens of thousands of dollars on lighting, painting, making it look like the middle of a desert in New Mexico by cutting all the grass out through computer-generated effects, and then you go see the movie, and then there’s no scenes of the prison in the movie. But that happens. That’s Hollywood,” Ryan said.

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Fortunately, Moundsville has only been left on the cutting room floor a handful of times. First with the 2009 Tom Hardy film Warrior and in parts of Mindhunter where a replica of the prison’s North Hall was rebuilt on a production soundstage. Still, our tour let us see the pink paint on the bars left behind from Mindhunter and remnants of burnt paper meant to recreate the cellblock fire (or “jailbird barbecue” as the show puts it) in Castle Rock.

But a few things struck me that no television show can replicate. We were there on a particularly bitter January day, and in a building that has never been heated, the brutal cold was an ever-present reminder of one of the reasons why the prison closed. Venturing deeper into the building, with no electricity to light up the basement’s famed “Sugar Shack” — where unspeakable acts of violence are reported to have taken place — it seemed there was a story to be found around every corner, and Ryan knew them all.

Ryan Zacherl shares horror stories of the inmates and the paranormal.

Ryan told us about the prison’s “animal tier” where the rowdiest prisoners were kept. We saw the various graffiti drawings found inside the cells that were left and sometimes added to as part of Castle Rock. Our trip even included a tour of the infirmary and psych ward where Ryan says he once heard the sound of a gunshot when no one else was around.

“It was neat walking the cast back and forth from their trailers to set,” Ryan recalled of his time on the Castle Rock set. “Jane Levy asked if she could get a small tour on the way back, but I walked her up through the psych ward. Bill Skarsgård wanted to hear all the history. They were so fascinated by where the warden lived and paranormal aspect of it, too.

“The cast, the crew, they love to come here and film because they’re so fascinated by the history,” he continued. “They get to recreate these fictional stories in a place where these really cool true stories happened. It’s neat that these people are coming from all over the world to create something, and they want to hear what our stories are.”

Locals can come and experience it for themselves with a historic tour in the more temperate months, April through November. It’s great to see the prison on TV, but Tom put it best when he said it truly should be experienced in person.

“We can take you to about any corner of the prison, and we can tell you history, or we can tell you haunted stuff,” he said. “I feel we do a good job of offering both to the public. Even film crews, they’ll have seen pictures, but when they come here to do a site walk, and they’ll round the corner and see the awesomeness of this structure with their own eyes, and it changes their disposition immediately. They all are awestruck by the building. There are not many sites that people can go to that are a three-block-long building, encompassed with 130 years of history. It’s phenomenal.”

And if that’s not enough for fans who prefer the type of spine-tingling moments found within Steven King’s imagined universe, there’s always the prison’s famous haunted house around Halloween.

“People want to come here and film these horror stories, but we put on one every October,” Tom said.

Cassie Bendel was born in Wheeling and raised in Bellaire. A graduate of St. Vincent College, she began her writing career as a reporter with The Times Leader and the Steubenville Herald-Star before writing content for SiriusXM Satellite Radio and a national faith-based consulting company. After more than a decade in Pennsylvania, she has moved back to the Ohio Valley with her husband and two sons.