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Haunted history comes alive at Rolling Hills Asylum

Twilight has settled over a stormy Saturday. The moon is almost full, sliding over the dark treetops. We are on our way to Rolling Hills Asylum, one of the stops on the New York State Haunted History Trail.

The Rolling Hills Asylum, actually an old poorhouse, is at a lone crossroads in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in the neighborhood of Batavia. “Established in 1827, the Genesee County Poor House soon became a dumping ground for the outcasts of society,” promises the Haunted History Trail brochure, which is colorfully written. “Haunted North America rated it as the second most haunted site in the United States.”

Wikipedia corroborated the creepiness, saying that Rolling Hills’ supernatural residents included “Roy, the 7-foot giant, and Ray, who attacks women in the basement.” [Editor's note: Creepily enough, Rolling Hills' Wikipedia page has since been deleted.]

Hence our preference for Rolling Hills over other sites on the trail (listed at the bottom of the page). If you’re going to play ghost tourist, this seems like the perfect place to start.

A bleak sight

When Rolling Hills takes shape in the gloom, it looks as forbidding as promised. It sits smack dab on the street, no grounds surrounding it, nothing. It’s dilapidated inside, and smells like a cellar. It is half lit.

We are ushered upstairs, into one hall and down another hall before we arrive in a room that used to be an infirmary.

Rolling Hills Asylum 1

As paranormal tourists for the day – er, night – we soon find we are far from alone.

This is prime Halloween season, and Rolling Hills holds constant tours. On the Saturday we visit, one tour is still ongoing – that is, its participants are still roaming the dimly lit building, seeing what spirits they can scare up. Two more tours start at 9:30 p.m. One goes until midnight, and the other until 3 a.m.

Not that the ghosts need an excuse to show up. Rolling Hills owner Sharon Coyle has an electronic ghost perceptor she says costs $200. From time to time it blinks.

“There’s activity,” Coyle says.

A California blonde, Coyle first encountered the 60,000-square-foot place on a ghost hunt in 2008 and fell in love. A year later, hearing the place was for sale and worried for its future, she bought it.

She met her boyfriend, Brad, when she hired his band to play an event at the asylum. Now both of them live on site and, friendly as they both are, they run a tight ship.

The remnants of a butcher shop inside the Rolling Hills Asylum. (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News)

The remnants of a butcher shop inside the Rolling Hills Asylum. (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News)

 

Rules include: No lighting of anything in the building including but not limited to cigarettes, cigars, pipes, candles, incense, sage, etc. Crossing over of Spirits, Exorcisms, Blessings, Cleansings, Clearings, Bindings, Séances, Black Magic, Table-tipping, or any other ritual, are NOT allowed. The use of Ouija Boards is strictly prohibited. Negative Provoking will not be tolerated.

“This is serious,” Coyle says. “This isn’t a game. I am responsible for the safety of my attendees and the safety of the spirits. They’re living entities.”

It is touching how when she alludes to “the Rolling Hills family,” she means not only a host of helpful volunteers but also ghosts: a German nurse named Emma; a little girl who hangs out in the chapel; and super-friendly Roy, who suffered from gigantism and was dropped off one day by his dad, who never came back to get him. There is one terrifying-sounding spirit called the Screaming Lady. Other than that, one can’t help thinking how happy these ghosts must be to have found such a loving caretaker.

A cry for help

Before the 9:30 tour starts, Coyle invites the four of us from Buffalo upstairs for a little look around. The halls all look the same, and we quickly lose our sense of direction.
She isn’t fazed by the half lighting. “Sometimes I walk around in here when it’s pitch dark,” she says.

The wheelchair sits in front of a blurry man in an east hallway. (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News)

The wheelchair sits in front of a blurry man in an east hallway. (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News)

The most haunting thing of all could be the view out the window – nothing but a black row of trees in the distance, and those two stark highways, heading into endless darkness.

Inside, you grow accustomed to the gloom. Coyle has filled the place with antique oddments she and Brad find at auctions. There is an old refrigerator, an examining table, a walker. An intellectual ghost who likes books has a library. Most of the volumes are Harlequin romances, probably not his taste, but this place operates on a shoestring.

The ghosts, Coyle explains, are sometimes drawn by calls for help. With that in mind, she proposes an experiment. Someone is to sit in the hall in a wheelchair, and is supposed to act helpless.

Jim, because he doesn’t believe in ghosts, is nominated. We leave him alone at one end of the hall, and follow Coyle to the other. Coyle began calling to the spirits. “We’ve got an inmate who’s lost. He needs help.”

Jim’s voice drifts from the distant haze. “I could use a hand.”

I have to stifle my laughter. At the same time ...

There! At the end of the hall!

It looks like an inky figure. It looks as if it is getting closer. Is that Roy, the giant?

Either that or maybe it is Ray, who attacks women in the basement.

Booing and bustling

For better or worse, the splotch of darkness never does morph into a person. And the plight of Jim, in the wheelchair, attracts no ghosts. In all fairness, though, I have secretly weighed myself down with enough Catholic paraphernalia to sink a ship. No ghost was probably coming within miles of me.

Also, Coyle had pointed out beforehand that if someone is afraid or unreceptive, the spirits will sense that. “One of two things will happen. Either they’ll back off, because they don’t want to scare you, or they’ll have fun picking on you,” she says, laughing.

She cautions that not everything you feel will be a ghost. A story the Rolling Hills staff laughs about concerns one visitor who brushed up against a Christmas tree in the dark and thought it was a ghost.

“He was all excited. He said, ‘That made my night. I’ve always wanted something to touch me,’ ” Coyle recalls. “I had to tell him, ‘It’s a Christmas tree. I’m sorry.’ He was so heartbroken.”

The two-hour personal exploration of Rolling Hills is when guests most frequently experience the paranormal, Coyle says. (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News)

The two-hour personal exploration of Rolling Hills is when guests most frequently experience the paranormal, Coyle says. (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News)

A clean-cut, respectful crowd, mostly in their 20s, turns up for the 9:30 tours. Coyle orients them to the building, pointing things out.

“Keep an eye on these doors,” she says, explaining that a spirit likes to open them. In one hall, she predicts: “You will hear activity overhead in this spot, because other floors used to be overhead.”

The former barber shop inside Rolling Hills Asylum. (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News)

The former barber shop inside Rolling Hills Asylum. (Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News)

The visitors from the previous tour report mixed success. Some say they sensed nothing. Others emerge triumphant.

Melanie McBride, an 18-year-old student from Nazareth College, and her friend Brian Morrison said the wheelchair ruse got things rolling for them. “We heard all this bustling,” she said. “I thought I would get scared, but I wasn’t. We were scared at first that something was going to happen, but then when it did, we thought, ‘Let’s go find more stuff.’ ”

Driving home, this time through hail, it was strange to picture the old poorhouse, and the visitors who still lingered there. Will they see ghosts? Or is it the old building and the darkness, playing tricks with their imagination?

And does it really matter? After all, tomorrow is another night.

“Ghost hunting is like watching paint dry,” Coyle says. “You have to be patient.”

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The New York State Haunted History Trail now comprises 24 counties, and the booing business is booming.

Mason Winfield, whose newest book is “Spirits of the Niagara Wine Trail,” has for years led Haunted History Ghost Walks and does not doubt the authenticity of the sites on the Haunted History Trail, which has no tie to his business. His one caveat is not to expect to see a ghost.

“The phenomenon is very rare,” he said. “Think of something like the Tower of London. England is stereotyped as the world’s most haunted country, and the Tower of London is its most haunted building. It’s constantly surveilled – the Crown Jewels are there. So it’s surveilled constantly, 24/7, every inch of it. In 20 years, there have been only 11 good ghost reports.” He paused. “But they were great.”

The Haunted History Trail’s brochure lists several sites within easy driving distance.

The Pillars Estate, 13800 W. County House Road, Albion (585-283-4341). Ghost hunting is not permitted in this elegant restaurant and bed and breakfast, a restored Civil War-era mansion. But owner Tony McMurtrie, who comes from Scotland and speaks with a thick accent, said he has seen ghosts, and overnight guests might as well.

The Red Coach Inn, 2 Buffalo Ave., Niagara Falls (282-1459). This lovely, legendary restaurant has been on Winfield’s radar for years.

Rolling Hills Asylum, East Bethany (585-502-4066). Formerly the Genesee County Poor House (see accompanying story) and a nursing home, this building was reportedly the site of 1,700 documented deaths just because of the number of people who lived here.

The Winery at Marjim Manor, 7171 East Lake Road (Route 18), Appleton (778-7001). Winfield respects this site, which used to be called Appleton Hall and later was owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph. “It was known as being haunted long before it became a winery,” Winfield said.

For more info on the Haunted History Trail, visit www.hauntedhistorytrail.com. It lists several local sites added since the brochure went into print, including the Iron Island Museum (998 E. Lovejoy St., 892-3084) and Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown (745-7611). The website also lists ghost walks, tours and other paranormal events.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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