Ryan Wilusz ventures into the abandoned Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary to go ghost hunting. With just a flashlight, what will he experience?
Calvin Mattheis, firstname.lastname@example.org
PETROS — For 113 years, three walls and a cliff alongside Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary were designed to keep some of the most violent criminals locked inside. But in 2009, when the prison ceased operations, the walls gained a new purpose — to keep people out.
For one, artifacts inside were at risk of being vandalized by people, who were at risk of injury within the old structure. But also inside, according to tour guides, are multiple spirits from the roughly 10,000 people who died on the property from mining accidents, war battles, disease and prison attacks.
But the gates have been re-opened — people can walk the cell blocks once again. And on the cold and rainy night of Oct. 16, photographer Calvin Mattheis and I explored the property in a small group with nothing more than a flashlight and a couple of indulgent paranormal guides offering tales of gruesome incidents that happened beneath our feet.
Dead on arrival
As we pulled up to the prison, we knew we were at the right place. A structure of that size cannot be mistaken. Still, we felt as if we weren’t supposed to be there. The property was barely lit, and as we looked into the distance from the barb-wired gate, no cars were in sight.
We drove our way through the mist and up to the main entrance, where four people were anxiously waiting outside the door — some smoking cigarettes to calm the nerves. They would later join us on our exploration.
Once inside what looked like any old lobby, I spoke with Debbie Williams, who worked at the prison for 28 years. She started there as a correctional officer.
“This is the first time I’ve been up here at night when I didn’t get paid to be here,” she said.
Why would she want to come back?
Some guests, scared of what awaited them, questioned why they came there in the first place. One man hesitated to buy the prison’s “I survived” shirt until he actually made it through the night, while one woman asked to join Williams in prayer.
“We came to this location tonight to better understand the unknown,” Williams said. “We come to you to ask you to protect our hearts, minds, bodies and souls from any and all inhuman, malevolent, foul or evil spirits. We call on you, archangel Michael, to stand by our sides.”
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The ‘End of the Line’
Just as our journey through Brushy Mountain kicked off around 10 p.m., tour guide Jaime Brock picked up on our nervousness. Maybe it was the fact we started at the solitary confinement block, which animals refused to go near and where oinking pigs could be heard during paranormal investigations.
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The noises likely had something to do with Jesus casting demons into swine, Brock said as her flashlight went out.
In an attempt to calm us, Brock told us we would not be going inside the solitary confinement area. The area has been sealed off, which has caused spirits to lurk elsewhere, she said.
The only problem? We would be going elsewhere.
“Just so you know, everyone still inside these walls are dead,” Brock said. “They won’t eat your souls.”
One could only guess what bodies these spirits once belonged to, although Brock said investigators have heard names like Leroy, James and Ben uttered from nothingness.
I put my personal beliefs of the afterlife aside. Even if you don’t believe in spirits, you could likely agree that if any place is truly haunted — it’s Brushy Mountain.
The prison was known for years as the “End of the Line.” For one, the maximum security facility was the last stop for prisoners who couldn’t be handled elsewhere. But I soon picked up that the nickname could have another meaning, as many prisoners died there from, what could be most politely described as, unnatural causes.
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A paranormal experience?
I was told by tour guides that prisoners were severely beaten and hanged on the property. One was even chopped up and flushed down the toilet, Brock said. According to a 1982 article from The Washington Post, “violence in prisons is more the rule than the exception.”
The Post article detailed a hostage situation at Brushy Mountain, during which white prisoners shot and killed two black prisoners in their cells while injuring others. It was hard to believe that Calvin and I were among those same cells.
I walked inside one cell and spread my arms into my widest wingspan. My fingertips on both hands were just an inch away from the walls.
Some walls were chipping, likely from fingernails or prison shanks. Other walls were decorated with elaborate drawings and tally marks counting the prisoner’s days inside.
Then, we walked past the bars that once secured James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King Jr. Brock said investigators have played the “I Have a Dream” speech near the cell, which led to a paranormal reading of someone muttering “hush.”
Part of me wished we would all hush. I wanted the chance to hear something — anything. I wanted to witness a flashlight be turned off by a spirit, a shadowy figure come out of the floor or a full-body apparition walk through the wall as it has been reported inside the prison.
After hearing a loud bang that turned out to be nothing, my hopes were down until I saw a shadow through a window and then through another. Every time my eyes moved toward it, it seemed to go away.
Perhaps it was just my imagination. And perhaps Calvin also imagined the whisper in his ear near the suicide watch area of the penitentiary. But these two experiences aren’t too different from what others experience on these tours, Brock said. And if you’d like to see for yourself, there still is time.
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Want to go?
The final flashlight tours of the season will take place Oct. 29 and 30. Two tours will happen both nights from 7:45-9:45 p.m. and from 9:45-11:45 p.m. Each costs $25 plus fees.
If the tours are sold out, standard nighttime and overnight paranormal tour options are available on various dates throughout 2018. Those looking for a non-paranormal experience can participate in self-guided tours for $12.
More information on the prison and the tours are available at tourbrushy.com.
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Reach Ryan Wilusz at Ryan.Wilusz@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6321 and on Twitter @Ryan_Wilusz or Instagram @KnoxScruff.
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