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A-haunting we will go

One night at Rolling Hills Asylum

Next to the metallic slab in the center of the morgue, there is a suit. It hangs over a nice pair of shoes, and there’s not a wrinkle to be found on the fabric. The suit doesn’t belong to anyone in particular, says Sharon Coyle. 

But the ghosts sure love it.

Coyle is the owner of Rolling Hills Asylum in East Bethany, a spot that boasts being one of the most haunted locations in the world. The hundreds of spirits on the grounds love the suit hanging up in the morgue so much they’ve been known to swing it back and forth like a pendulum, Coyle says. She recalls other strange situations, too, like the time a 200-pound man laid on the table in the center of the morgue and was unable to get up (due to the presence of a ghost pushing down on him, allegedly).

Long after tourists left the morgue one night, I returned with (585) photographer Caitlin McGrath. There was no light in the room, so we used our iPhone flashlights to examine things. I walked up to the suit and shoes, but I never touched it. It felt a little cold in the room, but that could have just been my imagination. Either way, I decided to lie down on the mortuary table. With the flash from Caitlin’s camera adding some additional light, I took a deep breath and waited for a ghost.

A house for misfits

Before it was featured on SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, or used as a backdrop for some American Horror Story fun, Rolling Hills was known as the Genesee County Poor House. It housed orphans, widows, criminals, war veterans, physically and mentally ill patients, and even “local drunkards,” according to brochures in the building. 

More than a century later, in 1964, it became a nursing home before eventually closing in 1974. Since then it’s gained fame for being a beacon of paranormal activity.This activity includes something as simple as a slamming door or turning on a light to the appearance of “shadow people” and “crawlers.” The “crawlers” are ghosts that can slither along the ceiling, walls, or even pop up from the floors. (In other words, they’re absolutely the stuff of nightmares. Caitlin and I were in agreement that if we saw one, it would be time to bail and/or panic.)

While crawlers seem like a plot point from a sequel to The Ring, Rolling Hills isn’t designed to scare. It’s a spot where ghost hunt- ers and curious customers come year round to connect with the dead.

“There aren’t any monsters here—no Freddy Krugers,” Coyle says before our tour. She gives the tour with her boyfriend—also the property’s manager—Brad Polle.They’re an energetic pair with a good rapport. Polle began working at Rolling Hills early this year—he never had an interest in paranormal activity before. Now he has an anecdote about a ghost encounter for nearly every room. After the tour part of the evening, guests are given permission to wander the ghost-filled building. Some have devices called mel meters to tell them when there’s something paranormal present; others just have their nerves.

In the kitchen, it’s said the scent of lemon cookies often fills the room, and there’s a corner where the butcher with a soft spot for crude, meat-related humor allegedly resides. There’s the vortex room, where people have been known to feel nauseous, and children who sing “Ring Around the Rosey” in the laundry room. There’s also the “groping chair.” (Ignoring the unfortunate name, both Caitlin and I sat in it, and, well, I guess the ghosts decided to keep to themselves this time.)

Because it felt so much like an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? I was inspired to ask if any of the spirits possibly have sinister intentions. “Of course there are bad ones here,” Polle says. He adds the ghosts are just like people—some are simply nicer than others. But whether good, evil, or something in between, they do have one thing in common—they’re not always willing to speak with the living.

This could explain why my visit to Rolling Hills did not include any paranormal conversation (though my phone refused to take a haunted house selfie, and I fully blame the ghosts for that one). Lying on that mortuary table, I pleaded with the suit-shaking ghosts to give me something cool for this article—maybe a good, old-fashioned possessing or, at the very least, some Ghostbusters jokes. But the suit remained still, and my voice echoed with no reply.

Coyle tells me it’s OK, though. It turns out this paranormal activity business is tricky. “It’s called ghost hunting for a reason,” she says. “Just with other types of hunting or fishing, you have to be patient.”

Scott Pukos is an award-winning writer and a producer at News 8 in Rochester. 

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