WHEELING, W.Va. — Just in time for Halloween, a new book about the ghosts, aliens and monsters that haunt West Virginia has come out, written and photographed by Somerset, Pa., native Tony Urban.
In “West Virginia’s Dark Tourism” (Schiffer Publishing, 2016), Urban recounts 61 tales of terror and intrigue, accompanied by photos he took on his travels. The stories include regional accounts of various man-eating mutant beasts, to more well known mysteries, such as the Mothman of Point Pleasant and the Greenbrier Ghost. He also includes attractions that are more peculiar than scary, such as George Washington’s Bathtub in Berkeley Springs, the Palace of Gold in Marshall County and the garish, giant statues on the Farnham farm near Unger.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Urban said he loves all things that go bump in the night, the scarier the better. He grew up reading the creepy tales of R.L. Stine and Stephen King and watching iconic teenage horror flicks “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween.” After high school, he became a low-budget horror filmmaker for awhile but, needing to make a living, he turned to portrait photography. It put food on the table but did nothing to satiate his appetite for the macabre.
In the off-season, he traveled to find and photograph the places where his favorite movies were set, including the camp in Blairstown, N.J., featured in “Friday the 13th.” During a horror movie convention in New Jersey, he showed some of the photos to Betsy Palmer, who played Mrs. Vorhees in the film, and she suggested he make them into a book. His first book, “Travelogue of Horror,” was published by Schiffer in 2014.
When the publisher asked him to write a second book about the dark tales of one state, he picked neighboring West Virginia, which not only was geographically convenient for him but also happened to be his second favorite state to visit (after Maine) and was wonderfully rich in freaky fodder.
He took six road trips and put nearly 4,000 miles on his Jeep Wrangler, nicknamed Monster, in researching the book. His travel companions were his mother, Sharon, and dogs Farfel and Eli.
“It was a blast. I had a really good time,” he said.
Asked how he found all the odd stories, he said a Google search history on his computer would reveal phrases such as “strange homicides” and “odd West Virginia murders.”
“I’m sure I’m probably on ‘watch’ lists from typing all this stuff in,” he joked.
The 38-year-old bachelor conveys a conversational, self-deprecating tone in the book, noting, for instance, that he often drove around for hours looking for murder scenes or cemeteries because he was too embarrassed to ask for directions. He didn’t want the locals to think he was weird. Looking for a cemetery affiliated with the long-gone Second Hospital for the Insane in Spencer, for example, he found himself on the property of an elementary school.
“I freaked out a little at that point. A man from out of state with a camera on school grounds has ‘creeper’ written all over it,” he writes. “Potentially explaining that I was actually there to find the graveyard from the local insane asylum didn’t sound much better.”
Urban said despite going down some spooky-looking, dead end, dirt tracks deep in the Mountain State, he never felt truly scared — more like intrigued.
“I love the more remote parts of the state,” he said, citing the ghost towns he passed through in McDowell County, for instance. “It feels like a whole other world.”
Urban also is a history buff and enjoyed his trips to haunted Harpers Ferry, the place where Hank Williams died, Blennerhassett Island and the abandoned Lake Shawnee Amusement Park — not to mention innumerable cemeteries. He said one of his most memorable experiences was at a slave cemetery he found by accident in Romney. The unmarked white crosses stood starkly in the grass, sentinels of a bygone time.
“I’ve seen tombstones taller than me, filled with ornate carvings and artwork, but those simple crosses held far more power than anything I’ve witnessed before or since,” he writes.
The Northern Panhandle is well represented in his book. He relates the story of Captain Hook, a.k.a. Clem Merton, victim of a steel mill accident that took both his hands, which were replaced with metal hooks. He was rumored to be behind a string of disappearances and murders of local boys, before his own mysterious disappearance. Urban visited the walled-in God’s Acre in Bethany where college founder Alexander Campbell is buried. He toured the Grave Creek Mound, former West Virginia Penitentiary and the Palace of Gold, and he snapped a photo of the former Union School where infamous cult leader and killer Charles Manson attended.
He also devoted three pages to the infamous murders at Quiet Dell by serial killer Harry Powers, who was hanged at the Moundsville prison and is buried in the prison cemetery. The temperature was about 4 degrees on the winter day when Urban tried to find Powers’ grave off Tom’s Run. The creek separating the main road and the cemetery has no bridge and was rushing about knee-high deep. He didn’t venture forth.
“I was reminded of the old legend that evil spirits cannot cross running water and wondered if that was the reason for the cemetery’s odd location,” he writes.
Urban said he looks forward to returning to the Mountain State to delve further into some of these mysteries and visit other haunted locations he didn’t cover in the book.
In the book’s preface, he notes: “The state is a plethora of riches and even on the most remote, hazardous road way we found something worth a visit.”