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“The Asylum is waiting for you”: Analyzing Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum’s “Criminally Insane Tour” (2019 Donald Award Winner)

Amy L. DeWitt • Shepherd University
Heidi M. Hanrahan • Shepherd University

Originally presented at the Annual Conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association. November 2019, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Writing about the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (TALA) in Weston, West Virginia, Jenell Johnson notes that the site’s transformation to a privately-owned tourist attraction relies on a “master story of the asylum,” emerging from “two centuries of representation in American culture.” 1  As such, TALA is part of an upsurge in “dark tourism” destinations. As Phillip Stone explains, such sites remain “divisive as a concept” while being “ethically contentious in practice.” 2  Yet Stone also encourages analysis of these places, adding that dark tourism teaches us not only about the past but also “about life and the living.” 3  In this feature, we explore how the “master story” of the American asylum intersects with contemporary culture’s interest in popular crime narratives and concerns about ethical and responsible depictions of mental illness. We focus specifically on the Asylum’s “Criminally Insane Tour,” showing how management and staff attempt to thread the delicate needle of creating a profitable tourist destination while avoiding charges of exploitation, sensationalism, and insensitivity. As such, TALA’s tour serves as a fruitful if complicated model for charting the intersection of history/historic preservation, the tourist industry, and popular culture’s interest in mental illness and crime. In the first half of this feature, we’ll discuss our theoretical framing and the larger story of TALA and its conversion to a tourist destination. In the second half, we’ll focus specifically on the “Criminally Insane” tour.

Our analysis of TALA is informed by Edward R. Bruner’s Culture on Tour, particularly his analyses of individual tours as subjects worthy of analysis in and of themselves and his concept of the “pretour narrative.” Bruner shows how such performances yield valuable insight on the tourist experience from all sides, since they “have local histories, change over time, and are constructed specifically to be marketed and sold to an audience.” 4  As such, he encourages examination of “tourist productions within their larger historical, economic, and political context and…[their] very particularistic local setting.” 5  Key to doing this work is understanding the “pretour narrative,” the “preconceptions about the destination” each traveler brings to the tour, since there are, as he asserts, “no naïve travelers.” 6  Travelers “reshape and personalize” their pretour narratives in terms of their “lived experience” on the tour and then “further alter their stories” when they return home and share them with others. The tourism industry “organizes the tour with these master stories in mind.” 7  In sum, Bruner invites us to look at experiences like the “Criminally Insane” tour as complex productions created by both site operators and visitors.

Dark Tourism studies, specifically those on former prisons and asylums, add specific socio-economic and ethical dimensions to any discussion of such experiences. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley describe “Dark Tourism” as signifying a “fundamental shift in the way in which death, disaster and atrocity are being handled by those who offer associated tourism ‘products.’” 8  Kevin Walby and Justin Piché gesture towards the larger implications of these sites that “shape individual and collective ways of thinking about imprisonment and punishment.” 9  Johnson notes that the asylum itself has “become a genre, with conventional plots … themes … characters … and props: sedatives, restraints, straitjackets, shock treatments, and … lobotom[ies].” 10  The notorious Pennhurst Hospital’s transformation to a horrific asylum-themed haunted house, described by one writer as a “commercial playground of fetishized disability,” 11  provides an example of how these projects can go very wrong. Nevertheless, such locations can be powerful sites for change. Writing specifically about remote Appalachian dark tourist sites, which can give “a much-needed boost to … struggling economies,” Robert J. Kruse explains that they can be “conducive to reinvention,” 12  a claim echoed by Stone who calls them “dialogic and mediating.” 13  Other scholars note the various reasons tourists seek out dark sites beyond morbid fascination, including “educational interest … and empathy with the victims.” 14

From the beginning of its operations as a tourist destination, TALA’s operators have worked to position themselves as preservers of the buildings’ complicated history, yet have balanced that with other appeals to visitors looking for a different kind of entertainment. Its two most popular tours, “The Four Floor History Tour” and the “Paranormal Tour,” provide the clearest illustration of this dichotomy. Indeed, TALA’s history contains both the respectable and compassionate and the horrific and exploitative. The state of Virginia broke ground on the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in 1858. After secession, it was renamed the West Virginia Asylum for the Insane and officially opened its doors in 1864, operating until 1994. Originally designed to treat 250 patients, the population swelled to more than 2400 in the 1950s. The institution implemented personalized care at times when resources were available and population size was manageable; however, it had at best neglected and at worst tortured patients when resources were depleted and patient numbers soared. Johnson explains that the compassionate sentiment and resources that drove reform of these institutions in the 19th century dissipated into the twentieth century. 15  For example, Thomas Story Kirkbride, a physician and advocate for compassionate care for those with mental illness, approved the blueprints for TALA, ensuring patients had exposure to natural light and fresh air. The Kirkbride model, focused on individualized treatment, not confinement, and encouraging recreational activities, occupational therapy, and decorated and comfortable living spaces, was adopted when the institution opened. 16  But as populations doubled into the 1900s and quadrupled by 1949, conditions for the residents became deplorable. TALA’s tours tell both of these stories, celebrating the promises of the Kirkbride model and making clear how far operators strayed from that mission.

TALA’s history illustrates the intersection between compassion and horror, influenced by society’s competing impulses to treat the mentally ill, but to do so in efficient, cost-effective ways that minimized any risk to public safety. For instance, drastic measures such as electroshock and involuntary sterilization often provided quicker release from the over-crowded institutions. 17  Weston’s asylum participated in such extreme measures, most notably the transorbital lobotomy. In 1949, West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette published Charles Armentrout’s three-week series on the appalling conditions at then-named Weston State Hospital. Armentrout described extreme over-crowding that led to atrocities including decrepit buildings with rotting floors and beams, smells of raw sewage, the confinement of mostly naked and incontinent patients, essentially nonexistent treatment, a severe shortage of trained medical professionals, a lack of bathroom facilities, and the neglect of mentally ill children in residence. 18  Five months after Armentrout’s series appeared, the state took unprecedented measures by instituting the West Virginia Lobotomy Project, the purpose of which was to perform mass transorbital lobotomies to release patients back into the community. Not surprisingly, the Lobotomy Project features prominently in the complex and competing stories TALA tells about itself. 19

As mentioned above, today TALA offers a variety of tours and events. As such, it occupies a small but significant place in pop culture, featured on various ghost-hunting shows and podcasts. It also draws the attention of tourists and historians interested in the Kirkbride model. Less studied is its treatment of the criminally insane and the stories TALA tells about itself when it comes to this topic. Even Armentrout’s famous expose doesn’t spend much time on this patient population, except to point out that the public neglected their care at their own risk; the fifth article in the series described the 61 patients deemed “criminally insane” who were all housed together behind a locked steel door. Armentrout asserted that the men frequently attempted to escape, and all but one had been recaptured. In this section, we’ll discuss our reading of the “Criminally Insane” tour at TALA, focused exclusively on the “Forensics Building,” added to the site in the 1950s to provide care to this specific population.

Our experience on this tour reveals the multiple narratives at work in the complex, competing, and sometimes contradictory interaction between institution, tour guide, and tourists. In fact, the site’s very name, controversial for its use of the word “lunatic” even before TALA reopened, reveals this complexity. Sarah, our guide on our most recent visit, explains to our group of about eighteen visitors that “lunatic” was an acceptable term in the nineteenth-century, ignoring the fact that the institution never officially operated under that name. So, too, does Sarah point out that “asylum” means “refuge.” “I want you to remember that,” she adds. “Asylum means refuge. This was to be a safe place for the people who lived here.” At the same time, she frames the building as a controversial site, noting, “The community hated this building,” afraid of its residents. She stops us in front of a sign attached to the building, a context-free late-nineteenth-century quotation from a Dr. William Bland asserting that he does not “believe it is just or right or advisable to place the burglar, thief and murderer in daily intercourse and association with the virtuous insane.” The narratives here are contradictory, simultaneously framing the building as a safe place for residents (a compassionate view of the patients), but also deserving of fear.

This framing repeats throughout our tour, with emphasis on the patients’ poor treatment, or the at-times intolerable conditions, and an equal emphasis on their potential for violence and evil. Sarah points out the building’s bullet-proof glass, noting that it housed up to “240 violent men,” a claim that problematically conflates criminal insanity with violence. She shares the tale of a loyal attendant called Mr. T, brutally assaulted by a gang of patients. She tells another story of a patient, confined only for “hygiene issues,” beaten to death by his bunkmate. She takes us up a floor to view the “seclusion cells,” where the “most unruly of the unruly” were kept. In the rec area outside, Sarah tells us about a patient who killed his parents, then points out reproductions of their death certificates on the brick wall, along with a picture of the pickax he used. It is hard to see these props as anything other than sensational. Visitors flood into these spaces, taking pictures of everything: the peeling paint, the barred windows, the old showers, the rusty bed-frames. The place’s general sense of decay makes it at once frightening and sad, capturing in some ways both pre-packaged versions of what went on here.

Other aspects of the tour present a gentler, more compassionate view of the patients, evidence of TALA’s sensitivity to charges of stigmatizing and sensationalizing mental illness and their desire to be seen as historically accurate. Sarah stops us in a treatment room. “We would lock people in here for hours,” she explains with a tone of sadness, her use of “we” functioning as a fascinating rhetorical decision she will maintain throughout the tour (reinforced by her uniform). She, in her role as a guide, is also an insider, part of the problem “back then” and an agent for setting the record straight now. She discusses the “insanity tests” the patients went through, being asked “repetitive” and “stupid” questions for hours on end. With a note of compassion, she adds, “I would go crazy, too, if you did that to me.” Similarly, in the seclusion cells, she shows us the reproduction of a death-certificate of an inmate who escaped but died upon his return when he was mistakenly given penicillin, a drug he was allergic to, to treat the injuries he sustained while on the run. The certificate is a strange object, evidence of the patient’s violent criminality but also the asylum’s cruel mistreatment of patients, especially when its numbers swelled well beyond its intended capacity. How are we supposed to respond to this story? Did the inmate get what he deserved for trying to escape? Do we feel pity for him? The tour provides fuel for both responses.

Along the way, tourists’ pretour narratives are on display, including their ideas about true crime and the criminally insane, as is Sarah’s willingness to engage with those narratives. At one point, she asks, “When I say ‘forensics,’ what do you think?” The crowd offers answers like “CSI.” Later, she shares a story that seems tailor-made to fit into narratives about the “crazy women who kill” on shows like Snapped. “Geraldine,” one of the only female criminally insane patients the staff discusses, killed her lover, we are told, because he cheated and “I told him not to cheat.” Sarah smiles as she delivers the line and the audience laughs knowingly. As the tour wraps up, Sarah shares one final story, that of “Timmy,” a veteran with PTSD, who, after spending several years in the Asylum, seemed cured and was released only to quite recently reoffend, killing a man. Here a tour member pipes in: “I saw something about him on Netflix.” Other visitors ask him “which show?” obviously eager to watch it themselves, confirming their own pretour narratives were shaped by steady exposure to these kinds of shows. The man who speaks up can’t remember, but laughingly explains, “I watch them all. All the serial killer shows. You should see my history!” Note here the conflation of mental illness, criminal insanity, and serial killers. Sarah nods and laughs along before moving on to the final portion of her tour, a reminder that TALA is, above all, a business.

These closing remarks, which include pointing out the equipment for the “Zombie Paintball” events that the Asylum hosts and pitches for ghost tours, make clear the economic factors at work. “This Asylum is 100% privately owned,” she explains, and takes no money from the government or any tourism board. Weston, in the relatively sleepy and economically-challenged Lewis County, relies on the business TALA can bring. And TALA is clearly doing everything it can to make money, hosting a variety of tours, an “Asylum Ball,” and an annual haunted house. With an active social media presence, they invite their audience to visit throughout the year, promising that “The Asylum is waiting for you.” 20  It has even started hosting weddings. On the day of our most recent visit, the Asylum was hosting a “Fall Fest,” with pumpkins, mums, and hay bales decorating the grounds as local vendors sold their goods. Some people—chiefly children—were in scary costumes. These events—horrifying and wholesome—illustrate once again the needle that TALA is trying to thread. It needs to be economically successful, not just for its owners, but for the community as a whole. Its owners want to at least be seen as socially responsible and historically accurate in what they do. In fact, its operators are working to make it a kind of community center, a strange echo of what it was in its former days, when events like the local high school prom were held there. But sensation sells—and visitors, fed on a steady diet of true crime and horror, arrive with certain expectations. The gift shop’s merchandise provides even more evidence of these clashing narratives and motivations. A T-shirt with an inspiring quotation from Dorothea Dix sits on the same rack with another bearing a cartoonish figure in a straightjacket and the words, “I went nuts at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.” Most fascinating is a water bottle that tries to have it both ways: “Stop stigmatizing and embrace your crazy.”

In a piece he wrote for Morgantown Magazine, Zach Harold noted the brilliance of TALA’s ever-changing line-up of events and tours: “Unlike other historic sites—where folks visit once and check it off their list—the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum’s ever-expanding tour options have guests returning year after year.” 21  Indeed, TALA spins off countless narratives as it tries to please multiple audiences and keep the lights on. Moreover, of course, any attempt to give a master narrative of such a place is bound to embody contradictions and complexities. Bruner reminds us that “posttour narratives,” the stories we tell after a visit, “have no ending.” He adds, “with each retelling the circumstances, the audience, and the situation of the narrator changes, providing the opportunity for novel understandings and new narratives to arise.” 22  This essay, a posttour narrative to be sure, hopes to open up new understandings of the stories we tell about the intersection of tourism, history, crime, and mental illness.


  • Jenell Johnson, American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2014), 154.
  • Phillip Stone, “Enlightening the ‘Dark’ in Dark Tourism,” Association for Heritage Interpretation Journal 21, no. 2 (Winter 2016): 22.
  • Stone, “Enlightening the ‘Dark,’” 24.**
  • Edward M. Bruner, Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005), 4, 5.
  • Bruner, Culture on Tour, 5.
  • Bruner, Culture on Tour, 21.
  • Bruner, Culture on Tour, 22.
  • John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, Dark Tourism (Boston, Cengage, 2010), 3.
  • Kevin Walby and Justin Piché. “Making Meaning out of Punishment: Penitentiary, Prison, Jail, and Lock-up Museums in Canada,” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 57, no. 4 (October 2015): 480.
  • Johnson, American Lobotomy, 154.
  • Emily Smith Beitiks, “The Ghosts of Institutionalization at Pennhurst’s Haunted Asylum,” Hastings Center Report 42, no. 1 (2012): 23.
  • Robert J. Kruse II, “Point Pleasant, West Virginia: Making a Tourism Landscape in an Appalachian Town,” Southeastern Geographer 55, no. 3 (2015): 335.
  • Stone, “Enlightening the ‘Dark,’” 24.
  • Marie Teresa Simone-Charteris, Stephen W. Boyd, and Amy Burns, “The Contribution of Dark Tourism to Place Identity in Northern Ireland,” in Dark Tourism and Place Identity: Managing and Interpreting Dark Places, ed. by Leanne White and Elspeth Frew, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 70.
  • Johnson, American Lobotomy, 156.
  • Johnson, American Lobotomy, 156.
  • Caroline Norris, “A History of Madness: Four Venerable Virginia Lunatic Asylums,” Virginia Magazine of History & Biography 125, no. 2 (2017): 154.
  • Charles S. Armentrout, “Criminally Insane Roam, Sit—and Plot to Escape,” The Charleston Gazette, January 27, 1949, 1.
  • Johnson, American Lobotomy, 157.
  • Trans-Alleghany Lunatic Asylum. “The Asylum is waiting for you.” Facebook. June 23, 2019. (
  • Harold, Zach. “Committed,” Morgantown Magazine, October/November 2017, (
  • Bruner, Culture on Tour, 27.

Armentrout, Charles S. “Criminally Insane Roam, Sit—and Plot to Escape.” The Charleston Gazette, January 27, 1949.

Beitiks, Emily Smith. “The Ghosts of Institutionalization at Pennhurst’s Haunted Asylum.” Hastings Center Report 42, no. 1(2012): 22-24. doi:10.1002/HAST.10.

Bruner, Edward M. Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Harold, Zach. “Committed.” Morgantown Magazine, October/November 2017.

Johnson, Jenell. American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014.

Kruse, Robert J. II. “Point Pleasant, West Virginia: Making a Tourism Landscape in an Appalachian Town.” Southeastern Geographer, 55, no. 3 (2015): 313-337. doi:10.1353/sgo.2015.0026.

Lennon, John and Malcolm Foley. Dark Tourism. Boston: Cengage, 2010.

Norris, Caroline. “A History of Madness: Four Venerable Virginia Lunatic Asylums.” Virginia Magazine of History & Biography, 125, no. 2 (2017): 138-182.

Simone-Charteris, Maria Teresa, Stephen W. Boyd, and Amy Burns. “The Contribution of Dark Tourism to Place Identity in Northern Ireland” in Dark Tourism and Place Identity: Managing and Interpreting Dark Places, edited by Leanne White and Elspeth Frew, 60-78. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Stone, Phillip. “Enlightening the ‘Dark’ in Dark Tourism.” Association for Heritage Interpretation Journal, 21, no. 2, (Winter 2016): 22-24.

Walby, Kevin and Justin Piché. “Making Meaning out of Punishment: Penitentiary, Prison, Jail, and Lock-up Museums in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 57, no. 4 (October 2015): 475-502. doi:10.3138/cjccj.2014.E15.