STEVE VOLK tries to recreate a British author's paranormal awakening--and succeeds in failing.
Urban explorers have ventured into the abandoned 30-building complex ever since its closing 16 years ago. Some emerged with starkly prosaic tales. Others came out with stories of ghosts, unexplained voices and visions. Either way, trespassing on these grounds could be more Philadelphia only if they sold cheesesteaks inside. But Gentile urges caution.
He plays a digital audio recording, and a shrieking sound--manic and unhinged--rings out in his truck. "I got that inside Byberry," says Gentile. "That scream sounded like it was happening right in front of me. All around me. But there was no one there."
He pauses, drawing hard on his cigarette, then smiles. "We're going to that spot," he says.
The 450-acre Byberry site is being prepped for office space and an old-folks' home. But Gentile so believes that Byberry holds spirits he'd prefer to see the buildings preserved for paranormal research. And he worries new tenants will get more than they expected.
"The place is haunted," he says. "Who knows what could happen on the grounds?"
When we arrive, shortly after midnight, we apply our tick spray and go stalking through tall weeds to reach a long three-story building, W-7, which Gentile says is Byberry's most haunted. We enter by walking over a door torn from its hinges, and turn on our flashlights.
I immediately feel frightened. In a place where no one can see or hear you, and where your body might lie for weeks before discovery, there are effectively no laws.
At first I try to pick out individual details. Graffiti covers the walls. Empty beer cans litter the hallways. A broken flashlight lies amid debris that's fallen from the ceiling. Pieces of plaster and wood from broken doors are scattered across the floors. But within seconds I realize these individual items comprise part of a larger mosaic--a tapestry of decay that holds its own strange beauty and reassurance.
As we enter the hallway, debris crunches underfoot with every step. It seems clear that if the world's most skilled ninja came stalking through these halls to kill us both, we'd at least have plenty of warning.
Gentile thinks of this building as the most haunted because he's had many ghostly experiences here, and because someone recently died within its walls. A building inspector fell to his death in February 2005 when a stairwell collapsed. Gentile believes his digital recorder captured communications from spirits that knew such a death was coming. And to prove at least part of his story he takes me by a stairwell on the bottom floor and shows me the shattered railing and pile of debris. I remain skeptical that any death occurred until later, when I find an old newspaper article that confirms the inspector fell here. But even before I receive such confirmation the tale remains on my mind.
He leads me up another stairwell and into a wide hallway. Entrances to various rooms loom ahead, beckoning and black. We pass the fallen stairwell again and gaze down it from above.
Gentile's flashlight picks out the nurse's station where he recorded that wild shrieking. Just a few steps farther on we enter a room dotted by half-walls partitioning off a series of cubicle spaces. "Welcome," he says, "to W-7."
|The convert: British author Will Storr is one of Gentile's foremost supporters.|
We stand still and adjust to the dark. Then Gentile sets his digital recorder on one of the half-walls. "April 30, 2006, undisclosed location, EVP No. 1," he says. EVP stands for electronic voice phenomenon, the name believers have given recordings they say are communications from ghosts.
"If there are any spirits here," continues Gentile, "we ask that you communicate with us through this tape recorder. We ask that you don't harm us or seek to manifest yourselves in any way other than through this tape recorder."
He stops talking and waits for any spirits to respond. I watch the little red light on his tape recorder. It's voice-activated and supposed to turn on only when the microphone picks up some kind of noise.
"We ask that you please tell us your name," he says.
He waits again. I watch the little red light blink, blink in the silence.
"What is the name of the most predominant spirit around us right now?"
PW's Summer Guide 2014