Mansfield, Ohio - to be young in 1896 must have been something. Not a care in the world, it seems.
Then, as most young boys do, you committed some minor transgression. Maybe you stole some gumdrops from old Mr. Smith at the general store on Main Street.
So they took you over to the Ohio State Reformatory, a spanking-new facility outside Columbus. It was undoubtedly quite a sight back then, this noble, imposing structure located on 30 acres and designed to house, feed and rehabilitate 3,500 males aged 16 to 30.
The building is still impressive, all right, designed by noted architect Levi T. Scofield to resemble the castles and chateaux of the medieval era. But once inside the Mansfield Reformatory (its modern name), there's much more chill than charm. The steady drip-drip-drip of water is the only sign of life besides your own rattled breathing.
Our guide, Jan Demyan, discussing the architecture of the prisoners' area, which is flanked by Gothic arches and huge grey granite columns, says it was meant to remind the boys of a church.
If godliness did in fact reside here a century ago, little of that remains now. This is a dark, damp and musty place where the most popular events are the Sunday afternoon public tours and the frequent dusk-to-dawn ghost hunts ($60 per person, www.mrps.org) that have caused such a stir. It's the only program of its kind in the U.S., and presumably in Canada, too.
Mansfield makes an excellent setting for a blockbuster movie, a fact that didn't escape the notice of writer-director Frank Darabont, who filmed the acclaimed Stephen King prison tale The Shawshank Redemption inside these very walls.
Film buffs will love the tour. The areas used in the film are clearly delineated, and some of the key props, such as the plywood escape tunnel used by Tim Robbins's character, are on display. The Russian prison scenes in the Harrison Ford thriller Air Force One were also shot here.
If you're like most people, however, the ghosts are the main attraction. We didn't see any today, but an eerily placed dusty old shoe on the floor of a cell was a disembodied remnant of the good old days. It's still a fascinating experience to walk the corridors, peer inside the cells and imagine what it would have been like to inhabit the prisoners' quarters. A few of the cells have been dressed up to give visitors a more realistic view of the times, but most are grimy, dusty and much more disturbing that way.
It's unsettling to visit the basement solitary confinement level called the Hole, used during the reformatory's later period.
You can imagine how terrifying this was, especially for the prisoner who hung himself here in 1955. Or the one who burned himself to death with turpentine and paint thinner after murdering another inmate and stuffing him under a bunk.
Death wasn't uncommon at the OSR, among the civilian ranks as well. In 1950, the wife of the superintendent was killed when his pistol fell out of a closet and discharged, shooting her through the chest. Her husband died in his office here nine years later. It's said that the superintendent's living quarters and office are visited by spectral entities.
This area is where the ghost hunt begins on predetermined dates through the year. To join it, you must be 21 years of age - no exceptions. You are advised to bring a camera as well as a tape recorder and stopwatch to record any unusual events. A compass may help by indicating a shift in magnetic fields. Serious paranormal stuff, it seems; hardly for those with weak tickers.
Never travel through the building alone. "I've had people walk down the cellblock and feel very uncomfortable," Demyan says. "Some have actually had to leave the building and take time to regroup and figure out what made them uneasy."
So if you're willing to abandon your sissy ways and try something really hair-raising, come spend a night in a truly historic haunt. They'll give you pizza late in the evening along with a side order of thrills and chills.
Eating late results in nightmares, they say. But don't worry. You won't be sleeping much after this experience anyhow.