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Screamfest at Hollidaysburg’s U.S. Hotel

Ghost hunters are a breed apart. They’re a little obsessive, to be frank. They congregate at places that have a reputation for supernatural occurrences, and wait to see what’s going on for themselves. They’re not psychic—they don’t see visions or hear voices that nobody else in the room can pick up. If anything, they overcompensate for their new-age counterparts by being as scientific as they possibly can. They tote cameras, video equipment, digital audio recorders, electromagnetic sensors, ultra-sensitive thermometers, and other equipment, and

gather all the data they can in an attempt to “prove” that ghosts are at work in these places. But mostly, all they can come up with are orbs—little blobs of light in their photographs that to the skeptical eye look like reflections or flaws in the lens. The one thing they’re not given to is exaggeration or histrionics.

That’s why the events at the U.S. Hotel in Hollidaysburg a few years back are so surprising. This Blair County hotel was built in 1835, and had a checkered past that included brewing hooch, rumors of an upstairs bordello, and underground tunnels for either stowing runaway slaves or hiding illicit goods. But the supernatural story that appeared in the October 2001 issue of Fate magazine takes the cake. Patty Wilson’s report reads more like a splatter movie than a typical ghost hunter’s report. The place had fallen into decay by the mid 1990s, so the new owners began extensive remodeling. Noises were heard during the night, laughter and footsteps, and one of the contractors apparently awoke to see a woman dressed in a white gown hovering above the floor, footless.

These stories attracted six members of a ghost hunting group called the Paranormal Research Foundation, including the author of the article. They spent the night at the place in a routine ghost hunt—exploring and taking pictures wherever they could. Then suddenly, one of the group experienced a panic attack and ran from an upstairs room. Two of the others ran up to investigate. Keen to find some evidence, they unsuccessfully attempted to take photographs, but the flash of one camera illuminated a fleeting vision that horrified the witnesses. Patty Wilson was one of the pair that saw the apparition. In her account on her Web site Ghostsrus.com, she described it this way: “I saw a pretty woman with long auburn hair lying on a bed in that room...She was writhing in pain and holding

her head. As suddenly as I caught this glimpse, she was gone in the darkness after the flash. I had this sudden intense fear and a sense of terrible pain and the word “Run!” kept screaming in my head.”

With the vision gone, there was nothing left to do there, so they left the scene. Unsettled by the vision, the group still plugged on for a while, exploring the rooms as thoroughly as they could. But agitation got the better of them when one member of the group, a man named Al, said in an unequivocal tone “Everybody out of here now!” In the article in Fate magazine, he explained the reason for his barked order. He had seen a shadow step into the light, carrying an axe or some other kind of weapon and just knew that this was the man who had killed the woman they had seen in agony upstairs. The scrap of information they had heard about a footless female ghost in the building came crashing down on him, and he felt as though he had witnessed a grisly murder reenacted in spirit form. The evening ended with these systematic explorers in a state of jittery agitation.

When you look at the story as retold on Wilson’s Web site Ghostsrus.com, you’re struck by how ordinary the photographic evidence of that trip is. There are a few orbs here and there in some otherwise mundane pictures of rooms. There’s nothing unusual there at all. In fact, Wilson’s quick to explain that the atmosphere on first floor of the hotel is very warm and welcoming, and that’s how the place seems to be.

The key to feeling comfortable about the place, it seems, lies in never spending a night on the second floor.

Photo by Patrick Wetherby

You can read about all of Pennsylvania’s other haunted hotspots in Weird Pennsylvania.

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