MANSFIELD, Ohio - I never expected to hear anyone tell me they heard the voice of a ghost make direct and specific reference to me, but it happened and the very thought of a ghost eyeing me sent shivers up my spine.
It was at the old Mansfield Reformatory, a gothic and foreboding prison which is no longer used to incarcerate men who have broken the law, but is now a museum and a tourist attraction for those who want to see how inmates lived and where the popular 1994 film, "Shawshank Redemption" was produced.
I went to the prison, which for more than a century housed 155,000 inmates, as part of an observation of one of my favorite movies. In it, a character played by Tim Robbins broke out of the fictional "Shawshank" after serving about 20 years for a murder he did not commit. It was during his horrible incarceration, he is befriended by a fellow inmate portrayed by Morgan Freeman.
In 1993, the two actors with hundreds of others literally moved into the closed Mansfield prison. There in the old prison's unsettling walls, they made a classic movie, one that is listed on the American Film Institute's list of 100 best in American cinema history.
However, even without the "stardom" of the prison, which operated as such from 1896 to Dec. 31, 1990, the scene proved to be riveting to me. Its walls hold an uncanny cold in them, perhaps pushed by the many windows that were broken in the structure that held 2,000 men in its 1,000 cells. Inmates would fling small batteries through the bars and break the windows to allow cooler air in during the hot summer months.
"If they were broken in the summer, they were broken in the winter and you can feel the breeze hitting us right now," said Ron Puff, a guide who conducts tours through the prison, now owned by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society. It raises money to keep the old prison on its feet. Indeed, it has become a tourist attraction for the society which keeps the facility as a piece of important history for Mansfield and the Ohio prison system.
Among the more popular tours are those during the night hours when "ghost walks" are the attraction. "We have what I call shadow men who live on some of the upper levels of the cell block," said Scott Sukel of the society. "I have also heard cell doors sliding closed when there is no one visibly there," he said, his voice rising in pitch as he described what he said he has seen and heard.
"I've seen apparitions that look just like you and me," he added. Sukel said some of the ghosts appear as transparent beings. Others appear as solid figures which are there one moment and gone the next.
When he told me while I was interviewing another of the tour guides at the Mansfield prison, he heard a voice come from what he thought was an empty cell.
"Actually when we were over in the other cell block," he said, his voice rising, but steady in its rhythm, "and we were in back of you, I heard a voice that came out of a cell that said, 'Who in the hell is that guy?'" Sukel seemed to look into my very soul when he uttered his words. A cold wind swept across my neck and it was not just the outside wind blowing through the rusted bars sandwiched between windows
Sukel had stopped me in my tracks as I looked down the long line of cells, every one with peeling paint and rusting steel. When "Shawshank Redemption" was filmed, the place had not deteriorated to the point it has today. The Mansfield prison was a wonderful as a backdrop for the movie. " But it must have been a living hell for the thousands of inmates who were confined there. Mansfield began as a reformatory for juveniles, but in 1970, it grew into a maximum security lockdown for men who had committed heinous crimes.
Inside its walls are still what had been hidden secrets. Preservation Society archivist and tour guide Shannon Lusk, while sitting in one of the cells during my interview with another tour guide, said she had found a makeshift knife. She pulled it from behind a toilet in the cell. It was a razor blade that had been sunken into the melted plastic of a toothbrush handle.
In her gloved hands, she held it up for my inspection. It, too, sent shivers down my spine. Several hours later as I left the former Mansfield Prison, which played the "heavy" in "Shawshank Redemption," I was glad I had visited, but equally glad to be leaving.
"Why don't you come back and visit us again," said tour guide Ron Puff. "Maybe spend 3-to-5 with us," he joked. There are plans to commemorate 20th anniversary of the 1994 release of "Shawshank Redemption" and the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society is trying to get in contact with actors Freeman and Robbins and anyone else associated with the production to return to the stone walls and steel bars of their movie set. It is not certain if such a reunion will happen in Mansfield.
However, I plan to return and take another longer tour of the place to view many of the props which were used in the hit film. The tour guides show how the
Hollywood director filmed
Robbins' character crawling the 500 yards through a sewer pipe to escape the prison. The prop is there in the prison for viewing.
I have long been a fan of many Hollywood films. I am have long been intrigued by the "Shawshank Redemption" story. I am not necessarily a fan of ghosts. Still, that subject has begun to intrigue me. I don't know if I will take a ghost tour alone, where I can spend the night and be armed with a flashlight for roving throughout the old cell blocks. But I might do one if someone accompanies me. Things that go bump in the night may be a little too much for me alone, but who knows, I might change my mind and spend a few nighttime hours there. But please don't lock the door.
Certainly, I would take another daylight tour. I still want to know about that voice that made a reference to me while I walked though a long cell block where I thought every opened cell was empty. Maybe somebody who died there is still serving time in Mansfield, even when, I presume, he could walk away. Or fly away.
Tours can be arranged by contacting the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society at (419) 522-2644 or by going online to http://ohiostatereformatory.org
The prison will leave a light on for you. Then again, maybe it won't. If you hear strange voices, don't say I didn't tell you.