WINDBER, Pa. — If you bump into something in Blair Murphy’s haunted hotel, chances are it’s a creepy doll or some antlered animal, looking directly at you with dead eyes. An enormous tarot card is painted across the ceiling. The Ouija board on the roof is even bigger, 44 feet by 29.
Murphy, who grew up in a funeral home in Haddonfield, N.J., has enough spiritual firepower in the 32-room former brothel in Somerset County to summon a whole army of the undead to do his bidding. He owns a former church up the street, too, in case other spirits are listening. But Murphy said he doesn’t need prayers or curses to address “Ouijazilla,” a recent challenger to his Guinness Book of World Records title for “World’s Biggest Ouija Board.”
“I’m not campaigning and complaining against them," he insists. “We’d probably all get along.”
Ouijazilla, unveiled earlier this month in a Salem, Mass., park, was built by Rick Schreck, a Middlesex County, N.J., tattoo artist and vice president of the Talking Board Historical Society. According to its web site, the wooden Ouijazilla is as heavy as an elephant at 9,000 pounds, and at 3,168 square feet, it’s more than twice the size of Murphy’s roof board. Ouijazilla’s planchette, the wooden piece on which users place their hands to channel spirits, is so large that Schreck has been photographed standing in its eye. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! has given Ouijazilla the crown, but Guinness still lists Murphy’s as the top talking board in the world.
When asked specifically whether the Ouija record was broken, a Guinness spokeswoman said Murphy’s still stands and that Ouijazilla “is not the current record holder.” Murphy said he spoke with Guinness and believes the issue stems from the advertisements painted on Ouijazilla’s surface, including some for haunted attractions and paint companies, not unlike a diner placemat.
Murphy’s Ouija board has no ads.
“Guinness is a real stickler,” he said. “Ours is a real purist’s board.”
Schreck, in an email, said he didn’t “know anything about that, I’m just into having fun.” He also said that if he removed the “border” and “friends’ businesses" from Ouijazilla, it would still be bigger than Murphy’s board: “The numbers can speak for themselves. OuijaZilla is undeniable...with all due respect.”
Shreck said he plans to submit his board to Guinness.
Murphy, 54, spent most of his life in Los Angeles as a filmmaker and photographer. He also worked there as an assistant to the late Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, before the blitz of blockbuster comic movies. Looking for a change of pace, Murphy saw the historic Grand Midway Hotel for sale on eBay for $11,000. He bought the property with a friend and moved there in September 2001. The home had secret passageways. The ghost of a woman killed by fireworks haunted the rooms. A certain chill pervaded.
“There was no heat and one kerosene burner,” he said. “It was quite a challenge.”
Murphy makes a living driving blood back and forth to Philadelphia, about 225 miles to the east, for the Red Cross, but he has also turned the Grand Midway into a destination. He’s paid demented attention to every room. The Mermaid Room isn’t so scary, unless you have ichthyophobia, the fear of fish. Neither is the the Beatnik Room, though hanging over the bed is a portrait of William S. Burroughs, who tried to shoot a shot glass off his wife’s head in 1951 and missed the glass. The Shakespeare Room seems harmless, until you turn the corner and see the cast of Macbeth in mannequin form.
People usually don’t last the night in the Canopy Room, Murphy said, on account of the dolls and poltergeists. You can sleep there for $100.
Some of the rooms were already filled on the Friday before Halloween as Murphy prepared for his annual “Draculacon," a gathering of like-minded horror aficionados. Murphy said Windber, a former company town for nearby coal mines, wasn’t so keen on his interests at first, hoping he’d use the word “folklore” instead of “ghosts,” but it’s come around. Some proceeds from Draculacon went to the town’s library, along with the police and fire departments.
The hotel’s roof sat black and blank for years, like most roofs. Murphy and a group of local artists began painting as if an occult hand was guiding their inner planchette, and a Ouija board emerged. Guinness created the record after the painting was completed in 2016. It’s still not featured on Google Maps.
“All these neighbors watched us, and they were all freaked out,” he said, pointing to back porches on an adjacent street. “But I’m not trying to be unwholesome. I have a 3-year-old. I’m really actually kind of a conservative dad.”
Murphy said neighbors have come to appreciate his creative flair, and that his daughter describes the hotel as a “playground.” He doesn’t let her — or for that matter, many tourists — onto the roof too often, on account of insurance and William Fuld, inventor of the modern Ouija board.