Thursday, September 25, 2014

Nursing Major Volunteers for English Faculty Research Project on Shawshank Fan Culture

By Emily Coughenour

AU Students survey fans of The Shawshank Redemption near the Ohio State Reformatory
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."

One of the most powerful quotes spoken by Andy (Tim Robbins) to Red (Morgan Freeman), in the 1994 Oscar nominated classic, and Stephen King bestseller, Shawshank Redemption, was highlighted at the legendary Ohio State Reformatory (OSR) on the September 23rd weekend. Many fans from all over the state of Ohio, and even a few from out of state, came to celebrate a remarkable piece of American movie culture to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the blockbuster's release. I had the opportunity to volunteer for a research project about fan culture, directed by AU faculty Dr. Maura Grady (English) and Dr. Robby Roberson (Hospitality Management/Tourism). I heard about the project from my English composition professor, Dr. Jayne Waterman.

The first day of the anniversary weekend was a beautiful hot day, not a cloud in the sky. The parking spaces in the far front of the prison were so packed, the volunteers and workers had to place certain cars in the employee parking and even the front yard! The long lines for the tours moved slowly but surely into the building. The only complaint from most of the visitors was how badly they wanted to get out of the sun’s sizzling heat and into the reformatory’s shaded walls. If the heat weren’t so intense, they would have more time to enjoy the beauty of the prison, and I don’t blame them.

When I arrived at the Mansfield Reformatory, my jaw immediately dropped at the prison’s stunning architecture. I also thought that the building looked like it belonged in Transylvania. Its gothic exterior would be the perfect setting for a scary movie. Seeing one of America’s most intriguing historical prisons brought me back in time to when everything was alive and thriving. When I got my clipboard and recorder I was off to work, asking questions about how the tour was and finding out the importance of the movie to each individuals. I found out that there were three different kinds of fans out there. There were the Shawshank fans, the Reformatory’s fans, and lastly, the paranormal fans who seeked the prison's haunted past. It was more exhausting than you think. I was so eager to finish my shift volunteering, but I did manage to tag along on a short tour of the marvelous palace of a prison and learn more about it, besides its role in Shawshank Redemption. Here’s some history about this mysterious prison.

The Ohio State Reformatory was built from 1886, with some construction continuing to 1910, and remained in operation until it closed in 1990. The Reformatory was opened on September 15, 1896 to its first 150 young inmates that were sent to Mansfield by train. When the inmates arrived, they were sent to work on the prison's sewer system (Here’s a movie reference: one of the sewer tunnels the inmates built was recreated for Andy’s escape from Shawshank). After the Reformatory closed in 1990 due to the increasing number of inmates, the OSR brought in more than $10 million with the prison's popular ghost hunting events. As an avid ghost hunting television show fan, I was excited to be in a location where SyFy’s Ghost Hunters did their investigations,  along with the investigators from SyFy’s Ghost Adventures and Discovery’s Scariest Places on Earth. (For the record, these are my favorite paranormal shows of all time and are my favorite episodes!) The Ohio State Reformatory's past is… well… pretty famous for treatment of the inmates.

With the increase in income from previous tours, ghost hunts, haunted houses, etc., the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society wants to give the partially demolished building a makeover to encourage more Shawshank fans to visit throughout the year. These include “plans to clean, decorate, replace the huge cathedral windows and supply heating to the former prison so that it will be weatherproof for tourists within six months,” (Jess Denam, The Independent). When you walk into the prison, you will see all of the paint from the walls starting to peel off. Everywhere you step, the floors creak because the floors are slowly starting to deteriorate. Some of the rooms are missing wooden floor panels due to the rotting of the wood. The front grand staircase, though, still in amazing condition, makes you feel as if the reformatory was once a palace… not a prison.

I was shown around most of the important rooms and locations where Shawshank Redemption’s key scenes took place. I saw the warden’s office where Red was denied parole, the Jesus Mural room where Red and the rest of the prisoners watched Gilda (Fun fact: the Jesus Mural room was actually built just for the scene of the movie! It was never actually a part of the prison before Shawshank Redemption). One of the most interesting locations in the prison were the cell blocks. When I walked down the spiraling staircases, I swore I felt the cell block sway. (Another fun fact: the cell blocks of the OSR are the tallest free-standing cell blocks in the world! Six tiers to be exact). The inmates’ cells were very small—so small that they make our dorm rooms look like apartments! I was able to see solitary confinement where Andy was sent, and it was one of the eeriest locations throughout the prison. But none would compare to the chair room. The chair room was a large concrete room with no windows and a metal steel door… and one chair in the middle of it all. Let’s just say I almost got locked in with the lights turned off… not a fun place to be when you are scared of the dark… and in a haunted prison.

This experience volunteering at the Mansfield Reformatory was life changing. I have always wanted to go since I was a younger. This opportunity gave me an excuse to finally be able to go and experience it. However, at the end of the day (and in the back of my mind) I wished that Morgan Freeman and/or Tim Robbins was there. I mean… Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins! Thankfully Morgan Freeman did narrate a short video about the 20th anniversary in the link below. What a legend. Anyways, the journey I took was one that will definitely change one’s perspective on freedom. From walking in the footsteps of Red and Andy through their times spent at the reformatory and seeing through the eyes of the inmates during their sentenced years, you will enjoy every second of the prison. If you happen to go, breathe in America’s past, touch the walls and feel its history rub against your fingertips. Let the Reformatory take you back to its era. I guess Andy was right when he said no good thing ever dies. Shawshank Redemption will, I hope, never die and will never be forgotten. Happy 20th Anniversary Shawshank.

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