EAST BETHANY — Rolling Hills Asylum may be getting a big-time close-up.
The property at Bethany Center and Raymond roads finds itself cloaked in a new mystery this week that appears to link Rolling Hills to a promotion for “American Horror Story,” a popular FX cable thriller that begins its second season next month.
“American Horror Story Asylum” is set to take place in a fictional insane asylum, but before episodes begin Oct. 17, four fans will be locked inside an asylum — that has not been named — as part of the “American Horror Story Get Committed Asylum Promotion.”
Several tantalizing clues about Rolling Hills’ role began appearing online in social media and blogs last month.
It’s hard not to notice an image first posted on the “wall” at the “American Horror Story” Facebook page when the contest was announced in late August. The image appears to be a tightly cropped view of two wings of a large brick building that meets at an angled, wood-framed entrance. A distinct cupola is prominent. The image continues to be used on the website for the “Get Committed” promotion.
Though darkened and scratched to give the image an aged appearance, it is remarkably similar in appearance to recent images of Rolling Hills — including a missing gutter downspout between two windows on the image’s left side.
Facebook comments of the “American Horror Story” page and at least one blogger have noticed the resemblance.
The intrigue increased Wednesday night after the Genesee County Legislature approved a permit for a marketing company to film Thursday and Friday in Genesee County Park, which borders the Rolling Hills property. The company, GMR Marketing LLC of New Berlin, Wisc., is also the company behind the “Get Committed” promotion.
“When it comes to something like this we try to cooperate,” Genesee County Manager Jay Gsell said. “You never know what it might morph into.”
Gsell said the filming request and other inquiries into using the park has county officials reviewing its permitting process.
“The idea is that there is a potential opportunity. That people are willing to pay for using the property and we can turn it into a benefit for us,” Gsell said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to open it up and go solicit for proposals, but when something like this comes along we want to be ready.”
Paul Osborn, operations manager for Genesee County Park, said the production company was interested in filming at the cemetery, but later informed him that they did not think they’d be using the park location.
"My understanding was they wanted to use the park for the cemetery and a kind of 'Blair Witch,' experience," Osborn said, referencing 1999's "The Blair Witch Project," a faux documentary-style feature film about missing students and found film footage.
People connected to the promotion or the show are either not responding to or deflecting requests for comment. Property owner Sharon Coyle has been unavailable for comment, though she customarily declines comment when productions are using her privately-owned property citing stringent confidentiality agreements.
Rolling Hills closed Sunday and is scheduled to remain closed through Oct. 2 and possibly to Oct. 4 or 5, according to an operating schedule on the attraction’s website.
But something is clearly happening at the property where increased activity has been observed in recent days.
Early Thursday morning, a post on the official Rolling Hills Facebook page said simply: “Ohhh sooooo much happening at the Hills this week!”
About 20 cars were parked on the property Thursday, along with two production trailers, at least one power generator, and several tents of different size. Much of the activity — when viewed from the County Park — appeared to be concentrated around a rear entrance of Rolling Hills.
The official rules for the “Get Committed” contest, which include several references to GMR Marketing, state that the promotion will take place at “a U.S. location to be determined … on September 28, 2012-September 30, 2012.”
Promotional materials for the contest described the location as being in the rural northeast.
“The asylum has stood for a long time — It’s sordid history relegated to the cemetery in the woods nearby,” the description said.
“It closed but it didn’t die. Hallways, a chapel and solitary cells in the basement are considered some of the most paranormally active in the United States,” the copy reads.
While that description could be entirely fictional, it hews very close to the real history of Rolling Hills, a sprawling complex built in 1827 that many consider to be among the most haunted locations in the country. The property — then a white-frame construction building — first served as the Genesee County Poorhouse, home to paupers, the insane, vagrants, drunks, illegitimate children, orphans, the blind and the lame, according to historical accounts. Its indigent residents were buried in a potter’s field nearby when they died.
A new brick building, now the west wing of the existing building, was constructed in 1938 and the east wing built in 1958. The property was the Genesee County Nursing Home until 1974, reverting to private ownership and changing hands several times. Coyle bought the property at auction in 2009.
Contestants for “Get Committed” were chosen after submitting a series of 100-word statements to answer “Why do you want to be committed to American Horror Story Asylum?,” “How do you react to fear and what scares you?” and “How does being confined make you feel?” Entries were accepted between Aug. 31 and Sept. 9, with winners to be announced on the “American Horror Story” website on or about Sept. 24 (as of Thursday night, the winners had not been revealed).
A message on the website says “Stay tuned for exclusive footage from Get Committed: The Experience.”
A representative for the on-site production said Thursday only that they were preparing a “special event” at Rolling Hills. Calls to two numbers listed for GMR’s office in New Berlin, Wisc., were met with a “changed or out-of-service” message. A call to GMR’s New York City office went unanswered.
Calls Thursday to the Los Angeles production office for “American Horror Story” were politely redirected to the FX publicity office “which is handling everything to do with the contest.” Other public relations or media relations representatives for FX have not returned phone calls or responded to emails in recent weeks.
Rolling Hills already has a national reputation among the paranormal community, with visitors often reporting hearing voices and seeing visions. The property has been featured on several reality shows, including “Ghost Hunters” and “Ghost Adventures.” Last year, Rolling Hills was featured in the premiere episode of “Paranormal Challenge,” a reality competition that sends two ghost-hunting teams into a location to see who can get the most and best evidence of otherworldly activity.
While those shows reach national audiences, they don’t have as large an audience as the more than 3 million people who weekly watched the first season of “American Horror Story.” (“Ghost Hunters,” with an average of 2.4 million viewers, according to ratings company Nielsen, is most watched among programs that have visited Rolling Hills.)
Nor have the other series received the critical acclaim of “American Horror Story.” The first season was nominated for 17 Emmy Awards and earned star Jessica Lange an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or a movie for “American Horror Story.”
Lange is among several stars from the first season of “American Horror Story” who will be returning for the anthology series’ second season — though as completely different characters in a new setting. “American Horror Story Asylum” is set in 1964 at Briarcliff Manor, an institution for the criminally insane in western Massachusetts. The asylum is run by Lange’s Sister Judge.
Little is known about the new season’s actual story, which in short video teasers and advance stories indicate a macabre collection of nuns, Nazis, medical experiments, a serial killer known as Bloody Face and the possibility of aliens.
Likewise, nothing is known about any future role for Rolling Hills.
“American Horror Story Asylum” premieres 10 p.m. Oct. 17 on FX, cable channel 67 in Batavia.