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Haunted Inns: Tales of Spectral Guest

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 24.5, September / October 2000

If testimonials in countless books and articles are to be believed, spending the night in a quaint old hotel might provide an encounter with an extra, ethereal visitor.

Over nearly thirty years of paranormal investigation, I have had the opportunity to experience many “haunted” sites. These have included burial places, like England’s West Kennet Long Barrow (where I failed to see the specter of a “Druid priest” that allegedly attends the ancient tomb); religious sanctuaries, such as Christ Church Cathedral in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada (where the apparition of the first bishop’s wife did not materialize); theaters, including the Lancaster (New York) Opera House (where a ghostly “Lady in Lavender” was a no-show); houses, like the historic residence of William Lyon Mackenzie in Toronto (where ghostly footfalls on the stairs were actually those of real people on a staircase next door); and other sites, notably inns-the subject of this investigative roundup. (Most of the inns cited-all personally investigated-included an overnight stay, staff interviews, background research, etc. [Nickell 1972-2000].)

Why haunted inns? Obviously, places open to the public have more numerous and more varied visitors, and hence more opportunities for ghostly experiences, than do private dwellings and out-of-the-way sites. And inns-by which I include hotels, motels, guesthouses, bed-and-breakfasts, and other places that provide overnight lodging-offer much more. They not only allow extended time periods for visitors to have unusual experiences but also ensure that the guests will be there during a range of states from alertness through sleep. Almost predictably, sooner or later, someone will awaken to an apparition at his or her bedside.

Appearances of the Dead

The experience is a common type of hallucination, known popularly as a ”waking dream,” which takes place between being fully asleep and fully awake. Such experiences typically include bizarre imagery (bright lights or apparitions of demons, ghosts, aliens, etc.) and/or auditory hallucinations. ”Sleep paralysis” may also occur, whereby there is an inability to move because the body is still in the sleep mode (Nickell 1995).

A good example of an obvious waking dream is reported by “A. C.” She was asleep on board the Queen Mary, the former ocean liner that, since 1971, has been permanently docked at Long Beach, California. As the woman relates:

I awoke from a deep sleep around midnight. I saw a figure walking near my daughter’s sleeping bag toward the door. Thinking it was my sister, I called out. There was no answer. It was then that I noticed my sister was lying next to me. I sat up in bed and watched the person in white walk through the door!

Another example reported at the Hotel Queen Mary is credited to “H. V.”:

I was awakened from my sleep and observed the image of a person standing in front of my bed. There were no apparent physical features, but it appeared to be holding a flashlight, with a light shining out of it that was brighter than the form itself. I watched as the image swayed back and forth. When I called my roommate the image backed up. I called again and the vision backed up even further, toward the door. I reached for the light switch and tried to turn it on. The light switch seemed to spark and wouldn't turn on all the way. Finally, my roommate woke up; the light came on, and whatever it was, was gone. We slept with the TV on the rest of the night. It was a great experience, and I had a lot of fun! (Wlodarski et al. 1995, 33, 35)

To be sure, not all sightings of ghostly figures are of the waking-dream variety, many in fact occurring during normal activity. Some are like the report of “J. M.” who was at the Queen Mary’s Purser’s Desk when, he stated, “I caught a brief glimpse out of the corner of my eye, of someone or something moving,” or like that of “P. T.” who said, “I saw something move out of the corner of my eye . . . a brief glimpse of someone or something” (Wlodarski 1995, 32, 36). Actually, the illusion that something is moving in the peripheral vision is quite common. The typical cause may be a “floater,” a bit of drifting material in the eye’s vitreous humour, although a twitching eyelid, or other occurrence is also possible.

Such an illusion or a different stimulus-a noise, a subjective feeling, etc.-might trigger, as in one experiencer aboard the Queen Mary, a “mental image.” In that case it was of a man “wearing a blue mechanic’s uniform”-a “feeling” which left after a few moments (Wlodarski et al. 1995, 32). In certain especially imaginative individuals the mental image might be superimposed upon the visual scene, thus creating a seemingly apparitional event.

This may be the explanation for a frequently reported type of apparition that is seen momentarily and then vanishes when the percipient looks away for an instant. For example, a New Mexico hotel, La Posada de Santa Fe-which is allegedly haunted by the spirit of Julie Staab (1844-1896), wife of the original builder-offers no fewer than three sightings of this type. One was reported in 1979 by an employee who was cleaning one night. Although the place was deserted he looked up to see a translucent woman standing near a fireplace. Inexplicably, he “returned to his cleaning,” an act that one writer noted showed “remarkable composure.” Then, “when he looked up again the figure had vanished.” On another occasion a security guard showed less reserve when, seeing what he thought was Julie, “He turned and ran, and when he looked back, the figure had vanished.” Yet again, a “beautifully dressed” Julie, reposing in an armchair, was seen by the hotel phone operator. However, “When she looked back at the chair a few seconds later, the ghost had vanished” (Mead 1995, 157-158). Such reports suggest that the apparition is only a mental image that occurs in a kind of reverie.

Indeed, personal experience as well as research data demonstrates that ghostly perceptions often derive from daydreams or other altered states of consciousness. Haraldsson (1988) for instance specifically determined that apparitional sightings were linked to periods of reverie. As well, Andrew MacKenzie (1982) demonstrated that a third of the hallucinatory cases he studied occurred either just before or after sleep, or while the percipient was in a relaxed state or concentrating on some activity like reading, or was performing routine work. The association of apparitional experiences with a dream-like state was also reported by G. N. M. Terrell (1973). He observed that apparitions of people invariably appear fully clothed and are frequently accompanied by objects, just as they are in dreams, because the clothing and other objects are required by the apparitional drama. The three La Posada encounters are consistent with all of these research observations. That the apparitions vanish when the observer’s gaze is shifted could be explained by the hypothesis that the reverie is merely broken.

Whereas “waking-dream” type encounters are obviously more likely to be experienced by hotel guests rather than employees, the reverie or daydream type is often reported by the latter-as in all three of the La Posada examples, as well as some of the instances from the Queen Mary (Wlodarski et al. 1995, 48, 49) and elsewhere. Hotel staff performing routine chores may be particularly susceptible to this type of apparitional experience.

Selling Ghosts

The power of suggestion can help trigger ghostly encounters. According to noted psychologist and fellow ghostbuster Robert A. Baker, “We tend to see and hear those things we believe in” (Baker and Nickell 1992, 129). Even without the prompting that comes from an inn’s reputation for being haunted, the mere ambiance of places with antique architecture and quaint decor can set the stage for spirits to debut. An example is Belhurst Castle (figure 1), a turreted stone inn in Geneva, New York, whose high-ceilinged lobby is graced with wood paneling, a large fireplace, and a suit of armor to help conjure up romantic notions. Historic sites like Maine’s Kennebunk Inn (expanded from a home built in 1799), the Farnsworth House in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, (constructed in 1810 and its south side pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Gettysburg), and even the more recent Hotel Boulderado in Boulder, Colorado (which opened on New Year’s Day 1909 and boasts among its former guests Bat Masterson), offer the impress of history and legend. So does the Bardstown, Kentucky, Jailer’s Inn, a bed-and-breakfast converted from the old Nelson County Jail (built in 1819), and, in Santa Fe, the historic, adobe La Fonda Inn.

The influence of setting and mood on reports of phantoms is sometimes acknowledged even by those who approach the subject with great credulity, although they may interpret the linkage differently. Broadcaster Andrew Green, for example, in his treatise Haunted Inns and Taverns (1995), says of some copies of English pubs in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere: “A few have reproduced the ambiance so successfully that ghostly manifestations, such as might be associated with a genuine article, have occurred there.” Green opines that the “genial atmosphere” of such taverns attracts authentic English ghosts. He seems not to consider the possibility that the setting merely influences the imaginations of those making the reports.

In contrast is the knowing statement of ghost hunter Mason Winfield (1997, 176)-referring to the allegedly haunted Holiday Inn at Grand Island, New York-that “The environment of the Inn is not the gloomy, historic sort that puts people in mind of spooks.” As one who has spent an uneventful night in that resort hotel, indeed in its reputedly most-haunted room 422, I quite agree. But apparitions can occur anywhere. The Holiday Inn’s child ghost “Tanya” apparently originated with an impressionable maid who was cleaning the fourth-floor room shortly after the hotel opened in 1973. The housekeeper suddenly glimpsed a little girl standing in the doorway and, startled, dropped a couple of drinking glasses. When she looked up again, the child was gone. As the maid tried to flee, it was reported, “somehow her cart trapped her in the room. She screamed” (Winfield 1997, 176). Her apparitional encounter seems consistent with the typical conditions we have already discussed: at the time, she was performing routine chores. As to the cart, most likely, flustered, she merely encountered it where she had left it, blocking her flight, and panicked.

Other sightings there-like that of a Canadian man who awoke to see a little girl at the foot of his bed (Safiuddin 1994)-were of the waking-dream variety. But why is it often a little girl (even if varyingly identified as age “five or six” or “about age 10” [Winfield 1997, 176; Safiuddin 1994])? Those knowing about “Tanya” before their sighting may thus be influenced, while those who do not may, in light of subsequent statements or leading questions from those to whom they report an incident, reinterpret a vague sense of presence or a shadowy form as the expected ghost child. To compound the problem, many of the reports are at second- or third-hand, or an even greater remove.

Researching tales like that of the Holiday Inn’s child specter can be illuminating. In that case there is no evidence to support claims of “a little girl who was burned to death in a house that formerly stood on the site” (Hauck 1996, 291). The Grand Island historian was unable to document any deadly fire at that locale. The only known blaze at the site occurred in 1963, at which time the historic John Nice mansion had been transformed into a restaurant, and there was not a single fatality (Klingel 2000). My search of the nearby Whitehaven Cemetery, where the Nice family is buried, failed to turn up any credible candidate for the role of ghost-girl, least of all one named “Tanya”-which, as census and cemetery records show, was not the name of any of John Nice’s ten daughters (Linenfelser 2000).

A similar lack of substantiation characterizes many other haunting tales. Consider, for instance, the previously mentioned Belhurst Castle, located in New York’s scenic Finger Lakes region. Its colorful brochure announces: “Tales persist of the romantic past, of secret tunnels, hidden treasures buried in the walls and on the grounds, of ghosts and hauntings. Fact or Fancy? No one knows.” Actually the tales originated with the old mansion that previously stood on the site. No tunnel was ever found, and the stories apparently derive from a “small blind cellar” discovered beneath the old house when it was razed in 1888 to build the present “castle.” There was merely speculation that it might have served as a hidden vault for the securing of valuables. Prior to this, the dilapidated mansion “was a favorite playground of Geneva’s adventure-seeking youth, who were enticed by its reputation of being haunted,” according to a knowledgeable source, who adds: “However, there is no record that any 'spooks’ were ever encountered there, or ghostly manifestations of any sort whatsoever” (Emmons 1959). Nevertheless, citing some other Belhurst tales, Robin Mead states, in his Haunted Hotels (1995), ” . . . a property such as Belhurst Castle ought to be surrounded by legends like this, for they complement the atmosphere of romance and add a touch of mystery.”

Several inns I have investigated have featured ghosts in their promotional materials. In addition to Belhurst Castle, they include the Hotel Boulderado, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and Gettysburg’s Historic Farnsworth House Inn. The latter advertises that it is “open for tours and ghost stories”: “Descend the staircase into the darkness of the stone cellar. Hear, by candlelight, tales of phantom spectres whom [sic] are still believed to haunt the town and its battlefield.” These storybook ghosts may be the only ones to inhabit the inn. The owner told me emphatically that he had never seen a ghost-there or anywhere else. “I don't believe in that stuff,” he said. His daughter, however, who manages the inn, is not so skeptical, having “felt” a “presence” there. She related to me the experience of one guest who had seen a spectral figure after having gone to bed-very likely a common waking dream (Nickell 1995, 55).

The effect of new ownership has seemingly launched many hotel hauntings. Stories of ghostly events on the Queen Mary did not surface until after the ship became a tourist attraction in 1967 (Wlodarski et al. 1995, 13). At many other hotels, alleged paranormal events have seemed to wax and wane with changes in management. At the Holiday Inn on Grand Island, for example, the ghost tales-beginning soon after the initial opening-were happily related by one manager. He told a ghost hunter (Myers 1986, 291), “Our housekeepers have stories about Tanya that could fill a book.” But a successor was “concerned with trying to improve the reputation of his hotel and dispel the rumors surrounding it,” refusing “to acknowledge any paranormal happenings” (Gibson 1999).

Ghost tales may indeed be good for business. Explained an owner of one restaurant with bar, which “had a reputation for having ghosts” (Myers 1986, 228): “It was good conversation for the kind of business we're in. I never tried to dissuade anyone.” Other proprietors may go even further. An alleged ghost at the Kennebunk Inn in Kennebunk, Maine, may have originated with the purchase of the inn by one of its earlier owners. He reportedly told a bartender one night that he was “going to make up a story about a ghost,” presumably to promote the inn. Years later the former bartender related the story to the current owner, who in turn told me (Martin 1999).

A hoax could well explain the “ghostly activity” at the Kennebunk Inn, which included “moving and flying crystal goblets, exploding wineglasses behind the bar, disarrayed silverware, and moving chairs” (Hauck 1996, 198). In fact, prior to the particular change of ownership that seemed to spark the poltergeist effects, apparently “all was quiet” at the historic inn (Sit 1991). Apparently the ghost moved away when, after about fifteen years, the business was sold again. Still later owners John and Kristen Martin, reopened the inn in mid-1997 and, along with a tenant who had lived there for twenty years, reported no experiences (Martin 1999).

figure 2

Figure 2. Does this corridor view in Colorado’s Hand Hotel show spectral entities, or just silhouetted students? You decide! (Photos by Joe Nickell)

Hoaxes do occur. For example, I caught one pranking “ghost” flagrante delecto. In 1999 I accompanied a teacher and ten high school students from Denver’s Colorado Academy on an overnight stay in a “haunted” hotel. Located in the Rocky Mountains, in the old mining town of Fairplay (where an art teacher conducts “ghost tours”), the Hand Hotel was built in 1931 (figure 2). In the early evening as we gathered in the lobby beneath mounted elk heads and bear skins, the lights of the chandelier flickered mysteriously. But the teacher and I both spied the surreptitious action of the desk clerk, whose sheepish smile acknowledged that one brief hotel mystery had been solved.

Other signs of pranking there included a “ghost” photo (displayed in a lobby album) that the clerk confided to me was staged, and some pennies, placed on the back of a men’s room toilet, that from time to time would secretly become rearranged to form messages-like the word “why?” that I encountered. This obvious running prank invited other mischief makers (like one student) to join in.

Enter “Psychics”

Ghostly presences are hyped at many inns when “psychics” visit the premises. One session at the Farnsworth House was part of a television production for Halloween, an indication of how much credibility should be afforded it. Brookdale Lodge, near Santa Cruz, California (which I investigated for a Discovery Channel documentary that aired May 24, 1998), once invited Sylvia Browne. A regular on the Montel Williams TV show, the self-claimed clairvoyant and medium envisioned a ghost girl that she named ”Sara” (Gerbracht 1998), helping to bring the total number of entities thus far ”detected” at Brookdale to forty-nine-and counting (Hauck 1996, 38). Such psychics typically offer unsubstantiated, even unverifiable claims, or information that is already known. This may be gleaned in advance from research sources or obtained by the “psychic” from persons who have such knowledge through the technique of “cold reading” (an artful method of fishing for information employed by shrewd fortunetellers). Alternatively, the psychic may make numerous pronouncements, trusting that others will count the apparent hits and ignore, or interpret appropriately, the misses.

This is not to say that all such pronouncements are insincere. Those who fancy themselves psychics may exhibit the traits associated with a “fantasy-prone” personality. That is a designation for an otherwise normal person with an unusual ability to fantasize. As a child, he or she may have an imaginary playmate and live much of the time in make-believe worlds. As an adult, the person continues to spend much time fantasizing, and may report apparitional, out-of-body, or near-death experiences; claim psychic or healing powers; receive special messages from higher beings; be easily hypnotized; and/or exhibit other traits (Wilson and Barber 1983). Anyone may have some of these traits, but fantasizers have them in profusion. Sylvia Browne, for example, as a child had what her parents called “made-up friends,” particularly a “spirit guide”-still with her-that she named “Francine.” Browne undergoes “trances” in which “Francine” provides alleged information from “Akashic records, individual spirit guides, and messages from the Godhead.” Browne also claims to see apparitions, talk to ghosts, have clairvoyant visions, make psychic medical diagnoses, divine past lives, etc. She has even started her own religion, Novus Spiritus (”New Spirit”); (Browne and May 1998; Browne 1999).

The use of psychics is a stock in trade of many so-called parapsychologists. Among them is Hans Holzer, one of whose many books bills him as “the world’s leading expert on haunted houses” (1991) while another avows that his “cases” were “carefully investigated under scientifically stringent conditions” (1993). Unfortunately, these claims are belied by Holzer’s credulous acceptance of “spirit” photos, anecdotal reports, and other doubtful evidence. For example, he “investigated” a former stagecoach inn at Thousand Oaks, California, by relying on self-styled “witch” Sybil Leek (1922-1982). In one room Leek “complained of being cold all over” and “felt” that a man had been murdered there. No verification was provided and Holzer admits she “did not connect” with a female ghost whose “presence” had been “sensed” by the inn’s owners. Nevertheless Holzer casually opines that “Like inns in general, this one may have more undiscovered ghosts hanging on the spot” (Holzer 1991, 192).

Fantasy Quotient

Professional psychics like Sybil Leek and Sylvia Browne aside, we may wonder whether ordinary “ghost” percipients also have similar tendencies toward fantasizing. Over nearly three decades of ghost investigating I have noticed a pattern. In interviewing residents or staff of an allegedly haunted site, I would usually find a few who had no ghostly experiences-for example a bell captain at La Fonda Inn in Santa Fe who had spent forty-three years there. Others might have moderate experiences-like hearing a strange noise or witnessing some unexplained physical occurrence such as a door mysteriously opening-that they attributed to a ghost. Often, those interviewed would direct me to one or more persons whom they indicated had had intensive haunting encounters, including seeing apparitions. In short, I usually found a spectrum that ranged from outright skepticism to mediumistic experiences. I also sensed a difference in the people: some appeared down-to-earth and level-headed, while others-I thought-seemed more imaginative and impulsive, recounting with dramatic flair their phantomesque adventures. I had no immediate way of objectively measuring what I thought I was observing, but I gave it much thought.

At length I developed a questionnaire that, on the one hand, measures the number and intensity of ghostly experiences, and, on the other, counts the number of exhibited traits associated with fantasy-proneness. Tabulation of a limited number of questionnaires administered thus far shows a strong correlation between these two areas-that, as the level of haunting experiences rises, the fantasy scale tends to show a similarly high score.

As this and other evidence indicates, to date there is no credible scientific evidence that inns-or any other sites-are inhabited by spirits of the dead. As Robert A. Baker often remarks, “There are no haunted places, only haunted people.”

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.