Beyond being and easy excuse to entertain my appeal for alliteration, this episode’s title gives us two words with an unexpected history. Said history underlines the fears that we can have of staying as a guest in a strange place. From murderous hosts like Procrustes, to oppressively haunted lodgings like The Overlook, this episode is all about the haunts and horrors human beings have experienced or invented while staying at hotels.
“Hotel (n.).” Etymology, https://www.etymonline.com/word/hotel.
Wigington, Patti. “Honoring Hestia, Greek Goddess of the Hearth.” Learn Religions, Learn Religions, 3 Apr. 2019, https://www.learnreligions.com/hestia-greek-goddess-of-the-hearth-2561993.
“Understanding Haudenosaunee Culture: Syracuse Peace Council.” Understanding Haudenosaunee Culture | Syracuse Peace Council, http://www.peacecouncil.net/noon/understanding-haudenosaunee-culture.
Hutchings , Steve. “What Happened in Banff Springs Hotel Room 873?” Abenaki, 8 Jan. 2022, https://www.abenakiextreme.com/what-happened-in-banff-springs-hotel-room-873/.
Blakemore, Bill. “Kubrick’s Shining Secret.” The Washington Post, 12 July 1987.
The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.
The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.
Other music for this episode: “Summer House” by Mocha Music. licensed through Shutterstock
In the previous episode I talked about a place where upwards of hundreds of people can be checked in at any given time. A place away from home where people might spend several nights in a strange bed and unfamiliar setting.
Hotels are dissimilar from hospitals in many ways, but are also–and not coincidentally–a major component of the hospitality industry. There is a relationship there.
The word hospital comes from the Latin word hospes, which can mean host, guest, or stranger. Hospes comes from the word hostis, which means stranger or enemy, and is also a root of the words hostile and, a bit more removed, hostel. That’s both H-O-S-T-E-L–one letter away from hotel–and H-O-S-T-I-L-E–(which I will pronounce as host-EYE-L going forward for clarity’s sake) a word that’s just two letters away from hotel. Again, this is not coincidental, I’m not just drawing conclusions from a letter scramble here. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the words hotel and hospital were once effectively synonymous, and both can trace their origins to those Latin words hospes and hostis. Hospitality and hostility have a link.
This is reflected in a story from Ancient Greek mythology. The villain Procrustes was a son of Poseidon, and a man who presented himself as hospitable, providing shelter for travelers in need. When they would try to sleep in the bed he offered them, his hostility would emerge. If they proved too short for the bed, he would use his tools to physically stretch them until they fit, and by then were dead. If they were too tall for the bed, he’d chop off their feet or legs with an axe and let them bleed out. By design, no one ever fit the bed perfectly, allowing Procrustes to always engage in his brutal, murderous behavior until the hero Theseus killed him.
Procrustes must have been particularly monstrous to the Greeks because they believed ardently enough in hospitality that they had a goddess partly devoted to it. Hestia, goddess of the hearth and one of the original six Olympians, represented the Greek ideal of the right to hospitality. A potential host–if at all within their capacity to do so–was expected to lodge a potential guest, even if it was someone they didn’t know. Per LearnReligions.com, refusing to shelter a stranger in need was considered an offense to Hestia.
The Greeks were not alone in this expectation. From Ancient India to Celtic Europe to 16th Century Iceland to Haudenosaune (ho-dee-no-show-nee) society, and much more, people across the globe and across eras have placed tremendous emphasis on doing your best to accommodate guests who need a place to stay. In turn, a potential guest was also expected to behave in a way that reflected appreciation for the kindness shown to them, and respect for the place where they were being allowed to rest their head.
This was not just about charity and civility, but also about shaming or even demonizing those who might use the expectations of hospitality–be they host or guest–to gain an advantage for a hostile act.
On the visitor side of things, an infamous example of this is the Glen Coe Massacre of Scotland, an event that partly inspired the “Red Wedding” from the book series A Song of Ice and Fire. A regiment of soldiers led by Captain Robert Campbell were provided a place to stay by the MacDonald clan of Glen Coe. For assorted reasons related to 17th Century politics, uprisings and related allegiances that all could be basically boiled down to, “The King ordered it,” the Campbell’s were called upon to be the worst guests imaginable and slaughter every member of the MacDonald clan they could find under the age of 70. Man, woman and child. All told, about thirty individuals were killed by their own guests.
The Glen Coe Massacre and the myth of Procrustes represent anxieties we may feel even today with respect to hotels, motels and, yes, even Holiday Inns, as well as other places where we might stay. We’re called upon to trust not just our hosts, but our fellow guests, and sometimes that trust proves decidedly unfounded. It’s not one of those fears that lives near the surface of our thoughts–at least not for most of us, I imagine–but I think it’s there, deep within almost everyone, a fear that’s a little like a security alarm system. So quiet you can mistake it for not being there until it sounds off. And I think that’s evident in a few different ways.
Firstly, in how relatively unsurprised we may be to discover a hotelier or host has done something nefarious. The idea of a motel manager or innkeeper placing hidden cameras in rooms for voyeuristic purposes might once have been sensational. Now, a search for “hidden cameras in motels” will produce seemingly endless articles not only referencing occasions where it’s happened–like at the Manor House Motel in Colorado–but also giving tips on how to look for cameras as though it should be part of the standard walkthrough of your room. Make sure the shower’s working, you’re getting hot water, beds are clean, and, oh yes, check for cameras in case the person running the establishment–or even one of your fellow guests–is determined to invade your privacy. These aren’t just articles from strange or fringe websites, either. The Washington Post, Forbes and USA today have all written about this topic just within the last couple of years.
Another, older indicator of our hibernating fear of what could happen to us in a hotel or related places is how frequently these locations have been the setting for horror stories. One of the stranger stories set in a hotel dates back to at least the 19th Century. It’s the urban legend of the Vanishing Room, perhaps more aptly titled the Vanishing Woman. It tells of an adult daughter and mother who are visiting another country, when the mother comes down with an unknown illness. The daughter leaves her mother in the hotel room they’ve been staying in to get medicine or a doctor, but when she comes back, the staff at the hotel claim they’ve never seen her before. They claim they have no record of her and her mother staying there. In some versions they deny that the room number the daughter says she was in has ever even existed at this hotel. The daughter never sees her mother again, never finds out what happens to her, or why the people operating the hotel are suddenly and viciously gaslighting her.
The standby answer to this bizarre mystery is that the mother’s illness was something as contagious as it was catastrophic. The Black Plague, for instance. The hotel management–along with local authorities in many versions of the story–conspired to quickly disappear the poor sick woman, not only to prevent her from getting anyone else sick, but also to protect the hotel and local tourist industry’s bottom line: if the word got out that patient zero of a potentially deadly outbreak had just been staying in the hotel it would scare off other guests, present and future, and be disastrous for business. That might sound a little farfetched, but there have been real world echoes of this in recent history. No, I’m not going to name the place I’m thinking of because it’s possible there’s some exaggeration and even propaganda involved in these accounts, and I don’t want to mischaracterize or unjustly vilify any particular part of the world. You don’t have to be much of a sleuth to find the relatively recent incidents that somewhat parallel this urban legend online, however.
The most famous hotel in horror fiction is probably the Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining. And no, it’s not so scary because it was allegedly built on a “Indian burial ground.” That little tidbit doesn’t appear at all in King’s novel, only in the Kubrick film adaptation, and even there it’s more of a throwaway line that specifically doesn’t declare it as fact, but supposition. Oddly, the undue fixation on the “burial ground” element of the Overlook, now generally considered an offensive horror story plot device, seems to have started with theories that Kubrick’s adaptation was actually all about the genocide of Native Americans and America’s unwillingness to truly examine that great crime against humanity the nation was born out of. This theory is captured at least as early as a 1987 Washington Post article by Bill Blakemore, who would go on to appear in the 2012 documentary Room 237, all about the various theories–many of which are quite a stretch–people have about what The Shining is actually about.
Stephen King notably didn’t care for Kubrick’s adaptation–that might be an understatement. I like both the novel and the film, while understanding they’re different enough to almost have less of a source and adaptation relationship than an “alternate universe versions of the same story” relationship. In either case, one of the key things that drew me and many others into The Shining on page and on onscreen is the hotel itself, and it doesn’t need any hackneyed, insensitive “Indian curse” story beats to explain its captivating evil. With regard to how naturally diabolical and dangerous it is, it’s not quite on the level of King’s other famous scary hotel location, room 1408, which is just an inexplicably evil room which might even have alien, extra-dimensional or otherwise otherworldly and incomprehensible roots. But The Overlook Hotel may have some ancient demonic influences, according to King’s book.
Still, its relatively recent history and inhabitants are what really gives it fuel to be so frightening. Additionally, onscreen, certain odd architectural choices made by Kubrick also lend to the hotel’s scariness, and also borrow from older stories about haunted buildings, which in turn also show up in the short story “1408.” To put it as succinctly as I can, the layout of the interior appears to be impossible in some places. Horror and weird fiction, and even lore, has no shortage of stories about places where interior dimensions don’t align with the exterior; measurements of the space make no sense, rooms that should be adjacent somehow prove not to be, stairways lead nowhere, doors open to nothing, and so on.
As uncanny a this may be, there are real world parallels–both confirmed and possibly a bit embellished. On the confirmed side is the famous Winchester Mansion, whose actual history probably doesn’t match most (if any) of the things you’ve read or heard about it. There’s a solid SF Gate article on the subject if you’re interested. Regardless of its erroneously reported origins, it does indeed feature dead-end hallways, doors to nowhere, and interior windows that face other interior windows, among other anomalies. On the more unconfirmed but still plausible side is a story from Glamis Castle in Scotland, long-reputed to be haunted, and even a site where the Devil himself made an appearance to play cards with an Earl. A more down to earth story–albeit related to the legendary monster of Glamis castle–tells of a secret room somewhere within the castle that no one could find. In 1850, the lady of the castle, while entertaining dozens of guests, decided to try to test this rumor. Speculating that the room–a secret prison–might have a window, she had her guests go to every room with a window and hang something out of each one. Then they would go outside and see if there was an unmarked window. In some versions of that possibly true story they did indeed find one window that couldn’t be accounted for, but when they tried to discern its position based on the surrounding, marked windows, not only could they not find the secret room, they couldn’t even find where it was supposed to be. In other versions of the story, they didn’t just see one unmarked window, but several of them.
Then there’s the slightly less interesting version of the story that says the man of the castle returned home early and put a stop to the experiment before anyone could search for the room.
While several medieval castles have been turned into hotels, a place needn’t be centuries old to have secret rooms and unusual bizarre architecture. Sometimes these are even presented as features, not cause for concern. A room at the Bella Vista Bed and Breakfast in Coloma Lotus, California has a hidden library that can be found by turning the doorknob hidden in the fake book on the main room’s bookshelf. Sometimes the answer to a mystery proves perfectly mundane. The Fairmont Banff Springs hotel in Alberta, Canada once made people wonder what could have happened in–and to–Room 873. Every other floor of the hotel has a room number ending in 73, but not the eighth floor. And it was clear to see that the floor had been designed to have a room 873, but where the door to the room should have been there was just more of the hallway wall. A ghost story arose to address the mystery. Someone invented a tale of a husband and father who committed a brutal murder-suicide in the room, and the spirits of the dead remained there as permanent residents. When new, living guests tried to get to sleep in the room they would be awakened by screams in the night, and saw handprints materialize on the walls when they turned on the lights. Eventually, the hotel decided to wall the room off to keep patrons out, and perhaps keep the spirits in. So the story went…
In truth, the door was bricked over because 873 was no longer a separate room. It was made part of its adjacent room to combine them into a single, large suite. This might be a letdown to some, but worry not: there at least 5 more ghosts reportedly occupying the Banff Hotel.
In fact, hotels all over the world seem to be prime real estate for hauntings.
Here in San Antonio, if you search online for haunted hotels within the city, you don’t just get results, you likely get lists of the most haunted hotels in the city. Sorry to all of you hotels that are merely moderately haunted, to say nothing of those that are barely haunted. We have such a surplus of haunted hotels that we’re not going to list all of them, and instead are just going to list the ones that are absolutely teeming with ghosts. San Antonio is far, far from alone in this. Large cities and even not-so-large cities worldwide tend to have so many ghostly inns, motels and other lodgings that you can have your pick of which one appeals to you most, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Some of these establishments make a little more sense than others from a traditional ghostlore perspective. They are older places with lots of history that have seen at least tens of thousands of visitors if they’re relatively small or not terribly popular, hundreds of thousands or even well into seven-figures if they’re larger and busier. Let’s do a little math based entirely on what I believe to be conservative guess-work. Say you have a cozy, boutique, fifty-room hotel. According to condoferries.co.uk, the average hotel operated at a 68% occupancy rate in 2018, which gives us 34 occupied rooms at any given moment in a normal year. To keep things pretty simple and on the low-end of our estimates, we’ll say the average occupant is a single, lonely traveler who stays for about a week. We don’t know how many of those are repeat visitors, but that’s already a ridiculously low figure considering it’s ignoring the idea of couples and families staying at our hotel, plus new people cycling through far more frequently than once per week. That gives us 1,768 visitors per year, so if our hotel is just fifty years old, built in the early 70’s, our little fifty room hotel has seen more than 88,000 people.
The previously mentioned Branff hotel has over 700 rooms and has been in operation since 1888. Even if we just keep the fifty year range and scale up the remaining numbers to match the amount of rooms, you could conservatively guess that the Branff hotel has welcomed at least 1.2 million people to spend a few nights under its rooftops in the last half century.
That’s a metropolitan’s worth of lives in a relatively small place over the course of five decades. Tragedies are bound to occur when you’re dealing with that many people in that time frame. For some guests, the hotel bed they’re lying in tonight will also be their deathbed, and then countless other people are going to sleep in that very same bed for years afterward.
Those figures and that logic can apply to newer chain hotels as well as to older, signature places, but we tend to think of classic spots like the fictional Overlook or the real world Branff hotel as the ideal settings for a haunting, as opposed to say a Hyatt Regency that was built in the year 2000 or something. Some places might looking haunting even to a skeptic, and to a believer are practically screaming, “I’m home to a hundred ghosts.” That’s even before you get into the history of the site.
The formerly abandoned Hotel del Salto near the Tequendama Falls near Bogota, Colombia is such a location; or, at least visually, was such a location before relatively recent renovations preceded its conversion into a museum. Originally a massive mansion built at the edge of a cliff in the mountains, it would look intimidating even if you’re just somebody like me who’s not all that crazy about heights. It has spectacular views of the slopes that lead to the unfortunately polluted river below, as well as balcony views of the waterfall before it. It also possesses the almost requisite story of a murder in one of the rooms that produced a ghost who can never leave. Its grounds were also allegedly cursed by the indigenous people of the area, showing the U.S. by no means has the market cornered on such horror origin stories.
On the less classically romantic side of things you have modern chain hotel locations, which can occasionally surprise you by having a befitting history for a haunting. One of the hotels that made a list for “most haunted in San Antonio,” for example, is a downtown Holiday Inn Express. Not exactly a name that calls to mind old spirits unable or unwilling to move on… Until you hear that the building was actually once the site of the old county jail, which was originally built in 1878. Upon learning that, if you’re a believer in ghosts, your frame of mind might go from, “Doesn’t sound like that place is haunted,” to “Well, of course it’s haunted.”
Legends of a ghostly presence in certain rooms or on certain floors can be an attraction for some hotels. People will go out of their way to stay there–to stay in a specific room even–because they heard or read somewhere that the bedside alarm clock mysteriously sounds off every night at the same hour, no matter how meticulous you are about making sure you disabled the alarm beforehand. Or that the pillows or sheets might get pulled away from you in the dead of night. Or that no matter how deep of a sleeper you typically are, you’re likely to wake up at an exact time when the ghost’s presence is most powerful, and maybe see a figure who shouldn’t be there staring out of a window. I presume many people–perhaps most–seeking such encounters don’t actually expect them to happen, given how terrifying they would be. Then again, for some it might the provide confirmation they’ve been chasing for years. For others, still, after the initial shock, they may consider it an unparalleled thrill.
Some hotels turn unexpected people into inadvertent supporters of the existence of the supernatural. The Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City gained national notice after a handful of prominent NBA players shared experiences they had there. And not stories that made it sound like they were exhilarated or found it interesting. These overgrown men, some of whom grew up in cities where the undeniable horror of crime plagued more than just their sleep, admitted that they were scared. Scared enough in some cases to leave the room they were in to sleep in a teammate’s room instead, like a younger sibling seeking solace from an older sibling because they’re sure there’s a monster under their bed. I, for one, being a tall guy myself who played a little high school basketball–albeit poorly–based on my interactions with other athletes, would not expect an image image-conscious professional, who typically projects a bravado that comes with or is demanded of their sport, to admit to being that scared of something so many people would say isn’t even real. It’s not evidence of a haunting, obviously, but it shows it was at least real to them.
In the case of the Skirvin Hotel, as it is with so many others, the alleged origin of the haunting–that of a beleaguered and imprisoned maid who threw herself out of a window while holding her baby–can’t be traced to the historical record. Same for the alleged murders in the Branff Hotel, and the Hotel del Salto, and the vast majority of haunted hotels where a killing supposedly took place. Time and again, there are no news articles or police records or anything else to corroborate the murder. It’s curious to me, because you don’t need the catalyst for the haunting to be a crime or act of violence. Some hotel ghosts are said to be frequent guests who enjoyed their stays so much they decided to never leave, or are staff members who loved their work and are still on the job. But many, many more are murderers, or people who committed suicide–often in response to a crime committed against them. Why are these stories–easier to disprove–so prevalent?
I think it’s tethered to that latent, lingering fear we have of residing in unfamiliar surroundings, amongst strangers who could be doing God knows what in the next room, or on the floors directly above or below. Places owned and operated by someone who might by a real life Procrustes. Even then, when we have real world examples, we’re prone to sensationalize the horror. Serial killer H.H. Holmes did tell investors that he intended to open and run a hotel in time for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892. Given his history, however, this was probably just another of his many schemes to trick people out of their money, and the hotel was never fully completed. It certainly wasn’t anywhere near the massive, intricate structure full of hidden chambers and deathtraps described by the yellow press of the era, a lie that’s only gotten more elaborate as people have repeated what amounted to an urban legend through the decades.
It’s not enough that a known killer briefly managed a mixed-use, commercial and residential property containing apartments and business. He has to have created a diabolically ingenious “Murder Castle” hotel. Besides being a way for newspapers to draw in readers with extraordinary gruesome details, however, I think such embellishment can serve a purpose, because it truly captures the apprehension we’re nursing, consciously or unconsciously. And as is by now well established by people who analyze why we tell scary stories, one reason is to explore our fears, and another is to have some measure of control over them. Holmes took people’s lives. Making him even more monstrous than he was allows us to at least take his life’s story and do with it as we please.
Similarly, the infamous Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles has been home to legitimate crimes and tragedies. It needs no one to invent the murders and suicides that took place within its walls. It has them to spare, dating back at least to 1927, just a few years after it opened. Some of its killings remain unsolved, some of its dead remain unidentified. It was home, briefly, to at least one known serial killer, and very possibly a second. And even with all of this verifiable, indisputable horror, the Cecil might have received most of its attention based on a relatively easy to explain tragedy–all things considered–that went “viral” due to some security footage and rampant, unfounded online speculation about what took place. It’s easy to look up , but I’m not going to get into it here because I think it may have gotten to a point of disrespect for the very unfortunate deceased in this case. Not that any individual outlet is necessarily being disrespectful to the victim by discussing or even considering the elements of the incident some viewed as “mysterious,” but I think collectively it devolved into almost a game. Speculate as to what happened, and if your theory is entertaining enough you’ll win the bonus prize of internet attention. I don’t want to accidentally play the game myself, so I’m going to bypass directly referencing it altogether.
But I will say that it’s possibly another example of people wanting to own their fears, in whatever way they can. This extends to the ideas that the Cecil Hotel is haunted, cursed, or both. It seems less, to me, like an attempt to genuinely explain what’s happening in the hotel, or why so many people have met an untimely end there, and more an attempt to process our feelings and fears about certain places and situations. The Cecil is the poster child for the worst that can happen if you check in to the wrong hotel. Its history can remind us of a far, far deeper history, where the word “host” was eventually born from a term for “stranger,” and “enemy,” and the words “hotel” and “hostile” might have been better known as brethren.