"Why are they staying in that creepy place? They should just leave!" For most viewers of scary movies, this is a common thought. In a house with strange whispering noises, possessed doll babies, and voices urging you to leave immediately, it is not really smart to stick around. Even if the spontaneously appearing blood stains and footsteps in the cellar are harmless, are they really going to lend themselves to a good night's sleep? If you have the option to sleep in a domicile or other facility not inhabited with angry disembodied spirits of the undead, I'd recommend it. If no other options exist, here is how one can make the most of the accommodations.
To fully understand sleeping in a haunted dwelling, I needed to find one that was accepting guests and stay overnight. I immediately came up with two essential criteria for the location:
1. There must be well-documented evidence that the location is haunted.
2. The place must truly scare the hell out of me.
Starting with the latter criteria, I asked myself, "What hotel (that I know of) scares me the most?" The answer came astonishingly easily: The Shining. The Overlook Hotel is and forever will be the measuring stick for what I consider terrifying and deeply disturbing. "Perfect, I'll take one queen room, non-smoking for two nights. Do you accept Marriott points?"
Unfortunately, there is no Overlook Hotel. Stanley Kubrick brought Stephen King's fictional location to life on screen by combining exterior shots of the Timberline Lodge in Oregon with interior sets based upon the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite National Park in California. While the Ahwahnee easily satisfied criteria #2, I could find no sound documentation that it was haunted.
In my search for a haunted place to stay, I was told of a hotel in Oklahoma City featured in a New York Times piece. In the story, numerous professional basketball players were complaining about their stays at the Skirvin Hotel when they visited the Oklahoma City Thunder. Countless stories of Effie the hotel housekeeper circulate within the NBA, scaring the likes of Derrick Rose. While the stories about the hotel are plentiful, I could not say from pictures of the place that it fit the "scared the hell out of me" criteria. So with two hotels identified, neither of which fit the profile perfectly, I decided to stay a few nights at both places.
My first visit was to The Ahwahnee, a truly magnificent hotel described by many as the crown jewel of our national park lodges. I was immediately struck by how similar the hotel looked compared to The Shining's Overlook, especially the main room of the lodge and the elevator doors. I expected a tidal wave of blood to come streaming through them as I carried my bags on board. I was already feeling uneasy.
Tip #1: Explore the location thoroughly during the day.
With my bags dropped off, I immediately got busy learning the hotel during daylight hours. Knowing the location of the ice machine and the stairwell prior to when the sun goes down is very helpful. With familiarity comes comfort, and that comfort will help you feel relaxed in the uneasy environment. While not usually advised for a good night sleep, sleeping closer to other guests might make you feel more comfortable. Try to position yourself closer to the 'action' of the hotel, if for no other reason that people might be more likely to hear you scream as you discover backwards messages on your bathroom mirror.
Tip #2: Choose your room wisely.
Many haunted locations feature nearly all or the majority of their happenings or sightings in a relatively specific or constrained space. For example, virtually all of the bizarre occurrences at the Skirvin happen on the 10th floor, where the owner's wife at the time is rumored to have jumped to her death through an open window. Sleeping far from the 10th floor may help to alleviate anxiety.
Tip #3: Talk to people who know the haunted site.
If a hotel has a reputation for being haunted, find out more about the history of the haunting. I was surprised by how open staff members were about talking about these stories. While one staff member of the Skirvin told me the true key to seeing ghosts could be found only at the bar, an Ahwahnee employee said that more than one guest had reported seeing a deceased former caretaker looking in on them to make sure they were comfortable. Learning that a spirit inhabiting a dwelling might be friendly can help to calm your nerves prior to sleep. I increased my chances of having a good outcome by leaving a generous tip on the nightstand for any caretakers that might stop in, both living or in spiritual limbo.
Tip #4 Hit the gym.
Surprisingly, while the Hotel Skirvin is gorgeous, its perfectly replicated 1930s décor gave it a hauntingly scary feel, as if the ghosts of its first guests might sit down next to you in the parlor. Finding the hotel's gym and grabbing some exercise helped the situation. Physical activity during the day can increase chemicals like adenosine in the brain. These chemicals are responsible for helping us fall asleep. Exercise also has anxiolytic effects that make us worry less. That treadmill session helped sooth me immensely when I discovered a brief video on my phone that I had no recollection of recording (true story).
Tip #5 Eat a smart dinner.
Think about Thanksgiving when you make your dinner reservations. The sleepiness you feel after eating as you sit on the couch watching football games is related to the carbohydrate load in your meal and its effects on your insulin. There is also the tryptophan, a sleep promoting chemical in the turkey. If you are looking for food with high amounts of tryptophan, order the elk. Avoid coffee after your meal and lots of wake-promoting protein. Instead, order a chamomile or passionfruit tea after you eat.
Tip #6 Do not drink alcohol.
"What'll it be, sir?"
"Hair of the dog that bit me."
"Bourbon on the rocks?
"That'll do her."
--Exchange between Jack Torrence and Lloyd the bartender, The Shining, 1978
While all work and no play may make one a dull boy, it's not a good idea to unwind with alcohol. As tempting as it might be to pull up a chair in the Gold Room and have a drink to settle your nerves, remember that the strategy did not work out particularly well for Jack Torrence and it most likely will not work well for you. While alcohol can help relax some, it does not improve sleep quality, it in fact worsens it. It may also impair your ability to recognize the sounds of dripping faucets and the shadows of swaying trees for what they truly are. Moreover, alcohol can create disturbed dreaming in some people. With your mind already on edge, pressing your luck with alcohol can be a ticket for a nightmarish night.
Tip #7 Light you room thoughtfully.
With exercise out of the way and the meal complete, it's time to retire to your room. There are several simple things you can do to a room to improve your sleep quality. Keep the lights in your room dim before bed while you shower and get ready for sleep. Spend time reading something light and positive before bed. When it is time to retire, turn your lights off. We sleep better in the dark. While it may be tempting to keep lights or the television on, you will sleep better if you cut the power.
I have to admit, in both settings, I slept surprisingly well. In fact, I found both The Awahnee and The Skirvin lovely places to stay. I was almost a little disappointed that not even a door suddenly slammed shut during the night. Haunted houses and creepy places thrive on anxiety and the fears we all have of unknown entities. The next time you are forced to sleep in an unsettling location, hopefully these tips will help you rest in peace.
Photography by Maeve Janelle.