Dangerous Unhappy Things: A True Ghost Story
I should make it clear that I have a lot of experience with ghosts. I have been seeing them since I was a child, when a small yellow gnome crawled up my leg and told me the year I would die. He said I'd die of a heart attack in 2019. When I told my...
Illustration by Chiara Sbolci
We didn’t even want to go to Chicago. Especially not during the worst winter the Midwest had seen in years. And definitely not after our last week, most of which was spent snowed-in and stranded at a Native American casino in Osceola, Iowa. Yet here we were on the same highway that led us to the casino, heading north, for eight hours, with the fleeting hope of getting last-minute Indian visas so that we could write a profile on a very important man.
Don’t tell us anything about Indian visas if you haven’t tried to get one yourself in the past five months. It’s all different. It’s been outsourced to some Indian company that promises on the opening web page (which looks like it was made by a hysterical seventh grader) that if they lose your passport, they’ll give you $150.
Things went from bad to worse when Amie said, “For this one, let’s use a Ouija board.”
I should make it clear that Amie and I have a lot of experience with ghosts. I have been seeing them since I was a child, when a small yellow gnome crawled up my leg and told me the year I would die. He said I would die of a heart attack in 2019. At the time that sounded longer than anyone could possibly live. (When I told my father about it, he comforted me. He said, “Don’t worry; they often lie.”)
On a two-lane highway in southern Louisiana, during a nonstop drive from Miami, Florida, to Waco, Texas, I saw something like 50 ghosts. They were in a slow march, single-file on the edge of the highway, each of them glaring at me as I passed. They were wearing ordinary clothes, different clothes.
When we were in India year before last, we had stayed at a famous hotel, where I saw and Amie felt many ghosts. When we asked the clerk at the front desk if the hotel was full of ghosts, he said, “Not... any evil ones, sir.” He explained that there had been “a terrible fire during a banquet, about sixty years before, in which many people had died, sir.”
About a year later, while staying at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle, we were repeatedly locked into our room by a ghost who, according to the hotel staff, was fond of flipping deadbolts and playing piano.
Trust me when I say that you don’t even want to hear about the experiences we had at the rooming house Amie moved into a couple years ago when she first arrived in Iowa City to attend the Writers’ Workshop. (She even superstitiously forbade me from going into further detail here.)
So it seemed downright foolish that we were driving to Chicago’s famous Drake Hotel—where the ritziest scenes in Risky Business were shot, the grande dame of American hotels—to investigate not one but two forlorn women who, according to local legend, had long been stuck in the realm between this world and the next. Tibetans have a name for this realm, or more precisely six specific variants that all fall under the term bardo.
Outside Chicago on 55, the wrecks were piled up for miles. We regularly passed overturned cars, their axels and struts exposed to the relentless snowfall. Snowplows scraped sparks off the highway, and dozens of police cars and tow trucks lined the shoulders of the highway throughout our route. All these ominous signs, and we hadn’t even bought our Ouija board yet.
“We can make one,” Amie said. “I heard they’re more powerful that way. We have that cardboard box from my red folders.”
I categorically refused this rash and dangerous idea of pure lunacy until Amie said, “Well, then we’ll have to go out and find one.”
I’m Canadian, so I don’t mind sub-zero temperatures, but we’d already been driving for ten hours. The absolute last thing I wanted to do was poke around the board-game aisle of Walmart, looking for what some people consider to be a portal to hell.
“OK, make one,” I told Amie. When I said it I felt like I was one of those Japanese teenagers in The Ring, when they decide to play that mysterious video.
Once we were settled in our room, Amie got to work. She scrawled the alphabet on a plastic folder, and, using the hotel keycard in lieu of a planchette, asked the Ouija board if she could speak with the Woman in Red. Perhaps the most famous of the hotel’s resident ghosts, the story goes that in 1920 the Woman in Red committed suicide by jumping off the roof on New Year’s Eve, in the middle of the Drake’s grand opening reception, where earlier in the night she had spotted her fiancé cavorting with another woman in the Palm Court parlor.
Amie’s makeshift Ouija board offered no reply. She asked if the Woman in Red was present. Again, no reply. Then she turned to me: “Are you going to help me with this?”
“All that thing is going to do is magnetize any ghost around here, and none of them are going to answer you,” I said.
“Is Clancy grumpy?” she asked the Ouija board, purposefully moving the hotel keycard across the letters to spell out Y-E-S. Afterward she took the Ouija board out into the hall and left it by the ice machine.
That night I tried a trick I had learned in Iowa City. In the past, I’ve only seen ghosts when I wasn’t looking for them. I think this is one of the truths about ghosts: They’re like lost things. When you’re looking for something that’s been lost or misplaced, you never find it; it’s only when you give up, after your attention has been diverted elsewhere, that you find what you were looking for. I learned this the hard way in Iowa City: If you are in the vicinity of bad ghosts—the ones that can hurt your soul—sitting perfectly still, in total silence, will most likely result in a confrontation.
Later Amie and I visit the Palm Court room, where the Woman in Red saw her fiancé seducing another woman on the Drake’s opening night.
It must have been a grand, roaring party—something out of The Great Gatsby, combined with the opulent menace exuded by the party room from Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Giant, shimmering chandeliers hung from the roof of the enormous ballroom. Amie and I could easily imagine the scene the night she jumped off the roof: Everyone trying a bit too hard to have fun, to be glamorous, to feel pretty.
“This place is perfect,” I said. “This place has more ghosts than humans.”
“Where?! You see some?” she asked, excited.
“I was joking. But it does feel weird, doesn’t it?”
That night, before we went to bed, I sat on the floor and waited. Nothing. I waited some more. Nope. Then a bit longer. Spooky vibes were not present in the slightest. I was starting to worry that maybe we were wrong about this place, that maybe it was all hype.
When I got up to go to bed—Amie was already half asleep—I noticed that the door to our room was open. Just a crack. I asked Amie about it.
“I put the bolt on it. I always do. You know that,” she mumbled, semiconscious and irritated. And that is true; she always does.
Well... that may be something, I thought. I pulled the door open and looked around. It was empty and quiet, so I locked up and got under the covers.
That night I dreamed about the Woman in Red and her fiancé. They had been living in an apartment together. It had an ornately beautiful brass staircase that spiraled upward. I was there, for some reason, and the fiancé took me out to the terrace. The woman stayed inside. I suddenly realized I had lived in the building before, that I had lived there many times over. Yet it surprised me to think of myself there, as a guest or resident.
“How’ve you been?” the fiancé asked. He had the surly expression of a seagull, dumb in a hateful way.
I told him I was fine.
“We still have your mother’s coat,” he continued.
The Woman in Red called out from within. She corrected him, explaining that they’d sold the coat.
“Oh, that’s OK,” I said.
“She’s just teasing you. We have it.”
That’s why I woke up. I was terrified and overcome with jealousy. It’s the same feeling I get when a young man sits next to my wife and—at least it seems this way to me—ostensibly speaks to someone else in the room while pitching his tone to Amie. Waking up from the dream I had the same feeling I do in those situations, the lonely feeling of wanting to die.
My instinct was to flee immediately, to urgently get away. I woke my wife. “I think she visited me in my dream,” I said of the Woman in Red. “I think we have to change hotels.”
She laughed and said, “That doesn’t count.” In the morning, when room service came, I noticed the door was open a crack even though I am absolutely certain I closed and locked it before going to bed.
On our second day at the hotel, we wandered the halls somewhat aimlessly. I got the sense that we were being watched, but by whom I wasn’t sure. That night I told my wife we should go to bed early, and we slept well until three in the morning, when I heard a loud banging.
Again, I woke my wife. “What was that?” I asked.
“You’re dreaming,” she said.
I got up to check the door. It was closed. Then I decided to be brave, which isn’t like me. I put on my clothes and went to the eighth floor. Some strange, primal instinct told me something was wrong up there, and I needed to find out what it was.
Stepping off the elevator, I turned around suddenly because—there’s no other way to put it—I just knew. Seated on the loveseat in the elevator was a woman in her 30s. She was wearing a red dress with cap sleeves. Her lips were tightly pursed, and her bare arms were fully extended with her palms pressed against the elevator walls. Even as the elevator doors closed, she did not look at me. Instead she was fixated on something above my head.
Instinctually, I knew it was another ghost. But when I looked up there was nothing. When I looked back the Woman in Red was gone. I pressed the button, which inexplicably caused the doors to close and sent the elevator up.
My stomach turned. Without looking up above my head again, I walked as quickly as I could without running to the stairwell and down the two floors to our room.
I woke Amie and told her the story.
“Say ‘Vajrasattva,’” she said, and fell asleep.
I pulled the covers over my head in case whatever I'd seen in the hallway had decided to follow me into our room. The thing is, after all this time and so many sightings, I’m still very much afraid of ghosts.
In the morning we left early. I insisted on it.
“Check-out’s at noon,” my wife said. “It’s such a nice hotel. Let’s have breakfast in bed and look at the lake.” The view from our big windows was the frozen edge of Lake Michigan and the icy blue water out beyond it.
“I saw a ghost,” I said. “The Drake is a haunted hotel. I don’t think the ghosts here are happy. When you get on the elevator with the sofa, then tell me check-out’s at noon. Plus that elevator is more or less exactly like the apartment in my dream.”
I looked at her. “Are you laughing at me?” I asked.
“No, no, not at all. I’m sorry. It was just when you said the elevator was from your dream. Just the way you said it. I’m not laughing at you.”
“You are! The same woman who thought she had a ghost perched on her shoulder for a semester. Remember the—”
“Sh! God! Don’t say that.”
My wife and I are both of the opinion that talking about ghosts, or to ghosts, is dangerous. But we do it anyway. Even still, there are some we will not mention.
She kicked off the comforter, defeated. “Sheesh. If you’re gonna be like that, fine, let’s go.”
On the way out of town, we spotted the Congress, the infamous haunted hotel that inspired Stephen King’s short story “1408,” and the eponymous movie. (Don’t watch it unless you’re looking for something scarier than The Conjuring.) It is probably the scariest hotel in America. You look at it and it looks back at you, as though whispering, “REDRUM.”
“Do you want to try it?” Amie asked. I couldn’t tell if she was goading me. “One night?”
“No, not really,” I said. “But I bet we’ll end up there sometime, whether we like it or not.”