A Ghost Story

This photo shows the main staircase at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado

Matter is never created or destroyed. That’s what I’ve been told, at least since middle-school biology. Seen through this lens, can we explain the supernatural? What if spirits, specters, ghosts are not all in our heads or a trick of the light or eye – perhaps they are simply matter, or energy, redistributed?

I don’t really believe in the supernatural, except … sometimes a little piece of me does. How to explain otherwise my experience, a few years back, at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, known to ghost chasers around the world as one of the most haunted sites around?

My husband Andy and I had signed up for an evening out during a trip hiking day trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. We heard the hotel restaurant was quite good, and the ghost tour seemed like a fun diversion to fill an otherwise quiet evening.

There were about 20 of us in our group, and our young guide regaled us with stories as we progressed through the historic property. We heard the requisite bits about Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick; the other celebrities and VIPs who requested to stay in the notoriously haunted rooms and lived to tell mind-boggling tales. I was entertained, but highly skeptical, until we got to the fourth floor.

Our guide brought us to a pause in a small vestibule with two couches and a coffee table. “This floor used to be the children’s wing,” he explained. “The [proprietor] Stanleys didn’t like children, you see, so for the most part they would be kept up here for the duration of the summer while their parents vacationed with the Stanleys and other guests at other parts of the hotel. Oftentimes we’ll get calls asking us to ‘tell those kids to stop running around the halls’ – and of course there will be no one there — or teachers or parents who are guests will take notice of odd happenings. Candy or chewing gum will disappear from their rooms or be moved around, or they’ll be relaxing in the lounge and will feel the space suddenly grow very cold, or get the sensation of a child’s hand taking theirs. It’s all very good-natured, but this is definitely one of the more active places in the building.”

At this point, Andy and I had been separated, he on one side of the tour group, I on the other. I waited for most of the others to pass so we could walk to the next point of the tour together.

The crowd shuffled along and Andy took a step toward me. As he did, the oddest expression crossed his face — a widening of his eyes in surprise, a flicker within (of fear? panic?), and then a huge grin. As I saw his smile grow wider, I felt a whoosh of air speed past me, an icy-cold current, as if a window had been opened and an arctic breeze took flight through the hallway. But there was no window, and no vents were in sight, either.

“What just happened to you?” I asked Andy.

The words tumbled out, rapid with excitement. “I took a step forward and the temperature felt like it dropped about 40 degrees,” he said. “It felt like I was standing in front of an air conditioner.”

I told him what I had felt, and we lingered a moment to see if anything would happen again, but were disappointed. Realizing our tour group was well down the hallway, we hastened to join them.

We are both educated, highly skeptical, 30-something agnostics. Yet neither of us can possibly explain what our senses perceived that evening.

“We want to assign patterns and meaning to everything,” my uncle counters, when I tell him this story. “Your mind plays tricks on you, especially with the power of suggestion.” He tells me about an email he received from a long-lost friend, just as he was about to send him a note. “That’s not divine intervention or fate or anything with meaning,” he says. “What that is, is a coincidence.”

Coincidence. I like the word, I like the concept. I like the random nature it implies – the little tweaks to our daily lives, the disruptions in our organized flow, that in their meaningless random occurrences ironically shake us out of our stupors and tune us into meaning. An unexpected email makes one reconsider a neglected relationship. A cold patch, seemingly unexplainable, gives us a great story, a travel anecdote that forever imprints the memories of our Colorado vacation. Are these events random? Probably. Supernatural or divinely guided? Well, if matter is never created or destroyed, who am I to say for certain?

Why do we enjoy a good ghost story? In today’s world of instantly accessible facts and information, often delivered instantaneously through a few taps on a keyboard or mobile device, a ghost story is often one of the last bastions of surprise, or inexplicable wonder. It’s part fantasy, as all good unprovable stories can be, but with definite roots in the physical. Tell me a good ghost story, and I will feel my heart rate start to quicken, my ears will pick up on the slight, white-noise background sounds I had not registered mere minutes before. A good ghost story creates community – we here, gathered in wonder to ponder the unknown, perhaps joined by others, invisible, out in the ether – and roots us inevitably to the past, the place, the possible.

I tend to partake in ghost tours (if they’re available) in new cities I visit. A few years back, I noted to one guide that they’re a really entertaining way to learn about the history of a place.

“Well, that’s the thing,” the guide said, dropping his voice to share a secret. “Ghost tours are really just history tours with a little bit of spook and lore thrown in. If we package them as history tours, no one shows up—we can’t give the tickets away. We call it a ghost tour, though, and with a few slight program modifications, people can’t get enough of it.”

I think back to some of my high school history courses, and struggle to recollect details and minutiae. Ask me to recall a ghost/history tour, however, and the stories come rushing back. Really, what I think we’re all looking for is a good story, whether it’s to tell our friends over coffee (or a campfire), or for the modern age, to distill down to essential characters and broadcast over Facebook and Twitter. We all want to spin a good yarn to those willing to listen.

Did a ghost brush past me that day in Colorado? Maybe, maybe not. Ironically, though, whatever touched me gave me the impetus to reach out to others, and interact via the story, whether it’s in the flesh , a voice over a phone line, or pixels on a screen. Ghosts, spirits, whatever you want to call it – it’s super natural to want to connect.

Photo courtesy Kent Kanouse via Flickr Creative Commons

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