Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"Let me out...": One Night At The Grove Park Inn (a true story)

It was August of 2000.  I had been living in Asheville for just over two weeks.  With abandon I had thrown myself into the ways and customs of that curious city in the North Carolina mountains.  And not just for sake of my new job as investigative reporter.


No, it was more personal than that.  Asheville was finally a crack at life on my own, now 26 and a year after an extended season of college.  I wanted to make the most of it.  To make an escape from previous disappointments with the breaking of new ground.


Part and parcel of that was meeting new people.  And being a reporter gave me an edge.  Especially in Asheville.  A town my landlady had described as "a mixed bowl of nuts".  Thirty percent rock-ribbed Christian conservative, thirty percent very liberal, and forty percent anything and everything in between.  Being a journalist there puts one in contact with all the characters.  Already I had met the mayor, the district's representative in Congress, a purple-haired man calling himself Cassandra (after the woman in The Iliad who prophesied about the fall of Troy but wasn't believed), "the Thong Guy" (don't ask), and a number of other interesting folk.  Still to come was covering the massive "We Still Pray" Christian rally, the "We Still Work Magic" rally the local witchcraft community held a few weeks later at the same high school stadium, being called "a--hole" by a future President of the United States, and a photo together with Bill Cosby that I can't show anymore.


As wildly entertaining as that all sounds, it was serious business.  And I still hold dear the lessons and virtues of good and impartial reporting that the editor and publisher shared with me.  However I may go as a writer for the rest of my life, I owe much to each of them.


So even when it came to the "Summer Spook Series",  I was determined to approach matters with an objective eye and a mind divorced from suggestion or duress.  Not to be a prejudiced skeptic, but neither to be overwhelmed with sensation about the supernatural.


It was "for fun," my editor had said.  "Part Scooby-Doo and part The Blair Witch Project". But we were still a weekly newsmagazine toward which there was responsibility to be had.  The readers were owed the facts, whatever they may be, and the opportunity to weigh it on their own.


And so it was, at 9 p.m. on a Monday night, that ten of us - the wife of the editor, a fellow reporter, some high school students, a business owner, and a few others including Yours Truly - met in the lobby of the Grove Park Inn.  Reputedly one of the most haunted hotels in the world.


-----


The Grove Park Inn opened in 1913, after nearly a year of construction.  The dedication address was delivered by William Jennings Bryan.  It has since seen visits by everyone from Henry Ford to Sir Anthony Hopkins to Chuck Norris.  Ten United States Presidents have been guests at the hotel.  During World War II it was the site of internment for German diplomats.  In recent years it has been  revealed that in the event of a nuclear attack on America, the United States Supreme Court would have been relocated to the hotel.


It had been in the final months of the Belle Époque that the Grove Park Inn first opened its doors.  But it was in the decade after the Great War that the place truly exploded to life.  The Roaring Twenties came hard and raucous to this hotel in the hills above Asheville, and even today one without understanding why might expect to see flapper girls and catch the whiff of expensive French cigarettes.  And Prohibition be damned!  The liquor flowed well within the halls and rooms of the Grove Park, with a sly wink and a knowing grin.


Maybe that has something to do with how it is that the name of the young woman who died there around 1920 has been forgotten.  She fell to her death within the hotel, from over a balcony and onto the hard stone of the Palm Court three stories below.  As any large resort or park or fine ocean-going vessel, tragedy can and will transpire amid revelry.  And there was little revelry as that in the wake of the Kaiser's vanquishing.


All that is known today is that she died instantly and that she had apparently been staying in Room 545.


At least, however, we know who had been a guest in Room 441 for a year between 1935 and 1936.  It had been none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The author of the celebrated novel The Great Gatsby had consigned himself to residence at the Grove Park Inn.  Hoping out of desperation that the environment might stimulate his writing.  As well as being close to the sanitarium where his beloved wife Zelda was receiving psychiatric care.


Fitzgerald spent much of the darkest period of his life at the Grove Park Inn.  A few years later in 1940, he died a broken man.


In 1948, the nearby Highland Hospital was destroyed in a fire.  Stories persist that the patients had been drugged and locked within their rooms, abandoned by a vengeful nurse who lit the match.  Zelda Fitzgerald and eight others perished in the flames.


-----


Late one evening in 1998 a newly-hired security guard at the Grove Park Inn believed he had spotted a guest "wandering around drunk on the grounds, in an old-style costume."  He radioed his supervisor about it and was met with a  screaming voice demanding that he return to the hotel.  Bewildered, the guard looked toward where he had seen the woman, but she was no longer there.


Upon entering the security office the supervisor was shouting threats about immediate termination.  And then the threats stopped when the boss realized that in sincerest honesty the guard, who had just relocated to the area, had never heard about the Pink Lady.


It was sometime in the Twenties that the woman in Room 545 began letting staff and guests understand that she was reluctant to leave so abruptly.  The new guard had become just the latest to witness her comings and goings.


Even today, guests report that they feel tickled during the night, especially on their feet, by "someone else" in their room.  Lights flicker on with no one touching the switch.  Young children tell their parents the next morning about "the nice woman" who came to visit them during the night.  


She is the Pink Lady.  A spectral young woman who has been sighted hundreds of times throughout the Grove Park Inn.  And over the decades many of them have come from guests staying in Room 545.


There have also been stories about Room 441.  About the sound of typing coming from behind its doors when no one was staying within.  And at times, sightings of men and women in period attire who vanish upon a second look.


It is not surprising then that the Grove Park Inn has become the subject of numerous studies by paranormal investigators: some professional, many not.  One respected group, L.E.M.U.R. Investigations, had recently finished an extensive study of the Grove Park.  Their findings: based on the weight and consistency of the reports from so many guests and staff, something was amiss at the hotel.


The team of the "Summer Spook Series" would be the next to investigate the Grove Park Inn.


And the editor informed us that by special arrangement with the Grove Park's management, we would have Room 545 all to ourselves...


-----


Beginning at 10 p.m., we would split into teams and cover the hotel and the surrounding grounds.  Throughout the night on the hour we would meet back in Room 545 to give reports and compare notes.  Two of us would remain in the room itself.


The editor's wife had a couple of cameras, including one loaded with infrared film.  I had a notepad and a micro cassette recorder.  She and I and another team member were accompanied by a guard and given access to the clubhouse, near the Grove Park's golf course and not far from the hotel itself.


We used flashlights to navigate as we walked around the rooms, and the banquet hall had already been set up for a formal event of some kind.  That is where I found myself alone around 10:40.  The cassette recorder was still whirring away.  I had forgotten it was on at all after getting some comments from the guard.


If there had been anything unusual in the clubhouse, we didn't see it or hear it.


A little over an hour later during our group's second meeting in Room 545, as the others were discussing what and where to go next, I rewound the tape to find some bits of the conversation with the guard.  I thought I was close to it but I was wrong.  It turned out to be a segment from the time we were inside the clubhouse.


And that's when we heard it on the tape:


"Let me out..."


-----


As best as we could determine, it was from the time I had been in the banquet room.  Nobody else had been inside apart from myself.


But still, there it was.  A voice, gender indeterminate.  Whispering "Let me out..." followed by something unintelligible.  I rewound the tape and played it back several times, without suggesting to anyone else what it might be.


Every person in our group said that it sounded like someone saying "Let me out..."


-----


Okay, well... it was a bit spooky.  A week later an experienced investigator listened to the tape and remarked that it seemed very much that I had recorded what in the trade is called "electronic voice phenomenon".  And that there had been many such cases reported ever since the invention of the phonograph.  Even today, there are times when I think about that night and I wrack my brain trying to remember if anyone else had come into the banquet room that night.  But I don't recall anyone at all.  And I don't think I was speaking to myself either.  I certainly didn't say "Let me out..." in a hushed but quite audible whisper.


At fifteen after midnight we dispersed again.  Before we did, the editor's wife took a few random photos with the infrared-loaded camera inside Room 545.  Those were the first pictures made on the roll of film.


-----


I was with a group of other people, including my fellow reporter.  We walked a short distance to what was at the time the studios of ABC affiliate WLOS.  A cardboard standup of one of the on-air newscasters looked out from a window, his face beaming a cheery smile.  No doubt a great laugh during the daytime.  At night, strolling from the Grove Park Inn, it was a bit surreal.


Nothing happened between then and 1 a.m.  Neither did anything remarkable transpire between 1 and 2.


And nothing happened between 2 and 3 either.  That was when I decided to visit the fourth floor: completely empty of guests and staff at the time due to renovation.  Sheets of canvas and paint buckets and lengths of lumber and table saws were throughout the floor, up and down the hallways.


I was alone for almost the entire hour, sitting with my back to the wall.  Room 441 was within eyesight to my right.  The plaque on the door noting that it had been F. Scott Fitzgerald's residence during his time in Asheville reflecting what dull light came down from the upper floor.  There was not a sound from either above or the atrium three stories below.


At 3 a.m. I returned to Room 545.  The fourth floor had not yielded up anything unusual.


-----


The editor's wife wanted to see Fitzgerald's room.


I returned to the fourth floor, bringing her along.  We came to the outside of Room 441.  Again, not a sound apart from our own quiet voices.  Nobody had told directly us to stay off of the fourth floor, but neither did we assume that it would have been permitted had we asked.  We were being discreet about it.


The editor's wife took some photos with both regular film and the infrared-loaded camera.  Including one infrared shot down the hallway, with Room 441's door situated in the left of the picture, the floor immediately in front of it clear in the scope.


We saw nothing with our eyes.  But there was one curious incident that occurred.  She had brought a small magnetic compass with her.  We had been told beforehand that sometimes compasses would act odd in places supposedly haunted.  Not far from Room 441 she brought the compass out.  The needle was spinning.  Not far, but certainly not at a snail's pace either.  It would turn one way, then veer toward the other direction.


Why it did that, we could never explain.


-----


4 a.m.  The group met in Room 545 once again.  Nothing else to report.  And by 6 a.m. and the sun beginning to rise we all decided that we had done our part and that at least there was a ghostly voice to show for it.  We each went on our way.  I returned to my apartment and crashed for a few hours before going in to the office.


-----


"Okay, Chris, this is going to make your jaw hit the floor."


It was Friday morning.  Three days after the end of the first "Summer Spook Series" investigation.  The night at the Grove Park Inn was already falling behind in the rear-view mirror of my brain.  Yes, there had been the weird sound from the tape recorder but... heck, that could have been anything.


Then my editor showed me the photos.


It had taken a few days to get the infrared film developed.  They had received the pics the previous afternoon, after I had left for the evening.


The first two that he showed me were from inside Room 545.  The photos were a grainy black and white, but otherwise were not much different from pics taken with standard film.  However, in each of the photos and especially remarkable in one of them, there was a very clear "artifact" in view hanging over the bed.  It seemed very much to be not on the wall, but in the air itself.


What it was, we couldn't figure out.  There were two of our team in the photo and they seemed obvious to it.  But there it was, right between them.


It was odd.  But otherwise, not something one's mind might linger upon.


The next photo however was absolutely disquieting.


It was the one his wife had taken on the fourth floor, aimed down the hallway and with the door to Room 441 in view.  Again, a grainy black and white image.


Yet very visible, in the center of the image, there was someone standing in the hallway.


Someone with a face.  Looking toward the camera.  It seemed to be the face of a woman.  Wearing, perhaps, a long dress.


She was smiling.  And eighteen years later, long after the most recent time I've seen the photo, those eyes still haunt me, for lack of any better term.


Nobody else had been on the fourth floor with us.  But there it was.  A third person, who had only turned up in an infrared photograph.


-----


The same professional investigator who examined my audio recording told us that he believed we had captured a legitimate image of... well, something.  And it is a testament to his objectivity that he could not suggest what it was.  Only that it was empirical evidence, along with the apparent voice on the cassette tape.


No one in our group saw anything with our own eyes, or heard with our ears alone.  But by at least three different means the equipment we used, we had detected some very, very peculiar "signatures" around the Grove Park Inn.  I still have the audio recording somewhere.  The photograph is in the possession of my former editor.


-----


So... is the Grove Park Inn haunted?  More to the point: are there such things as ghosts?


I'm inclined to say that there is something at the Grove Park Inn.  And that's just based on the testimony of people I interviewed personally, along with the mountain of documented reports over the past century.  It's more than enough to discount any mass delusion going on.


As to what precisely it might be...


I'm skeptical of the existence of ghosts as entities of a spiritual nature.  However, I have held to a theory for quite a long time now, even before that night at the Grove Park Inn.  It is this: that we still don't understand everything about the realm of electromagnetism and quantum physics.  There may be more than two dozen different dimensions to the universe, according to string theory.  But that's just conjecture based on math and bits of evidence from high-energy particle experiments.  That "grand unified theory" remains as elusive as ever.


Maybe what are known as "ghosts", are like a signature on a local environment.  Something analogous to a recording on a VCR (a "video cassette recorder" for millennials and younger who are reading this).  And every so often the recording "plays back" on its own or because of a stimulus.  Or maybe that's too wacky an explanation.  It's the only one I possess to my own satisfaction, however.


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And with today being Halloween, and it's been awhile since I've been able to post something on The Knight Shift (lots of stuff has been happening on my end keeping me from much writing at all) I thought it would be good to make up for it.  By sharing a very true story of what happened when I and a group of others spent a night doing what we thought was light-hearted paranormal investigation at one of the most famous - and most haunted - hotels in America.


On my honor, I can attest that the preceding account is a true and accurate one, as best as I can possibly convey.


And that's my ghost story for this Halloween.