IN THIS WEEK'S Mondo Weirdo, a reader answers the question, "What's the strangest place you've ever slept?" with a spine-chilling tale of an innocent stay turned eerie in a northern California hotel. What's your story? Send your tales to firstname.lastname@example.org.
i don't believe in ghosts. I've never liked horror movies, but I loved to read horror stories as a child. In grade school, I spent many evenings rereading Edgar Allan Poe stories, fascinated by the prospect of dark, scary things hovering outside my bedroom walls. Years passed. Today my bedtime reading preference consists of short stories, nonfiction and the occasional travel book. A few weeks ago, encountering a ghost was not a distinct possibility in my life. I no longer believe that to be true.
My tale of the supernatural has a very mundane beginning and takes place in the quiet enclave of Mendocino, Calif. As a last-minute surprise for my husband's birthday, I decided to take him to this small town for an overnight getaway. Mendocino may be a tiny blip on the Northern California coastline, but the town's restored Victorians, choice eateries, and inexpensive spas make it a prime destination for many Californians during the summer. I envisioned an afternoon in a soothing hot tub, a stroll on the beach and a gourmet dinner as a well-deserved treat.
Late one weekday afternoon, I called a reservation booking service in the town, knowing fully that finding a room for a Saturday night stay in August on short notice was a long shot at best. After putting me on hold for a few minutes, the woman on the other end of the line happily breathed a sigh of relief.
"I've found you a room at the MacCallum House," she said. "It's the attic suite. You'll love it. It's a wonderful house."
Overjoyed with my luck at securing a room, I never considered that there might be a good reason for the attic of the 100-year-old house to be vacant on a busy summer weekend.
Fast forward to an overcast and cool Saturday evening in Mendocino. Our five-hour drive up the coast has been followed by an hour's soak in a hot tub and sauna, followed by a long walk on the rocky cliffs overlooking a becalmed sea. The MacCallum House turns out to be a wonderfully restored Victorian in the middle of town, surrounded by a large flower garden and a converted barn and water tower. The cozy wood-paneled bar is filled with comfortable leather sofas and chairs. Afternoon sunlight streams into the room from the tall windows. Old paintings and photos of the inn's original owners line the walls throughout the house.
We learn the house's story: It was built in the 1880s as a wedding present for Daisy MacCallum and her bridegroom, Alex. Daisy's father, who made large sums of money cutting down the nearby redwoods, was a mainstay of Mendocino society. His large home across the street from the MacCallum House now houses the Mendocino History Museum. Daisy was well educated and passionate about reading, painting and gardening. She was small, about 5 feet tall, and walked with a limp because of a childhood illness. In the many photos of her that line the walls, she gazes out, a dark-haired beauty with an intense look in her eyes.
As much as she loved Mendocino County, Daisy loved to travel. When she was not out globe-trotting (she went as far afield as Egypt and Europe), Daisy filled her home with musicians, artists and writers. Daisy liked a good party and was generous to her artist friends, often letting them stay for long periods in her home. Alex died quite young, but Daisy and her two children lived in the house until they died. Neither of her children married. When Daisy's daughter died in 1971, the house was sold with many of the furnishings and paintings intact. Many of Daisy's possessions still grace the house.
Looking around the carefully maintained house and gardens, it isn't difficult to imagine that Daisy would be quite pleased to find that people still enjoy visiting her home. During the summer season, the house is always filled.
After check-in time at 4 p.m., we throw our bags in the attic and take a quick look around. The attic suite is an extremely large space, with a steep-pitched roof and exposed beams and walls of redwood. In some places, I have to duck my head to avoid knocking into a beam. A small sofa and a rocker are positioned at the front of the attic before a large dormer window. Two small rooms have been partitioned off the main room for bedrooms. The rooms are tidy, the bathroom is brand new with a spa tub and the bed feels comfortable. It is the perfect place.
Walking away from the house for our 4:30 spa appointment, Michael draws my attention to a very large black bird which has flown onto the roof and taken up a perch over our window. Michael jokes that we will have to be careful not to leave the window open that night lest we have an unwelcome visitor. I laugh at the thought.
That evening, after stuffing ourselves in the dining room below, Michael and I slowly walk up the stairs to our attic hideaway. It is easy to envision Daisy's two children playing in the large attic on rainy afternoons. The large dormer window at the front of the house offers an unobstructed view of the ragged coastline and pounding waves. It is the perfect place to sit and gaze at the ocean and the busy street down below.
As we ready ourselves for bed, I begin to feel slightly uneasy -- not for any reason I can articulate to Michael. OK, I'll admit that as a small child I had a fear of the unknown -- and it's that same kind of feeling I'm now experiencing. My intuition seems to be saying, "Be careful." The two small bedrooms are situated directly across from each other with facing doors, and I have chosen the smaller room with the larger bed for our bedroom. The angle of the roof makes it necessary to center the bed in the middle of the room, facing the door. For some inexplicable reason, I can't think about going to sleep without closing the other bedroom door.
I also do something else quite out of character. I leave the bathroom light on when we go to bed. The bathroom, located next to the outer door, is at the far end of the attic. I rationalize to Michael that I don't want to stumble if I have to make a trip to the bathroom during the middle of the night. In my heart, I know that I don't want to wake up in total darkness.
We go to bed at 10:30. Michael crawls into bed first. I brush my teeth and walk to the bedroom door, looking one last time over my shoulder at the warm light spilling onto the hallway floor.
Hours later, something wakes me out of a sound sleep. It's 1:30 a.m. I don't remember dreaming. One minute I am sleeping, the next I am sitting upright in bed. I look out of the bedroom door. It is completely dark in the attic. The bathroom light is off. I immediately shake my sleeping husband.
"Did you get up and turn off the bathroom light?" I anxiously ask.
"What? What are you talking about?" he sleepily responds. "Honey, are you crazy? I think you turned it off before you came to bed."
"Michael, get up. We have to go look. I absolutely left the bathroom light on," I say, pushing him out of bed.
We both get up and head for the bathroom door, Michael first. Sure enough, the light has been switched off. I am agitated. Someone or something has switched off the light. Michael, on the other hand, is his serenely logical self. I walk in my sleep. (Not so.) I turned off the light before coming to bed and don't remember. (No way.) The ghost of Daisy MacCallum turned it off. (He's joking, but I'm not.) He doesn't care about ghosts. He wants to go back to sleep, which he does in short order. I, on the other hand, spend the next four hours wide awake, listening.
Two other unexplainable events happen during the remainder of the night. First, I clearly hear the door of the other bedroom creaking open. The windows in the attic are tightly closed. There is not a lick of wind to account for the door creaking open. Fearless now, I turn on the light and jump out of bed. If there is a ghostly presence in the attic, I am going to get a look. The bedroom door is closed. I can't quite muster the courage to open the door and peek inside the dark room. I turn back to bed.
A short time later, I distinctly hear three footsteps outside the bedroom door. The floorboards creak with the weight of someone moving. This noise is too much for me. I cover my head with the blanket and pray for morning to arrive. I drift off to sleep around 4:30, finally deciding whoever or whatever is in the attic isn't mean spirited, just playful.
Finally, night turns to day. In the bright morning light, I am more convinced than ever that something extraordinary took place in the attic last night. I quickly dress and go down to the second floor, hoping to find the innkeeper sitting behind her desk. She is there. I nonchalantly help myself to a cup of coffee, make some small talk and then ask my question.
"Has anyone ever mentioned lights turning off unexplainably in the attic?" I wonder, trying not to sound like a dangerous kook.
She looks at me steadily for a moment.
"People complain about lights turning themselves ON and OFF in the attic all the time," she says. "They also complain about strange noises."
Right. I immediately launch into my tale of the bathroom light, the creaking door and the footsteps in the hallway. She nods her head as I recreate the events in the attic.
"Some people are more sensitive than others to these kinds of things," she offers sympathetically when I finish my story. I am strangely relieved to find out that the house is truly haunted.
Because we are the only two awake that morning, the innkeeper fills me in on a side of the MacCallum House that is not included in its official literature. She tells me that certain guests in Room 4 have been driven from the room by noxious odors that can't be detected by anyone else. The room once belonged to Donald MacCallum, Daisy's son. "Daisy was very protective of Donald," says the innkeeper. "I guess that she dislikes certain people. One afternoon a man came to me and asked if he and his wife could change rooms. He said his wife was trying to take a nap, but couldn't sleep because an overpowering odor like vomit had permeated the room. The husband couldn't smell anything. I went to the room and couldn't smell anything, either. We both got down on our hands and knees and looked under the bed and all around the room. We couldn't find anything.
"It's happened on more than one occasion," she continues, noting that the house is included in a book of haunted American inns. "One man came for a visit, hoping to have something happen, but nothing did. He said the spirits were being quiet."
Ghosts? I can't be certain. I do know one thing: I don't blame Daisy, ever the good hostess, for turning off the last light burning that Saturday night.
-- Rose Dalba