I’m driving up Route 3 in New Hampshire, up past Franconia Notch and deep into the White Mountains. It’s only 6 p.m. on this November evening, but for the all-encompassing dark, it might as well be midnight. There’s no moon, no stars, no other cars to light the way. I’m a writer, driving alone on an icy road in northern New England, and the snow is starting to fall. This is where I crash my car, I think to myself, and the crazy woman takes me back to her cabin.
It’s hard to separate scary Stephen King stories from the reality of what I’m doing, especially because I’m pushing further and further north into King territory, on my way to look for ghosts.
By the time I get to the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, the snow is really coming down, and the wind is howling—literally howling—around me.
Not creepy at all.
The Mount Washington is the grandest of all the grand New England mountain hotels, built in 1902 as a summer retreat for the rich and famous of the Gilded Age. Set against the backdrop of the tallest mountain in New England, the imposing white building with its red roof makes a dramatic first impression of glamor and grandeur. It is so beautiful, and so magical, and so haunted.
I was there to spend a weekend poking around in the creepiest corners of the place, looking for things that go bump in the night.
I’m making it sound scary, but the curious thing about the Mount Washington is that, while it does definitely feel haunted, and people often mistake it for the Overlook from The Shining, the hotel also has a warm and welcoming vibe. It starts when you wend your way up the long drive and lasts for your whole stay: while you’re sitting in the sprawling lobby in front of the enormous fireplace, or watching the sunset over the mountain from the expansive porch, or sipping cocktails in the basement bar that was once a Prohibition-era speakeasy, or having dinner in the formal dining room.
The place doesn’t shy away from its haunted history, either. I was there to stay in room 314, better known as the Princess Room, which was the personal quarters of Carolyn Stickney, wife of Joseph Stickney, who built the hotel for her as a wedding gift. When he died, she remarried into French royalty, but continued to summer at the hotel for the rest of her life, even traveling with her own four-poster bed that’s still in the room today.
Legends around the hotel say that she’s still there, overseeing the guests in all her regal glory.
Princess Carolyn is the best-known of the hotel’s ghosts, but she’s far from the only one. I’ve been to the Mount Washington many times, and every time I go, I ask staff and guests whether they’ve seen or felt anything that might be paranormal. Unfailingly, every single time, they say yes—but no one ever says they were scared. They just report seeing or feeling things they can’t explain. There’s just something about the energy of the place. It’s hard to feel scared here.
When I check into my room, the head of housekeeping knocks on my door. He’s checking in to make sure everything is good in the room.
“Have you ever seen anything?” I ask him. He nods a little sheepishly, and says, “Can I come in?”
Mark proceeds to tell me that he’s seen a few things in the Princess Room before. The televisions—there are two—tend to turn on without anyone using a remote control. And once, when he was talking to a guest in the room, a drawer in the nightstand shot open on its own. No one was near it. They closed it. It shot open again. They looked at the totally ordinary piece of furniture, with a lamp on it and nothing else, and closed the drawer. It opened itself four times in a row.
That weekend, I was at the hotel with some paranormal investigators who were leading a group of the para-curious on a weekend of ghost hunting. I had been there before with Strange Escapes, the paranormal travel company that runs these events, and on plenty of others, to places like the Queen Mary, a retired ocean liner that’s now a floating hotel in Los Angeles, which has a century of history and hauntings. Eventually I started working on a book with Amy Bruni, the professional paranormal investigator who owns Strange Escapes, who has a Travel Channel show, Kindred Spirits, with her investigating partner Adam Berry. At that point, we weren’t working on the book yet. I was there to observe, and if I wanted to, I could participate in the ghostiness as much as I felt comfortable.
It’s a long way of saying that I could easily have stayed in a regular hotel room and probably not have had the same experience I’m going to tell you about. But where’s the fun in that?
I wouldn’t call myself a believer, and I wouldn’t call myself scared of ghosts, either. Mostly, I’m just there to take it all in. I started going to Strange Escapes events because I was fascinated by the people who chose to spend their free time (or, in the case of the pros, their careers) steeped in the paranormal. I kept going because, well, hanging out in the middle of the night in creepy places asking questions into the dark is actually pretty fun. In those times, like the night I spent in the Queen Mary’s most haunted room, I’ve seen a few things I can’t explain.
Room 314 at the Mount Washington Hotel, a.k.a. the Princess Room
For a normal person, my first night in the Princess Room went well. I slept like a baby. But I am not a normal person: I am a writer who was on assignment trying to see some ghosts. So by that metric, the first night was a total fail. Before I turned in for the night, I sat there and watched as Adam Berry conducted paranormal investigations, with small groups of “escapees” rotating out every hour or so. Berry held EVP sessions, where you use a voice recorder to ask questions and hope that the technology picks up responses from unseen beings, which are called “electronic voice phenomena.”
There was a little bit of activity in the room, but as Berry said to me as he was ushering the last investigators out of the room last night, “there isn’t anything that’s going to make any trouble for you.”
The next day, I listened to lectures by other experts, including one by paranormal researcher John E.L. Tenney, who was sharing his theories on why people report experiencing so much activity at the Mount Washington. Places like this, he said, “ get haunted the more people investigate them.”
“If you can die and leave energy behind,” Tenney added, “why can’t you be alive and leave energy behind?”
The common theme among all the speakers is that there’s no real reason to be afraid of what you can’t explain. “Ghosts are people too,” is Bruni’s philosophy of paranormal investigation. Most people are fundamentally nice, so it stands to reason that the energy they leave behind would be the same. Whatever you encounter when you’re looking for the unexplained almost definitely doesn’t mean you any harm.
“Sure, it can be a little startling,” psychic medium Chip Coffey said about seeing a ghost, “but unless it’s malicious or malevolent, chill the F out.”
My second night in the Princess Room, a Sunday, I decided to get serious about trying to have a paranormal encounter. Most of the people who had come to the event had gone home early because of the increasingly intense snowstorm.
I invited the remaining people back to the Princess Room for another investigation. There were maybe 20 of us in the room, including Bruni, Berry, Tenney, and Greg and Dana Newkirk, who use haunted objects in their paranormal investigations.
Dana pulled tarot cards while Tenney guided us through setting our intention and amplifying our collective energy. Bruni and Greg asked the questions in the EVP session. The Princess is hard to make contact with, probably because so many people go there trying to talk to her, but whatever we were doing was working. Bruni started asking her about the gala events she used to throw at the hotel, especially about New Year’s Eve, her biggest bash of them all.
We started getting some real answers. Nothing too controversial, just about how much she loved those parties, but we really felt like we were talking to Princess Carolyn. As the mood in the room got lighter and lighter—those results were a big deal to all of us—we started hearing some knocks on the walls around us. And when we burst into laughter, the lights flickered. Someone else made a joke, we all laughed, and it happened again. This time the lights dimmed for a few seconds.
At this point, I had been staying in the room for 36 hours, and I hadn’t heard a single knock or seen those lights flicker even one other time.
Then my eyes glanced down to the nightstand, the same one the head of housekeeping had talked about before. “Guys,” I said, “look at that drawer.”
It was open two inches.
I was standing closest to that nightstand, so I would have known if someone had touched it. It really seemed like whatever had opened it for Mark had opened it for us, too. We all looked at it for a few minutes, then pushed the drawer back in.
Shortly after that, people started to filter out. I was staying, so I was behind everyone who was leaving. I turned around to make sure there were no stragglers, and that’s when I saw it.
The drawer was open again, only this time it was completely open.
I had closed it myself. Dana came back inside, and tried to do something that would make the drawer open on its own. We pushed it, pulled it, tested whether a coat could have caught on it, jumped on the floor in front of it, walked heavily across the room towards it. Nothing moved it at all.
“I need to get out of this room,” I said to her. “I just need to use the bathroom first.”
“Ok,” she said. “We’ll wait for you in the hall.” I closed the hotel room door, went into the bathroom, came out a minute or so later, and ran to the door.
“Get back in here!” I yelled.
This time, the top drawer was open. And I had been completely alone in the room. There is no chance any living person did that.
We took a short walk outside. I wasn’t scared, but I was all raw nerves. I’ve been in some weird situations before—like inside the house The Conjuring is based on—but I’ve never been faced with something I completely couldn’t explain before.
Everything I’ve ever read or heard about dealing with ghosts advises you to talk to them like you’d talk to any other person. So when it was time to try to sleep in the room where I had just witnessed an unseen force move an object, I spoke out loud, even though I couldn’t see anyone there. (And even though I felt a little bit silly doing it.)
“Thank you,” I said to the empty room. “We all appreciate so much that we got to talk to you. That was really special for all of us. But I can’t talk anymore. Please let me get some rest.”
But of course, I couldn’t sleep. I FaceTimed my boyfriend. “I’m not really scared,” I said, “but I’m wired.”
I heard radio static through the phone. I was on wifi and had a good signal—and beyond that, when a FaceTime connection is bad, the screen blurs out or freezes. There is no static on a bad video chat, at least not that I’ve ever seen.
Through the static, I could faintly hear a woman’s voice.
I turned on the recorder I use to tape interviews.
“I think the princess might have been here,” I said to him. “When I got back here, I said to her, ‘thank you so much, but I really need to sleep.’” There was another burst of static in the phone, and some white flashes across the screen. Of all the times I have ever used video chat, I have never, ever seen that kind of flashing, which would white out the screen for a second or two but wasn’t accompanied by the standard “poor connection” warning.
Eventually I did fall asleep, and slept well. The next morning, I played back that recording. I thought I heard what I heard, but I wanted someone else’s opinion. Knowing she had a lot more experience with EVPs than I did, I played it for Bruni.
“Thank you so much,” I heard myself say on the recording, “but I really need to sleep.”
And then, a woman’s voice, not my own, as clear as can be, saying, Go to sleep.
I went back to the Mount Washington Strange Escapes the next November. In the Princess Room, we saw that same drawer on that same nightstand pop out several times over the course of an hour. I left to go explore some other spaces, and came back to 314 late that night. “It hasn’t happened since you left,” Adam Berry said. Everyone who was in the room was sitting perfectly still. Then, slowly, we watched the drawer open.
That time, I decided to stay in a regular room.
Julie Tremaine is an award-winning food and travel writer who’s road tripping—and tasting—her way across the country. Her work appears in outlets like Vulture, Travel + Leisure, CNN Travel and Glamour, and she’s the Disneyland editor for SFGATE, covering California theme parks. Read her work at Travel-Sip-Repeat.com.