American Ghost | Excerpt

American GhostIt began late at night, as these stories do. It was in the 1970s, at a hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A janitor was mopping the floor in an empty downstairs room. He looked up from his bucket and saw a dark-eyed woman standing near the fireplace. She wore a long, black gown, in the Victorian style of a hundred years earlier, and her white hair was swept up into a bun.

She was also translucent. Through her vague outlines, the janitor could see the wall behind her. She was there and yet she wasn’t. She looked into his eyes, and the janitor worried that he might be losing his mind. He looked down and told himself to keep mopping. When he looked up again, she was gone. She had possessed, he told a local newspaper, an “aura of sadness.”

The janitor’s account was the first the world would hear of the shadow woman in the hotel, but it would not be the last. Some days later, a security guard saw the same woman wandering a hallway. He took off running. A receptionist later saw her relaxing in an armchair in a downstairs sitting room: there, then gone.

Strange things began to happen in the hotel. Gas fireplaces turned off and on repeatedly, though nobody was flipping the switch. Chandeliers swayed and revolved. Vases of flowers moved to new locations. Glasses tumbled from shelves in the bar. A waitress not known for her clumsiness began dropping trays, and explained that she felt as if someone were pushing them from underneath. Guests heard dancing footsteps on the third story, where the ballroom once had been—though the third floor had burned years earlier. A woman’s voice, distant and foreign-sounding, called the switchboard over and over.
“Hallo?” “Hallo?” “Hallo?”

The woman was seen all over the hotel—in the oldest part of the building, the newer annex, and even the modern adobe casitas that dotted the gardens. One room, however, was a particular locus of activity. It was a suite on the second floor with a canopy bed and four arched windows that looked out to the eastern mountains. Guests who stayed there reported alarming events: blankets ripped off in the middle of the night, room temperatures plummeting, dancing balls of light, disembodied breathing. Doors slammed; toilets flushed; the bathtub filled; belongings were scattered; hair was tugged. People sensed a “presence.” Some also saw a woman—the same wan, sad woman—in the vanity mirror, brushing her disheveled white hair.

The hotel was called La Posada—“place of rest”—and it had once been a grand Santa Fe home. The room with the canopy bed had belonged to the wife of the home’s original owner. The employees of La Posada were certain that this presence was the spirit of that woman, and that she was not at rest, not at all. Her name was Julia Schuster Staab. Her life spanned the second half of the nineteenth century, and her death came too soon. She is Santa Fe’s most famous ghost. She is also my great-great-grandmother.

Read the first chapter of American Ghost on Scribd.