Hotels get spirited to draw tourist dollars

By Chris Bateman, The Union Democrat October 29, 2010 11:48 am

THERE WAS a time when historic hotels in the Mother Lode could skate by on charm, am-biance, hospitality and heritage.

No longer: Now you need a ghost.

 In fact, with Halloween weekend upon us, any vintage inn that’s not haunted doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance. In Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, virtually every hotel, lodge, rooming house and bed-and-breakfast that’s more than a century old has one.
    Eleanor rattles pots and pans at the Murphys Hotel. In James-town, Flo tucks in guests at the National Hotel. Lyle sweeps cosmetics off counters at the Groveland Hotel. Rebecca’s shadow moves along the walls of the Dorrington Hotel, and Elizabeth roams the halls of Columbia’s City Hotel.
    The former owners of the Hotel Leger in Mokelumne Hill, Sonora’s Gunn House and the Hotel Charlotte in Groveland still tend eerily to guests.
    DON’T HAVE a ghost?
    “Then you better go out and get one,” advises Groveland Hotel owner Peggy Mosley, who now offers special “Paranormal Weekends” catering to professional ghost hunters and guests who want to watch these pseudo-scientists in action.
    Yes, the Mother Lode has a ghost economy.
    “And it’s big,” said Nanci Sikes, executive director of the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau. “Ghosts have really come of age.”
    Sikes stops short of urging ghostless innkeepers to conjure up fake spirits, but she does say this: “Nurture the ghosts you have, and let the whole world know about them.”
    Because, she added, these ethereal beings produce “a major slice of our lodging revenue.”

     ALTHOUGH MOST hotel ghosts supposedly died more than a century ago, they maintained extremely low profiles until about 20 years ago, when a vast, market-driven resurrection from the netherworld began.
    Back in the 1970s, Tuolumne County’s only ghost of note was said to haunt the Willow Hotel in Jamestown — and to regularly burn it down. Not good for business, but the Willow rents no rooms, and a vengeful, ethereal arsonist made for lively conversation at the bar.
    It also made for a bunch of free publicity, because journalists just love ghosts.
    At even the hint of a haunting, we’ll drop everything and quote the least reliable of sources saying the most outrageous things. All because it beats the heck out of covering, like, the Tuolumne Utilities District.

 THIS WASN’T LOST on innkeepers, and those hints of haunting increased through 1990s.
    Union Democrat reporters visited more hotels than the guy who doles out stars for the Michelin Guide. We listened to ghost stories, talked to proprietors and guests, spent stormy nights beneath creaking rafters, slept uneasily in haunted rooms and covered ghost hunters armed with exotic gauges and gizmos that looked like they came right out of Doc Brown’s garage in “Back to the Future.”
    Then we covered TV crews covering those ghost hunters, hanging on every scripted word.
    Amazingly, not once did those hunters’ heat sensors, infrared cameras, electromagnetic wave detectors and ultra-sensitive microphones conclude that even one of these old hotels was ghost free.
    Next, it helps to have a spirit-friendly reporter to spread the word.

    YOU COULDN’T do better than our own ghostwriter, Lacey Peterson.
    “I was a believer going in,” said Peterson of a 2008 story she wrote on the Extreme Paranormal Research Team’s successful hunt for spooks at Columbia’s City and Fallon hotels. “A ghost burritoed me in my sleep once at a hotel in San Francisco.”
    “He, she or it tucked the sheets and blankets around me really tight,” explained Peterson. “I could hardly move.”
    And this from a woman who, as our education reporter, questions with arch skepticism every word said by school superintendents or trustees.
    But back to the burritoing incident: That is about as edgy as ghosts in these parts can get.

    FORGET MANIACAL poltergeists. We don’t want “The Shining” or “The Amityville Horror.” We want Casper the Friendly Ghost wearing a bandanna or a gingham dress.
    Luckily, we’ve got him, or them: Our hotel ghosts rattle pots and pans, turn the water off and on, flip light switches, tinker with room locks, move furniture, and appear fleetingly in mirrors.
    But kill people or even scare the bejesus out of them? Are you kidding?
    You’re much more likely to get a hug from one of our almost boringly benign spirits.
    At Jamestown’s National, said front desk clerk Gigi Gruel, resident spook Flo is known to “sit on” sleeping male guests and give them long, slow hugs.
    “We’ve had men wake up startled, thinking it was their wife,” said Gruel. “Then they look across the bed, and she’s sound asleep.”
    If Flo begins to provide this cuddly service to single guys, a whole new market could open.

 GHOST STORIES, of course, are part of the package.
    First you need one explaining who the ghost was and why he or she stuck around. If you can, hang the yarn on a fact or two — unrequited love and tragic death on the premises are good. If not, hire a writer to — as one innkeeper told a freelancing friend of mine a few years back — “let your imagination run wild.”
    Next you’ll need true-life tales, from guests and employees, of ghostly activities.
    Carol Biederman, who leads Columbia State Park’s ghost tours, has heard scores of them. A few, she said, “defy any plausible explanation” and have made her a believer.
    But she won’t discount even the most fanciful of stories, recognizing the livelihood of local hotels may depend on them.

 EXORCISTS AND ghost busters, however, are out of luck in these parts.
    “Nobody wants to get rid of our ghosts,” understated Biederman.
    Why would they? These spooks work cheap, don’t hurt a soul and bring in customers during the off-season (there are a few haunted rooms still available this weekend).
    And, yes, even today they generate plenty of publicity. Because we reporters, as this piece proves, are still suckers for ghosts.