After I paid for the Haunted Mansion retreat, I worried what I’d do if the mansion really was haunted. I wouldn’t be able to drive to Mount Tamalpais for the long weekend, since I couldn’t leave my family without a car. If I caught a ride with a stranger, I would be trapped at the mansion. What if things got really bad and I was afraid to sleep? I wouldn’t be able to slink out to my car and sleep in it.
See, I have a healthy respect for ghosts. I’ve seen their shadows since I was a kid. Generally, they don’t do anything more than make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I feel cold and slightly jittery. Most of the ghosts I’ve seen were people I knew, or at least people I recognized. They weren’t trying to scare me. My body’s reaction to them was scarier than anything they ever did.
Rain hadn’t told us much about the ghosts that she’d encountered in the mansion. She wanted us to have our own experiences, to form our own opinions. So I went into it blind, knowing no one other than her.
I met Scott and Eunice for the ride over to Mount Tam. Eunice had come up from Southern California; Scott would drive the two of us from San Francisco’s Marina District across the Golden Gate. I was relieved to find them your typical very nice horror writers. They made me feel comfortable, like I wasn’t making a terrible mistake going away with strangers to a haunted house for the weekend.
We arrived at the Haunted Mansion in the middle of Thursday afternoon. As we carried our bags into the mansion, Rain was standing in the grand staircase. She offered to give us a tour, so we could pick our rooms for the weekend. We hurried to move our luggage into the first-floor parlor and followed her up the stairs.
The second floor was a maze of interconnecting rooms that encircled the stairway. Almost everyone else had come with a friend with whom they planned to share a room. Since I was solo, I wavered between asking to share someone else’s room or taking a room of my own. Would the ghosts be more or less likely to mess with me if I slept alone?
There were only eight of us there that first night, rattling around in a house that seemed able to sleep a hundred. Rain said we would all stay on the second floor, even though that was where she’d had the most intense of her ghostly encounters. Most of the second-floor rooms were pass-throughs: each dormitory-style room connecting to the next. I don’t sleep well at the best of times, so I wasn’t eager to choose a room where people might walk through in the night to use the bathroom. Since I wander a fair amount when I can’t sleep, I also didn’t want to wake anyone else.
Rain’s tour paused outside a little blue room tucked between a suite -- reserved for the one married couple among us -- and dead space. I’m not sure what lay on the other side of the wall: maybe a linen closet? It wasn’t another guest room, anyway.
The blue room felt very restful to me, very welcoming. It helped that it only had one door, which faced the bed, and a window that looked out on Mount Tam. The energy felt inviting. When I stepped inside and saw the artwork hanging above the vanity -- a piece of white silk featuring a bright Chinese phoenix -- I had to have that room. I wear a phoenix tattoo on my left arm. The room and I shared a kinship.
Later that afternoon, as I settled into my room, movement over my head at the window caught my eye. I looked up to see a fat-bellied black widow wrapping something in her web.
Fear thrilled through me, until commonsense reasserted itself. As long as she stayed outside of the window, the black widow posed no problem. I just wouldn’t open the window while the room was mine.
My little room proved to be a great haven, especially after I set my suitcase in front of the closet. Not that I thought anything was going to come through there -- or that I felt the suitcase provided much of a barricade -- but I’ve seen Poltergeist too many times. You never know with big empty spaces.
I settled into the double bed, feeling safe in a way I wouldn’t have in a room with more doors. I closed my eyes, exhausted and slightly drunk from Rain’s good Argentinean wine.
Sleep wouldn’t come.
I thought I heard whispering voices, then a man speaking, but Yvonne and Weston had the suite that shared the miniscule balcony outside my spider-guarded window. I gladly put on my headphones to block the voices out.
As I lay there in the dark, trying to sleep, the light in my room kept changing. Smudges and smears of light flashed through the well of shadow that lay between the bed and the vanity. The sliver of light coming in around the door grew wider toward morning, as if the door was inching open, but it wasn’t. Even so, I didn’t turn my back toward the center of the room.
Finally, about 4:30, I told myself that I really needed to get some sleep. I rolled onto my stomach, clutched the pillow, felt myself relax. Sleep was washing over me when someone touched my hair.
Someone touched my hair. Electricity thrilled through me. I knew I was still alone in the room, but opened my eyes anyway. The room remained silent and empty, holding its breath to see what I would do.
It occurred to me that a spider might have fallen from the ceiling on to me. Maybe the black widow outside my window had a companion. However, the sensation of being touched hadn’t felt like something practically weightless dancing across my head. My hair is just not that sensitive. Something the size of a hand compressed the hair on the right side of my head. Without a doubt, someone touched me.
“Hello,” I whispered softly. “It will be dawn soon. I’d really like to get some sleep before then. Can we talk in the morning?”
I waited, but nothing more happened. Sleep was remarkably easy to find.
The hauntings continued throughout the weekend -- and now you can experience them for yourself. The Haunted Mansion is going to host another writers' retreat in 2012. You can see the details on the Haunted Mansion at blog: http://hauntedmansionwriters.blogspot.com/.
One of the dispatches I wrote at the last retreat is on Red Room here: http://redroom.com/member/loren-rhoads/blog/haunted-mansion-rule-5
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