In the Spirits

From the ghosts of the Queen Anne Hotel to the "Miss Undead" pageant

The Queen Anne Hotelrises out of the inky, mizzly gloom, its decorous rose hue complemented by pools of lacy light gathering under the ground-floor windows.

"Ahhh! Good evening and welcome," says the concierge with a broad, easy smile that affirms the benefits of fine breeding and good diet. "Please, please, come in and warm yourself by the fire. There's coffee and tea laid out in the drawing room. It shouldn't be long now."

Shaking the mist from my hair, I step into a richly carved phone booth, which bears an uncanny likeness to a church confessional, to read an antique advertisement hanging above the low bench seat. The ink drawing captures the four-floor Victorian as it was, providing a glimpse of the Sutter Street guesthouse in an earlier incarnation; the phone number for the reputable Girls Friendly Society Lodge is listed as West 252. A more contemporary notice hangs on the wall just outside the phone booth, offering continental breakfast, limo service, and tea and sherry at 4 p.m., the last being the sort of decorum the building's original owner, Sen. James Graham Fair, would have been likely to appreciate.

SpookyCon's "Miss Undead 2003" pageant.
Jillian Northrup
SpookyCon's "Miss Undead 2003" pageant.

Constructed at the turn of the 19th century as a girls' school where Fair's daughters were meant to be educated, the institution closed down rather quickly, becoming a boarding home for respectable working girls, and then a rather shadowy "men's club," before Fair donated it to the Episcopal Church. Lovingly refurbished to nearly its original state, the Queen Anne still bears remnants of its past -- including a large oaken bench with lion-claw feet, wolf-head armrests, and batwing crowns, once used by priests -- but that's why we're here. In the drawing room, young ladies recline on couches covered in richly woven fabrics surrounded by low marble tabletops and Baroque curtains; beaded lampshades, porcelain dolls, and an exquisite baby grand piano gleam warmly in the flicker of the crackling fireplace. Firelight dances across the oil portraits on the walls, causing the faces to stretch and waver within their gold-gilt frames as the powdery scent of bergamot and potpourri wafts through the air.

Liza Burgos, a 23-year-old San Francisco resident, suddenly appears at the top of the main staircase, scampering down the short, narrow flight to join her friends on one of the couches.

"It's spooky up there," she says with a shiver. "Mirrors everywhere and dead quiet; I mean, really quiet. You know what I mean."

I step onto the red-carpeted landing, allowing my fingers to slide along the sanguine walls as I climb, noting the titles of the decorative fox-hunting lithographs: Full Cry, Breaking Cover, Death. At the top of the stairs, I understand a Burgos allusion to The Shining. My reflection, small and pale against the ruby walls and ruddy wood, peers back at me from an ornate wall-length mirror; silent hallways stretch in either direction, accented by stained-glass windows and hand-painted trunks. There is not a sound, just long-ago dorm rooms and a shimmering cupola overhead.

Beautiful it is, but not if you're alone. I rush downstairs to find more guests in the sitting room, gathered around a magazine table that is carved to look like a miniature carriage. In the library, a paranormal investigator from Dublin calling himself the Reverend Hellshawsits in deep conversation with 33-year-old Tiffany Lee Brown, a participant in the seminal counterculture Internet community FringeWare who is visiting from Portland. I introduce myself, but our conversation about the debunking of lake monsters and the editing of Blather, Hellshaw's Web zine on paranormal occurrences in Ireland, is cut short by the dramatic entrance of our guide, Jim Fassbinder. As one might expect of any good guide, Fassbinder arrives well-outfitted (long black leather duster, leather high hat, crisp white shirt, thick leather vest), well-equipped (kerosene lantern and satchel of reference materials), and well-recommended (as a longtime member of the International Ghost Hunters Society, founding member of the Paranormal Research Organization, and leader of the San Francisco Ghost Huntfor nearly five years). We gather around while Fassbinder asks the spirits if they'd like some company tonight; the affirmative answer comes by way of an affable, humorous, and complicated card trick Fassbinder performs, putting us immediately at ease and setting the tone for the night. We follow him to the fourth floor, where he stands behind an old pulpit at the top of the stairs, providing the history of the Queen Anne, sprinkled with jokes and seemingly heartfelt affection for the long-departed headmistress of Miss Mary Lake's School for Girls.

"It's said she still keeps an eye on the old place," entices Fassbinder. "I have the key to her office. Should we step inside?"

Fourteen of us eagerly push into No. 408, sitting on the cool bed as Fassbinder relates tales of moving cold spots, vaporous figures in the hall, and numerous reported incidents during which guests awoke to find themselves covered in an extra blanket and tucked in all around their bodies, up to their necks.

"She's a benevolent spirit," concludes Fassbinder. "Just wants everyone to stay nice and warm."

We are set loose to explore the hotel in the hope of meeting Miss Lake. Eager to suspend disbelief, I will myself to climb a darkened stairway that leads to the attic. Alone. While forcing myself to think of all the ghost stories that have culminated in a solo trip to the attic. In spite of the locked door I discover at the head of the stairs, my heart is racing, and I think I'm ready.

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