News & Politics

“I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost”

Suite 870 of the Omni Shoreham is said to be haunted. What’s it like to spend the night?

Author Eric Nuzum lying awake in haunted Suite 870 of the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Photograph by Tyler Wilson.

You’d think that given an opportunity to stay in a presidential suite, I’d want to take advantage of the amenities. Not this time. I was unshaven, unshowered, and wearing the same clothes I’d slept in—if you can call lying wide awake all night and shivering with fear “sleeping.” It was 6:15 am. I just wanted to go home.

“I hope you enjoyed your stay at the Omni Shoreham,” the front-desk clerk said. “Would you like me to print a copy of your—oh, my God, you were in 870!”

Suite 870 at the Omni Shoreham has a couple of things that make it stand out among the thousands of hotel rooms in Washington. First, it has a view—the penthouse suite’s terrace offers a breathtaking view of Rock Creek Park, with the Arlington skyline, Air Force Memorial, and Washington Monument peeking above the trees in the distance.

Even more unusual, suite 870 has a ghost.

The clerk’s wide eyes went from her computer screen to my face. “Did anything . . . ?” She trailed off, hoping I’d fill in details.

She probably wanted me to tell her about the unexplained noises in the three-bedroom suite or about lights turning off on their own. Maybe she hoped I would tell her I had spent the last hour before dawn on the terrace, hedging my bets that whatever was inside wouldn’t step out for fresh air.

All I could think of to say was the truth: “I’m not entirely sure what just happened up there.”

“She usually won’t let me inside,” the clerk said, referring, I assumed, to the resident ghost. “Almost every time I have to go up there, I can’t get the key to work. Some folks here won’t even go inside.”

It isn’t uncommon for Omni Shoreham employees to share stories about room 870, also known as the Ghost Suite. They tell tales of faint voices in empty rooms, cold breezes, and televisions and lights turning on and off on their own.

These stories are why I’d forced myself to spend the night there.

A Bit of Background

There are two things to know when reading this story: (1) I am an experienced journalist. (2) I am a big chicken.

The journalist part is relevant because, professionally, I’m a skeptic. I need to have things proven to me. If there was any bias on my part about the Ghost Suite, it was my hope that this assignment would be the most boring, uneventful evening of my life. That’s where the chicken part comes in: I am terrified of the idea of ghosts.

The word “terrified” doesn’t do this fear justice. Spooky movies, ghost stories, and supposedly haunted houses are verboten around me. I am to “scared of ghosts” what LeBron James is to “competent at athletics.”

Whenever my wife has to deal with this fear, she asks: “If you ever saw a ghost, why wouldn’t you simply ask it what it wants?”

That’s a rational notion, but my fear is irrational, which means there’s no place for reasoned thinking and action.

Still, I wanted to confront my fear—and to determine, more for myself than for anyone else, if any of this was real.

A Bit More Background

During the Shoreham’s early years, three people died unexpectedly in the suite, at the time part of an apartment occupied by one of the hotel’s owners, Henry Doherty.

One night at 4 am, Juliette Brown, the family’s live-in housekeeper, dropped dead while placing a call to the hotel’s front desk. Doherty’s daughter and wife also died mysteriously in the apartment. Doherty moved out shortly after the deaths. The apartment remained abandoned for almost 50 years.

Despite its vacancy, something was going on in suite 870. There were claims of doors slamming shut and furniture and housekeeping carts moving on their own. Guests in adjoining rooms would call the front desk in the middle of the night to complain about late-night vacuuming and loud noises coming from the suite. Many of these events seemed to happen around 4 am, the time of Juliette’s death. It’s her ghost that’s thought to haunt the suite.

In the 1980s, when Omni Hotels bought the Shoreham, it renovated the suite, hoping to use it as an attraction. That didn’t play out as planned—maybe because most people didn’t want to pay $2,000 a night to stay in a haunted suite.

The Ghost Suite is now the only room in the hotel that the public can’t reserve. While it’s sometimes used to house dignitaries and guests of the hotel, there’s just a simple plaque on the front door identifying it as the ghost suite.

Even the boss has had a run-in with Juliette. When he was working at another Omni property, current manager Todd Scartozzi stayed in the Ghost Suite with his family while on vacation in Washington. One night his daughter started yelling for him from the other bedroom.

“She cried out, ‘Daddy, there’s someone in the closet!’ ” he says. Scartozzi assured his daughter that there was no one in the closet, but she insisted he stay and watch.

The walk-in closets in the Ghost Suite are equipped with motion detectors so that the light will turn on when someone enters. “We were sitting there—the closet door is closed,” he says. “I wasn’t moving; she wasn’t moving. And the light came on.”

The light stayed on for a minute, then shut off. A few minutes later, it turned on again, then shut off. The daughter spent the rest of the night in Scartozzi’s bed. The next morning he called the hotel’s engineers to check the closet lights, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with them.

“Sure, it’s a little scary up there,” Scartozzi says. “But who doesn’t like to be scared?”

“I don’t,” I said.

“Well, then, you’re in for quite a night, aren’t you?”

Ghost watchers Lew McClenahan, Al Tyas, and John Warfield have looked into reports of haunted homes and even rabbit ghosts.

Good Night

While the National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts was wrapping up its annual convention downstairs, I was settling into suite 870 for the evening.

Despite my anxiety, I fell asleep in about an hour (thank you, Lunesta), although I was still fully dressed, wouldn’t get under the covers or take off my glasses, and had turned on every light in the suite. Even with the sleeping pill, I was fully awake 90 minutes later.

I’m not sure what woke me. I was so worked up about being in the suite alone at night that I was hyper-aware of everything. Every noise, no matter how subtle—the click of the thermostat, screams and giggles drifting up from the swimming pool below, water running through the building’s plumbing—sounded like a thunderous announcement that some phantom had arrived. All were false alarms—until the creaking started.

It was about 1:45 when I heard the first long, loud crrrrreeeeaaaaak, as if someone were opening a noisy door or gingerly walking across an old hardwood floor.

I sat straight up in bed and shouted, “Good golly!”

To be honest, what I said wasn’t exactly “Good golly” but a string of colorful metaphors best left to the imagination.

I ran out into the suite’s main room. I saw nothing. The noise happened again at 2:15, then 2:50—a total of five times, each with no clue as to who or what was causing it.

I spent most of my time in between creaks wondering what reason Juliette could have for haunting suite 870. You’d think that if it was so important for her to make the living know she was still among us, she’d take the elevator down to the lobby, walk up to a few certified valuation analysts and say, “Hey, I’m a ghost!”

It doesn’t make any sense for her to spend her afterlife hanging around in the least occupied room in the building. Plus, what a dull existence—sitting around, doing whatever ghosts do, waiting for a phantom alarm clock to go off every morning at 4 o’clock so you can turn on a TV or run a vacuum cleaner or make a creaking sound.

You’d think this lack of a reasonable case for spiritual presence would make me feel better. It didn’t. As 4 o’clock ticked closer, I let go of the notion of getting any sleep and braced myself for whatever might happen.

Four o’clock came and—nothing.

Just as I started to settle down, another creaking noise came from the dining room. Thus my trip out to the terrace to watch the sky turn from black to purple to red to orange and finally to blue.

On one last round through the suite before leaving, I noticed that the lights in the dining room were off. I hadn’t turned them off and figured they must have been on a timer, because I hadn’t noticed they were off when I’d walked past earlier. I gave the lamp switch a flick, expecting the lights to stay dead.

They came on.

I was out the door and in the elevator in less than four seconds.

Calling the Professionals

Thinking back to that night, I could come up with nonghost explanations for every one of the few things I’d experienced. The evening felt far from conclusive.

There’s no shortage of ghost lore in our area, so I decided to try to experience some other spooks and specters. I roamed the first floor of the Hay-Adams hotel looking for the spirit of a woman who killed herself there, snuck around the National Building Museum in search of General Montgomery Meigs’s ghost, and loitered outside some of the spots favored by Lincoln assassination conspirator Mary Surratt, who is said to haunt no fewer than four locations. But these trips yielding nothing, not even an uncanny stiff breeze.

I contacted a group called DC Metro Area Ghost Watchers, or DCMAG. It’s led by Al Tyas, a genial, somewhat shy fellow from Falls Church. In addition to investigating alleged hauntings, Tyas collects ghosts. How does one go about “collecting” spirits?

“I buy haunted items on eBay,” he says. “But you can’t really do it much anymore. It seems that whenever somebody has some junk they can’t get rid of, they just claim it’s haunted and sell it online.”

DCMAG includes retired Navy occupational therapist John Warfield and Lew McClenahan, a law-enforcement officer and firearms instructor. The volunteer group has conducted more than 100 investigations at homes, businesses, museums, and other locations around the area. For its analysis, the DCMAG crew uses an assortment of electronic gadgets that reads like the back half of a Radio Shack catalog: electromagnetic field meters, motion detectors, biorhythm monitors, infrared thermometers.

DCMAG doesn’t charge for its investigations and views its work as a community service. The group has been contacted by people who are terrified by something grabbing them while they’ve slept, making noises, or moving and hiding objects. It has received calls concerning the ghost of a pet rabbit and a haunted mattress. One man claimed ghosts were haunting his wife’s vagina. The DCMAG guys declined to investigate that one.

Have Yourself a Spooky Little Christmas

Al and his crew had an investigation scheduled at the Christmas Attic —a year-round holiday ornament and knickknack store on South Union Street in Old Town Alexandria—and invited me to come along. The Christmas Attic has spent the better part of the past two centuries as a warehouse, at some point picking up a ghost, nicknamed Jack by store employees.

Jack has been known to rearrange displays and throw items that aren’t in line with his decorating taste. He has been seen standing in stairwells and looking out windows. Jack is also, as Al says, “a bit of a perv.”

It seems Jack likes to touch the ladies. He strokes their hair or gives them gentle touches. Several female patrons and employees have complained that they feel someone standing close or looking over their shoulder. Employees often leave the store as a group so as not to run afoul of Jack’s fingers.

The crew showed up in matching outfits, each with a DCMAG logo embroidered on his chest. While others were scouting the attic and storage areas, Al set up a spirit bell. According to Al, the spirit bell was handmade in Prague to attract ghosts, who then ring it as a way to communicate.

I was dispatched to shadow John as he took electromagnetic-field measurements. The meter rarely registers above 0.2 unless you place it against a wall with old electric wiring, where it may shoot up a few points. Unless you find a ghost, which spikes the meter into the teens to twenties.

John explained that electromagnetic-field meters are used to detect electromagnetic leaks, which can be dangerous. “Anything above a 2.0 is considered a class-B carcinogen,” John said. “Wow, look at this,” he said, waving the meter at the exposed fluorescent bulb above my head. “6.4, 12.6, 7.3. Huh.”

Ghosts versus cancer—it didn’t seem like a great tradeoff.

Once Al and the store manager joined us upstairs, I started to hear a faint noise. I didn’t say anything at first, but then I heard it a second time a few minutes later.

“What’s that noise?” I asked.

“It sounds like some kind of jingling,” John said.

All of us looked at one another wide-eyed and whispered, “The spirit bell.”

The sound we’d heard wasn’t the soft, subtle ring you would imagine from some vaporlike apparition; the spirit bell was ringing as if someone had grabbed it and shaken it hard. We started eliminating other possibilities. Ambient noise from the air conditioner? No. Anyone else in the building? No. Some other bell or ornament in the store? No.

I could feel the color draining from my face as I waited to get felt up by Jack the pervert ghost.

“Eric, now don’t freak out,” Al said. “Just stay calm.”

“I am calm,” I said in a tone of voice that demonstrated I wasn’t even in the same Zip Code as calm.

Al decided that since Jack was so active, it was time for some EVP recordings. Paranormal researchers believe that ghost voices can be captured on audio recordings even when they aren’t heard by the human ear. The process is called EVP, or electronic voice phenomenon.

Al set up his tiny Olympus digital recorder and started asking questions:

“We call you Jack, but what is your real name?” Pause. “Was that you who rang the spirit bell?” Pause. “Is there anything you’d like to communicate with us tonight?” And so on.

To authenticate the results, the DCMAG guys play back the recordings right away, so clients know that any results aren’t doctored afterwards. Al did a few recording sessions without picking up much of anything. Then, on the third try, we heard what sounded like a voice whispering a phrase two times.

After several listens, it sounded to me like someone saying “too tart” twice.

After a few more listens, Al and the others argued that Jack had said, “Can’t talk, can’t talk.”

Can’t talk? Did Jack have guests over? If I had to go through a sleepless night before coming here, the least he could do was something more than ring a little bell.

“Well, if he won’t be talking, I guess we’re done here,” Al said, packing up his gear.

Return to the Ghost Suite

“Who put down the toilet seat?” John asked as he ran into the Ghost Suite’s main room. “Did anyone put the toilet seat down?”

“I did,” I said.

“Why did you do that?” John asked.

“Well, I was kinda trained to do that,” I said.

I don’t blame John for being so excited. I had brought the DCMAG crew along for a second night in the Ghost Suite. John and the other guys were trying to draw out the housekeeper-turned-ghost by messing up the suite—spreading magazines on tables, putting towels on the floor, pulling back the bed sheets, lifting the toilet seats.

“We always put those up when we’re dealing with female ghosts,” he said. “It makes ’em nuts.”

Immediately upon entering the Ghost Suite, Al said he could feel a presence in the dining room. He said he could also tell that she—Al sensed it was female—was shy and wasn’t all that interested in being documented.

After EMF readings, photographs, biofeedback monitoring, motion detection, and visual inspections, we hadn’t found anything. Al tried three different EVP recordings, capturing only one unexplained noise, which sounded like someone saying the word “go” and also like a shoe brushing against a table leg.

After two hours, Al seemed frustrated and felt it best to call it a night.

Scared of What?

After the DCMAG crew left, my wife and some friends came over to visit this place I’d been talking about for the past few weeks. When they walked in, they were on pins and needles, expecting a vacuum-wielding apparition to come floating around the corner. I showed them the closet with the light that had turned itself on, the table lamps that had turned themselves off, and the corner of the dining room that Juliette favored.

Later that night I would have nightmares about meters, mysterious voices, and creaking floors, but as I showed them around, I was surprisingly composed.

If anything, my ghostly adventures left me more frustrated than anything else. I had wanted some clarity and closure. Instead, I ended up confused as to what I’m actually scared of.

By any level of journalistic scrutiny, nothing happened in the Ghost Suite. Besides the spirit bell’s ringing, nothing happened in the Christmas Attic, either. That doesn’t mean I don’t have trouble letting go of the idea that something happened in these places. People are often haunted by possibilities, rarely by facts.

As I got ready to leave the Ghost Suite, I wasn’t thinking about my fear. I was thinking about Juliette. During the past several weeks, I’d felt strangely connected to her.

If the whole ghost thing is baloney, then Juliette is unfortunate enough to be remembered not for her life but for the fact that she died under unusual circumstances. If her spirit is roaming suite 870, that means she probably was cleaning up after some rich people until the very moment she died, just to end up spending the next 75 years trapped in a string of encounters with strangers who aren’t understanding whatever she’s trying to tell them.

As I walked out, I turned toward the dining room. “Bye, Juliette,” I said. “For both of our sakes, I really hope you aren’t here.”