Before President-elect Obama's family can move into the White House, they will be staying temporarily at the Hay-Adams Hotel. The posh palace is not far from the Oval Office, and is, some believe, haunted by one or more ghostly spirits — including Marian Adams, wife of Henry Adams.
While the idea of the next president staying in a haunted hotel is interesting, such places are more common than most people realize. There are hundreds of inns, hotels, and motels in which some tenant, somewhere, at some time, has claimed to have seen a ghost or experienced something spooky.
In his book "Real-Life X-Files," veteran ghost investigator Joe Nickell explains why many hotels are likely to have alleged resident ghosts: "Obviously, places open to the public have more numerous and more varied visitors, and hence more opportunities for ghostly experiences, than do private dwellings and out-of-the-way sites."
Furthermore, Nickell notes, unlike many public places visited during the daytime, many ghost encounters are reported late at night: "Hotels not only allow extended time periods for visitors to have unusual experiences but also ensure that the guests will be there during a range of states from alertness through sleep. Almost predictably, sooner or later, someone will awaken to an apparition at his or her bedside."
Odd voices, strange noises, and low moans are common in hotels, with their continually changing roster of different people doing different things on different schedules, all clustered close together. Often, visitors seeking ghosts will be told what to look for as evidence of the ghostly presence, including very ordinary phenomena like cold drafts, a clock radio turning on by itself, or some misplaced item like keys or glasses.
In the Hay-Adams hotel, for example, local lore claims that Marian Adams killed herself in a suicidal depression. Ghost-seeking visitors are told that if they feel depressed or alarmed for some unknown reason while in the hotel, it may be the residual negative energies of the ghost. Or, of course, it could also be from seeing the $10 charge for drinking the in-room bottled water.
Anyway, there's a problem with the Hay-Adams legend: Marian Adams died in 1885, and the Hay-Adams Hotel wasn't built until 1928, some 43 years after her death.
The house where Marian Adams died was long ago completely destroyed and removed, thus any connection between the existing hotel and Marian Adams is tenuous at best. Still, a lack of evidence never stopped a good ghost story. While some hotels downplay reports of spectral visitors, most tolerate (or actively promote) the ghost stories, cashing in on the tourism and traffic created by those hoping for a glimpse of the spirit.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.