Waiver

Matt parked the car near the front entrance.

“Well, we’re here.”

Chelsea nodded.

“The famous haunted hotel.”

“Yup, the fake haunted hotel. A fraud about to be exposed.”

“Are you sure about this? You could be destroying peoples’ livelihoods.”

“Won’t be the first time.”

He spoke with a sense of pride.

They headed into the reception and were greeted by a young woman. She confirmed their booking. After she’d taken Matt’s credit card details, she reached below the desk and placed a piece of paper in front of them. This was the famous waiver. It wasn’t terribly impressive. Aside from the gothic header, which added a certain flair, Matt saw it was nothing more than just standard liability boiler-plate. Guests could not hold the hotel responsible for any harm that befell them. Guests had to verify they weren’t suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure or a shopping list of other ailments. Blah, blah, blah.

The receptionist was making a show of getting them to read and sign it. This was the first part of the ‘experience’ promised by the hotel’s owners.

“So, is it true then?” asked Chelsea.

“Oh yes. The Charlotte Springs Hotel is the most haunted hotel in the U.S. That’s been verified. We introduced the waiver five years ago when an elderly gentleman suffered a heart attack after seeing a supernatural vision. He tried to sue us.”

“That’s why we’ve come to stay.”

“We’ve had visitors from as far away as Australia.”

“Do you think we’ll see some ghosts?”

“I hope you won’t be disappointed. The dearly departed don’t come every night, but you might be lucky.”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting a guarantee, but it would be nice if they appeared.”

Matt signed the waiver, then passed it to Chelsea who signed. They weren’t a couple, but they pretended to be. It made things easier.

“Your room is number five. The Blue Room. It’s one of the hotspots; lots of guests have had sleepless nights in that room. Lots of sightings.”

Matt picked up the key. It was an old-fashioned iron key; there were no swipe cards in this century-old house, it wouldn’t have suited the ambience. They climbed the creaking wooden stairs to the first floor. The décor was faded, with some of the wallpaper peeling away. The whole place felt worn and unloved. Perhaps this was deliberate, the public didn’t expect to see ghosts in well-maintained, modern establishments.

The Blue Room was actually blue. Pale blue wallpaper, royal blue bedding and a baby blue carpet. It was hideous.

“A bit overdone on the theme,” said Chelsea.

“I think everything is overdone here.”

“I guess they have to make money somehow.”

“Not for much longer.”

The room overlooked the front of the hotel. Matt glanced out the window. It wasn’t as if the town was horrible or rundown. It was just an ordinary small town in an area not renowned for tourist attractions. The hotel was the only place worth visiting. Although Matt considered it a scam, it was clear that a lot of people didn’t. They came to speak to the dead, to find proof of the afterlife or simply for the thrill. They came, spent their money and left.

He fired up his laptop.

“At least they have free Wi-Fi.”

He loaded some bookmarked pages. He read some of the reviews out loud.

“The Charlotte Springs Hotel. So haunted they make you sign a waiver before you can stay. So terrifying you must be crazy to sleep over. A night of creepy noises and supernatural visions. A must-see attraction for anyone interested in the afterlife. Nonsense, all of it.”

“Well, we are here to debunk it.”

“And we will.”

He loaded the hotel’s website.

“Okay, so according to this, there are six rooms. Each room has its own ghost. Very neat, who would have thought the dead were so organized. For example, the White Room has the woman in white. The Red Room has the headless soldier. The Green Room doesn’t have a ghost as such, but apparently guests can look forward to a night of supernatural sobbing and wailing. I won’t recite the whole dreary list, you get the idea.”

“And the Blue Room?”

“The ghost of a child. Reports speak of a small figure, toys moving across the floor. All super-easy to fake.”

“What do you want to do first?”

“Nothing yet. The phenomena only ever appear after dark.”

He checked his watch.

“Three hours to kill. Might as well get some food.”

The hotel restaurant was busy. It was late August, the height of the tourist season. Labor Day would see the number of guests decline. Matt and Chelsea had timed their visit carefully. Matt’s theory was the ‘ghosts’ were more likely to appear when the hotel was full.

Matt glanced around the dining room. Some were normal tourists, but the majority clearly had a spiritual leaning. After ten years of debunking the paranormal he could easily recognize them. These were the people who believed without question in the afterlife, spending their lives crouched over Ouija boards, attending séances and attempting automatic writing.

“I feel sorry for them.”

“Who?”

“The ones who believe. The ones who claim to have found the truth about the afterlife.”

“They seem happy enough.”

“They’re deluded. In all my years of investigating supernatural occurrences, I’m yet to find a single genuine example.”

“What about this hotel? You’re convinced it’s fake. What if it’s not?”

“There’s no life after death.”

“You seem so sure.”

“After ten years investigating, I am.”

“How you do think they do it?”

“Smoke and mirrors. Hidden microphones. Nothing unique.”

“Why do you think they’ve got such a reputation, with such cheap tricks?”

“A proprietor who is a good showman. Look at the waiver, that builds expectations before the guests even get to the room.”

“We’re being manipulated?”

“I’d say so. Guests arrive expecting to see a ghost. They’re told there are ghosts in every room and are made to sign a waiver, implying the visions are so terrifying they might die. That sets up a high probability the guests will see what they want to see. A dummy dressed in a white dress and wig suddenly becomes the ghost of woman abandoned on her wedding night. It’s clever what they’ve done here; I’m guessing it’s twenty percent props and eighty percent the power of suggestion.”

He checked his watch.

“Time to retire. It’ll be dark soon.”

They lay in bed listening to the sounds of the hotel as the guests settled for the night. No doubt some would be having all-night vigils with incense and sage burning. Others, no doubt, had gone to bed, full of trepidation and excitement. Matt, tired after a long drive, fell asleep almost immediately.

He woke when Chelsea grabbed his arm under the blankets. He checked his watch. Two a.m. She was staring at the corner of the room. He looked into the darkness, unable to see anything but shadows. He switched on the bedside light. The figure standing in the corner was so obviously fake Matt had to stifle a laugh. It was the classic kid’s version of a ghost; a figure covered by a sheet with cut-out eyeholes. Matt rolled out of bed.

“I was right, look at that. If we were believers, we would see a terrifying vision of a dead child and not just someone with a sheet over their head.”

A toy car trundled across the wooden floor.

“Radio-controlled.”

He walked over to the figure. It didn’t move. There was a sudden tension in the room.

“Don’t, Matt. It feels wrong.”

Matt ignored her and instead spoke to the figure.

“You’re joking, aren’t you? Is this what I signed the waiver for? Is this what we drove six hours for? Wait until I publish my article. The first sentence will include your name.”

The figure didn’t move. Matt bent forward and stared into the eye holes.

“Well, who do we have here?”

He whipped the sheet away. Underneath there was nothing except a deep, fluid inky blackness. A darkness that almost had the shape of a person. Matt felt coldness emanating from the figure. He stared into the face of the ghost. It giggled, the high sweet laugh of a child. Reality hit Matt, it was real; it had always been real. He felt a crushing pain in his chest and fell to the carpet. The dark shape moved towards Chelsea. Matt’s last coherent thought was that he wished he hadn’t signed the waiver.

 

∼ R.J. Meldrum

© Copyright R.J. Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

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