I’ve Seen Dead People…
If you’ve never rolled over in bed, opened your eyes and looked directly into the face of a stranger, you’re lucky. And to be clear, I’m not talking a one-night stand. My family has a thing. We see dead people. I mean, I assume they’re dead. Ghosts, hanging around our bedrooms in the wee hours of the morning. It’s only happened to me once. She was just, there. Standing to the left of my dresser. I blinked. And she was gone. So when I found myself in an Australian hotel known for unusual activity, you’d think I would have just doubled up on sleeping pills and gone to bed.
The Hydro Majestic sits at the edge of the Blue Mountains, a couple hours west of Sydney. Looking out the window and down into the valley, I could see the distinctive haze they’re named for. It’s an optical illusion. The forest is mostly eucalyptus and when the oils from the leaves combine with water vapour, sunlight turns the whole scene a deep blue. In 1903, department store magnate, Mark Foy, stood in this very spot and decided it was the perfect location for a spa. Of course, that’s not what they called them back then. It was to become the Medlow Bath Hydropathic Establishment.
The first guests arrived a year later, welcomed personally by Foy. The resort featured every modern convenience, from a dedicated water supply to sewer, telephone and a steam-driven generator. Rumour has it the Bath had working electricity before neighbouring cities, including Sydney. The privileged few partied until dawn under a giant dome that had been fabricated in Chicago and shipped down under. With artwork from around the world, sumptuous furnishings and the promise of better health, it was a raging success – for a few months at least.
By 1905, the natural spring water had run dry. The power of healing waters had fallen out of fashion. The resort was renamed the Hydro Majestic and began a new life as a luxury hotel. Things were good until 1922. There was a fire. People died. Foy rebuilt, but was forced to close again during World War II when the US Defence Department turned his life’s work into a hospital for wounded soldiers. More people died.
When the Majestic re-opened to the public in 1946, the hospital beds (and possibly a few of their inhabitants) remained. Visitors would still be pulling chenille bedspreads up over their steel frames decades later. Guests started to tell stories. There were strange sounds. Shadows untethered to man or machine. The hotel was sold, and then sold again. It fell into disrepair and eventually closed. But the turn of the century brought new life – a comprehensive $30 million dollar restoration. I didn’t know any of this when we booked a one night stay as part of our two week drive across the bottom edge of the continent.
It was a welcome change from our rented caravan. We checked in, dropped our bags and headed down to the Belgravia Lounge to meet up with friends. The room was gorgeous. Gatsby-ish. Leo would definitely approve. I ordered a moscow mule and sank into one of their black velvet wing back chairs. Looking around at the deep grey walls and white marble columns, I noticed every other table was empty. We wondered if they were still at dinner, or if we’d arrived during the off season. Two rounds later it was still just us. And the windows.
While we’d been talking, laughing, listening to upscale elevator music, our reflections had started moving. The glass bulged, stalled and then reversed. It was as if the windows were breathing. You know how wind gusts rattle the panes? This was something else entirely. We hung around for another hour, sneaking peeks between sips. How much could you stress glass before it shattered? When we finally got up to leave, I think even the bartender sighed with relief.
It was too early for sleep, so we wandered the hotel. Every door opened into another empty room. The Casino Lobby was our first stop. Curiously, there’s no poker, no roulette, just some chairs, a chandelier, that sort of thing. I made everyone sit for a photo. It took me a few minutes to get setup. Behind my back, the front door opened and then closed. No one was there. We laughed it off. I snapped a frame. Reset. The door opened again, hung in mid-air for a few seconds and then shut. I wondered – were they headed out on the town, or dropping in for midnight margaritas?
Continuing on, we found ourselves in the restaurant. Chairs piled on top of tables reminded me of that kitchen scene from Poltergeist. I was eager to keep moving. The next room proved to be the most unsettling. The aptly named, Cat’s Alley. In the early days of the hotel, ladies would gather here to gossip while their husbands smoked cigars in the salon. It’s a sight. Deep red walls, paintings of men brandishing spears and the hotel’s last original furnishings. If I was a ghost, this is where I’d hang out.
We sat in big plush couches and pretended to be comfortable. I think we were all listening – for weird squeaks, moaning, run of the mill noises from the afterlife. You don’t want to hear them, but you still try. When nothing happened, we made small talk about the day we’d had. It involved stairs. A lot of them. Our ‘hike’ had turned out to be a set of vertigo inducing steps straight down the side of a cliff – and then back up. We got lost in conversation and forgot about our surroundings. There were no spirits. No otherworldly entities. So we quit while we were ahead. Almost.
Having said goodnight to our friends, J talked me into heading back out to take a few pictures. Everything was off now. Lights. Music. It was eerie. We returned to Cat’s Alley and while he walked down an abandoned corridor searching for that perfect shot, I lingered. There was no reason to let decades of horror movies and a family curse get the best of me. I’d already been here once and nothing happened. It was fine. And then, as if on cue, the door slammed. I was on one side, J on the other. You know those cartoon sequences where the duck runs so fast his beak gets left behind? I looked like something like that.
By the time we went to bed I was exhausted. Adrenaline will do that to you. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind. I could see shadows dancing in the light under the door and there was a weird bumping in the wall. I covered my ears, buried my face in the pillow and actually fell asleep. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. In the early morning hours, something startled me. Forgetting where I was, I opened my eyes. The room came into focus. Dark carpeting, a gold pillow, brown wingtips with legs rising up out of them. I’m assuming that last bit. As soon as the words Hydro Majestic flashed in my brain, my lids snapped shut. If I didn’t look, no one was there.
I broke out in a cold sweat and spent the rest of the night drifting in and out. When the sun rose, I got out of bed, showered, packed and went down for breakfast. As we descended into the lounge, I recounted my night. I’d been ridiculous. Let the setting cloud my sense of reality. Everyone agreed. And then, as we walked between the displays of baked goods, fruit and cereals, the sign marking the croissants jumped off a plate and landed at my feet. No one had touched it. Or bumped the table. We couldn’t explain it. Couldn’t believe it. So, we sat. And ordered coffee. At a cafe twenty minutes down the road.