"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.
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 Hellshaw sits 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 Hunt for 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.
In the cool evening air, under a row of eucalyptus trees planted by the "Voodoo Queen of San Francisco," Fassbinder raises his lantern and tells the tale of Mary Ellen Pleasant, a former slave who became one of the wealthiest and most influential African-American women in San Francisco history. An open supporter of the Underground Railroad, the 6-foot-tall Georgian was equally open with the information she wielded over the rich men of this city and the rituals she employed to put it to use. Eventually, in addition to rumors that she had slain more than one rich husband, Pleasant was accused of murdering her accountant; she spent her final days penniless and mad, wandering under the eucalyptus trees in front of her former mansion, spitting and throwing "gumnuts" at people. According to neighborhood lore, it is a pastime from which her ghost still derives great satisfaction.
"I've seen people get hit so hard with gumnuts that it raised welts," says Fassbinder, passing around one of the pungent seeds. "I like to think of her as my patron saint."
We move on while Fassbinder dapples our journey with personal anecdotes, spiritualist lore, historical facts, and neighborhood ghost stories: Flora Sommerton, the lady in white thought to haunt California Street; Claudia Chambers, a niece of Sen. Richard Chambers, allegedly cut in half by a farming implement in her California Street mansion, which prompted her spirit to start dropping doors on people and hurling toilet seats at their heads (Fassbinder claims Chambers was actually chased down the attic stairs by her insane cousin and stabbed to death, information he shared with the house's new owners); the ghost ship of San Francisco Bay, said to be inhabited by a first mate who was murdered for having an affair with his captain's wife; and the Atherton Mansion, said to be haunted by Dominga de Goni Atherton, Gertrude Atherton, Carrie Rousseau, and George Atherton. The latter's corpse was discovered in a barrel of rum.
"It's not the nightmares that are bad, it's my reaction to them," explains Jeremy Lassen, owner of Nightshade Book, treasured employee of Borderland Books, and notorious problem sleeper at SpookyCon. "When I was 17, my mother found me standing at the front door completely naked, trying to escape giant fluorescent spiders. That's pretty mild. I've punched through double-paned, vacuum-sealed windows. At one book convention, I was sharing a room with [Welsh author] Tim Lebbon, and I leapt on top of him in the middle of the night, trying to beat the demon that was sitting on his chest. But I've only choked my wife twice."
Twenty-six-year-old Anthony Leano from Vacaville's Game Warden Comics and Collective Videos recalls a nightmare in which he was run off the road by a shimmering demon in a black van. A cop showed up, but the demon driver disemboweled him, then slaughtered all Leano's friends, after which it leaned close to his face and said, "Sh-sh-sh-sh."
"Then I woke up," says Leano with a shiver. "And my brother says, 'Dad found you on the lawn all covered in blood. You've been asleep for two days. What happened?' Then he goes downstairs to eat dinner, and Dad walks by and says, 'Sh-sh-sh-sh.' Then I really woke up. Ooh, that was freaky."
"I remember being eaten by a shark, feeling it bite into me," says 31-year-old Egan Hirvela. "The water pressing in on me."
"I remember being chased by a werewolf that was actually the lead singer of the Hellbillies, who I'm really attracted to," says 23-year-old Angie Yesson.
"My mom used to dream about a guy who fried kittens in a pan over an open fire," says Sharon Maher, associate editor of music mag IndustrialnatioN.
"I don't really have nightmares," says Serena Valentino, who is, ironically, the creator of the comic book Nightmares and Fairytales. "The worst nightmare I ever had was the one where I found myself making out with John Stamos. That was pretty horrible."
"Just last night, I dreamt that my friend and I went to a thrift store to buy baby booties," says Sherezada Windham-Kent, information pages editor at the Film Arts Foundation. "The owner's son had been turned into a zombie, and she was trying to trap us with him in the back room. I knocked him over, and my friend stabbed him in the heart. I hate zombies."
"Everybody loves zombies," assures a pale woman with sunken eyes as I step over the sheets of plastic laid out for SpookyCon's "Miss Undead 2003" beauty pageant. "Don't forget your Necro Wipes. It gets the dead off."
I smile and shuffle into the 10th row with my anti-zombie wetnap. Amidst surf rock provided by Prince Kong & the Royal Gravediggers and bad one-liners provided by Rusty Bonesaw, seven of the world's most bilious brain-sucking beauties take the stage: Miss Feculent, Miss Rotten, Miss Char, Miss Rancid, Miss Putrescent, Miss Gruesome, and Miss Odiferous. They sing, they dance; they lurch and drool; they groan and grimace; they peel off their skin and pull out their intestines; they try to light themselves on fire and eat the audience's brains. All and all, they make us proud and happy to live in such a spooky town.