Some thoughts on hotels in horror

I suppose it says something about my credentials for running this blog that people I know ask me about upcoming and current horror. “What do you think about ‘thriller X,'” they may say, or, “Have you heard about ‘movie Y,'” before I start talking and the other party suddenly feels sorry they asked because I can’t shut up.

So it should be no surprise that I’ve fielded some questions about “American Horror Story: Hotel” lately. I am intrigued by what I’m hearing, that the show will mark a return to the series’ Los Angeles roots. I am not quite sure what to make of the new star though. Ms. Gaga is far from my favorite performer, but she certainly has a flair for the theatrical and, stylistically at least, should fit in well with the feel of the show.

Speculations are cheap though, and I easily have more to say about hotels in horror in general. There is something about the notion of hotels that’s oddly disquieting, as evidenced by the number of overnight establishments that populate thrillers, going back to folk tales about traveling men who had to spend the night in a broken down inn staffed by suspicious characters (sometimes ones whose connection to the living world was tenuous at best). Obviously, there is the age old fear of spending the night in an unfamiliar environment far from home; in a way, a bright hotel is no better than a dark wood. However, hotels are designed to be familiar, even uniform (consider Best Western and Motel 6), so why are they still a staging ground for some of horror’s most memorable moments?

One could argue that it has something to do with the idea of a place where reality is entirely manufactured. Even more than in a restaurant, where you can sometimes see the kitchen, a hotel offers an environment where food appears at the door, beds are already made and messes disappear overnight, suggesting a kind of otherness, an unseen reality that exists beneath or beside “normal” reality. At least, it’s slightly surreal. Below you’ll find a few of my favorite places to stay; let me try to convince you to book a room. Later, I’d be curious to hear some of yours:

The Globe Inn from “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad”

I first found this short story by M. R. James in a collection called something like “The Scariest Stories Ever Written.” I agreed at the time; I don’t quite see it that way now–James’ tone is a little too friend-of-a-friend-of-mine to be completely engaging–but upon re-reading I am glad to report that the story is an intelligent and entertaining one, dealing with the psychic fear of waking up and realizing–without having to look–that you are not the only one in the room any more. And if the notion of a materialist academic encountering an immaterial entity seems a little cliché to you, it’s because James was inventing that cliché with stories just like this one.

Visitors to Burnstow have a lot to love about the Globe Inn—and not just because it’s the only hotel in the area that remains open during the off season. The Inn is within walking distance of the beach, a golf course and the ruins of a Templar church. The Globe Inn does not recommend you remove anything from the ancient Templar site to take with you; and if something happens to follow you back, the Globe Inn takes no responsibility.

The Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”

There is no way that Kubrick’s meticulously monstrous child could possibly fail to make this list. There is no hotel in the history of cinema that is as threatening as the Overlook, in no small part due to its size. Everything about the Overlook is big–big building, big rooms, unmanageable maze, and long and winding drive from civilization to the hotel–compared to the tiny people who have to stay in it over the winter. But most impressive are the blueprints, which utilize bizarre, Lovecraftian geometry. Doors open wrong and windows vanish; however, no attention is directly called to these physical impossibilities. The weirdness, therefore, works on a subconscious level; the familiar is made subtly unfamiliar.

The Overlook really has everything you could want: tennis courts, expansive ballrooms, a hedge maze, the feeling that you’re being watched and a full kitchen. Just ask our winter caretaker, Jack Torrance. He’s been here a very, very long time. Please note that room 237 is undergoing maintenance and the elevators are closed for repairs until further notice.

The Bates Motel from TV’s “Bates Motel”

OK, so I couldn’t let this one go. If I hadn’t given some love to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” a couple weeks ago, I’d discuss how the establishment is a physical extension of Norman Bates’ haunted and isolated psyche; instead, let’s focus on A&E’s televised form of the same motel. In “Bates Motel’s” first season in particular, the curious juxtaposition of 50s and 60s Americana with modern rave culture certainly fits the definition of surreal. The show is also interested in the psychology of the people who staff hotels–the socially awkward and psychologically disturbed seek shelter in the created reality of the hotel.

If you need to get away from it all, there’s nothing more convenient than the Bates Motel. Located off the main highway, this cozy, rustic motel forgoes the beaten track for cabin style lodgings. Which is not to say that they lack amenities–the bathrooms are tastefully modern and impeccably clean. And the friendly staff is on hand 24/7. As our general manager, Norma Bates, puts it: “Who is going to book a room in the rape/murder motel?” You are!

The Gilman Hotel from “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the World”

It would be wrong to say that “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the World” was unappreciated (nothing with a cult following can really be unappreciated), but I think it’s fair to say that it was underappreciated. The game was perhaps a bit slow for some; the best set pieces tended to be unnerving psychological crawls. For set ups, nothing beat the Gilman Hotel. After spending a day wandering around bizarre and foreboding Innsmouth, private detective Jack Walters settles down for a night in a hotel that he knows is run by a cannibal with a penchant for torturing hotel guests before he kills them. Which raises the question: why do we stay in hotels with strangers anyway?

A night at the Gilman Hotel will surely conjure up the words quirky, funky and eldritch. If you don’t mind a fishy smell, take a stroll through the old town and tour the Marsh Refinery or the historic Innsmouth sewer (authorities suggest not rowing out to Devil’s Reef after dark). The townsfolk may seem standoffish, but they’re full of color, and you’ll be be picking up the local dialect in no time. You ever hear tell of a shaggoth? You will.

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8 thoughts on “Some thoughts on hotels in horror

  1. What you said about the unseen realities of hotels is fascinating. My insides get fluttery on this subject, as I’ve been living in one of the oldest hotels in the city (Dubai) for years. I read a novel called Deadfall Hotel recently I quite enjoyed; it’s billed as “the vacation resort of the collective unconscious.” I feel you would find lots to admire there!

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    1. Nice! I am quite fond of old buildings, which are infinitely more interesting than new ones (I grew up in an old house–at least, a house that is considered old by Los Angeles standards). Although I do hope that you mean the novel was about the “vacation resort of the collective unconscious,” and that does not the hotel where you live…

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      1. I spoke for the novel, but, as stories and experience have shown us (there better be an experience to share about the old LA house!), that can well apply to my current hotel as well. Just last month I had to ask a medium friend to “pass on” a lost Swedish man from my bedroom. It happens so often I find myself asking in the same tone you’d use to tell a friend to grab you oregano on their way up to your flat.

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      2. The only thing I can say about the house is that it’s from the 1920s, and the woman who originally owned it slept in the room in which I sleep now. I’ve never had to call an exorcist or the like, but I have had some…strange dreams in there. Whether that’s the house’s fault or my own I cannot say. But I know enough about experiencing unusual phenomena that, when it’s happening, it is certainly happening to you. It sounds like you’d have the more interesting stories though.

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  2. You have the upper hand on the interesting; I am curious to know more! I have indeed accumulated quite a stock of horrors, but the sad truth is I have got so accustomed to such phenomena that I can rarely spin these tales spookily or with much intrigue.

    Once, my noodles stirred themselves in the bowl. Rather than waste precious energy on developing gooseflesh, I let the phantom hand do its thing until the noodles were cool enough to eat. (I’ll try very hard to tone down the terror on my next tale.)

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