Who ya gonna call?
The stairs creak on the way up and the light from the sconce casts long shadows on the wall. Poof! One of the three bulbs suddenly goes out. Not a good sign. When a lamp burns out at Hotel Waldlust, it usually is an omen of misfortune. After all, the former grand hotel above Freudenstadt in the Black Forest region is haunted. Or so they say. My pulse quickens, the adrenalin surges through my veins. I involuntarily start thinking of all the horror stories I’ve read about this place. Bathtubs that suddenly fill with water. Elevators that start moving all on their own. Mysterious cold hands touching the hotel guests on their shoulder, causing them to leave in a panic. Not to mention the voices and screams of the wounded soldiers who suffered here during the Second World War when the hotel was turned into a military hospital. And, of course, the unfortunate soul of Adele, the hotel’s former grand dame and hostess, who is said to have been cruelly murdered here.
What in the world am I doing here?
Why was I so quick to say yes when my boss suggested this was sure to be an exciting story? At night, of course, because of the special atmosphere. Just Max, the photographer, and me. A great idea, really. My assignment was to better understand why some people enjoy being frightened, as always with a ramp-like ironic take, of course, preferably in Ghostbusters style. Before I got started, I spoke at length about this topic with Professor Peter Walschburger from the Free University of Berlin: “Finding joy in being frightened is about confronting our fears and overcoming them, which under certain circumstances gives you a feeling of pleasure,” the biopsychologist explained to me on the phone. Pleasure? At the moment, the only thing I’m hoping for is to make it out alive. We’d thought everything through so nicely. But then all these strange things started happening.
It already started on the way there. We chose a Golf 8 for this story – and we chose it carefully. Because in general the Golf is, so to speak, the exact opposite of the irrational. A rational car. If you were to compile a list of all the practical features a car should have – enough space, reliability, suitability for daily use, good handling, quality and workmanship, a reasonable price-performance ratio, adequate fuel economy and state-of-the-art technology, for example – then the logical conclusion of this exercise would always be a Golf. Not for nothing is it the most popular car in Germany. Always has been. By far. And so wonderfully rational. Max and I joked that, in the unlikely event that we would actually come across a ghost at the hotel, the Golf is a safe bet. The ghost would just wave it off, sigh the words “Oh, a Golf” and then turn back to its usual paranormal activities. Ha ha.
On the winding country roads through the northern Black Forest, the Golf’s digital cockpit suddenly started beeping and flashing. First at irregular intervals, but the closer we came to our destination in Freudenstadt, the more frequently the car displayed its various warning messages: “Emergency Assist deactivated”, “Travel Assist deactivated”. Beep. Beep. Beep. The assistance systems went completely crazy. A premonition? Professor Walschburger had encouraged me on the phone: “You don’t seriously expect a ghost when you go in there. And in situations like that, we have a sort of primal sense of trust deep in our heart that we will make it through.”
“Ninety-eight percent of all hauntings can be explained scientifically and are therefore not paranormal.”
But the beeping in the Golf? My smartphone, which suddenly began showing a strange mixture of colors on the display and wasn’t responding anymore? That thumping noise above our heads as we stood in the hotel lobby? The strange stain on the wallpaper in room 427 that looks like a woman’s face? Coincidentally at exactly the place where Adele is supposed to have met her bloody fate? My primal sense of trust has just taken a leave of absence, just like the light bulb in the wall lamp.
I take a deep breath and try to think back to my earlier conversations with the experts. According to Wilhelm Gabler of the Vienna Ghosthunters, an association for paranormal investigations, ninety-eight percent of all hauntings can be explained scientifically and are therefore not paranormal. Gabler and his team of twelve ghosthunters have several assignments a week investigating alleged spectral activities. No joke. He works in a highly professional manner, with all sorts of equipment such as night vision and thermal imaging cameras, dictaphones and devices to measure radiation as well as ultrasound and infrasound levels. “Infrasound affects the frontal lobe of our brain, which can cause hallucinations. This very often happens with defective electrical wiring,” Gabler told me.
I look around the sparsely lit corridor of the hotel. The Waldlust was built as a guesthouse in 1899, opened in 1902 and extended in 1905.
For a long time, the Waldlust was considered one of the most luxurious hotels in Europe – in part because sixty of the one hundred and forty rooms had their own bathroom, some even with heated towel rails. That was unique at the time. The hotel also had a thousand square meter ballroom with breathtaking wall paintings, lots of stucco on the columns and the five-meter-high ceiling, as well as an enormous chandelier, of which only black-and-white photos exist today.
“Finding joy in being frightened is about confronting our fears and overcoming them, which under certain circumstances gives you a feeling of pleasure.”
Guests including the likes of King Gustav V of Sweden, Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and even a few Maharajahs of India enjoyed the lavish parties that were celebrated here in the early twentieth century, as several newspaper articles can testify. The hotel remained in operation until 2005, and since then it has more or less been left to its own destiny. Water damage and a deactivated heating system contributed to the building’s increasing state of decay. The Freudenstadt Association for Cultural Monuments is now working to counteract this development with minor repairs financed by donations, but a complete renovation would cost thirty-five million euros. That makes defective electrical wiring a likely scenario. I slowly calm down, open the door to one of the hundred balconies, take a deep breath of the clear Black Forest air and look out at the sea of lights in front of me.
So ninety-eight percent of all hauntings can be explained logically. But what about the remaining two percent? And how exactly is fear supposed to be enjoyable? “Fear is an icy cold hand that squeezes your throat, takes your breath away – and there’s nothing you can do about it,” is how German “thriller queen” Sabine Thiesler explained the matter to me. I also asked the bestselling author about why people sometimes enjoy being frightened, but I quickly realized she obviously sees nothing positive about fear, despite the fact that she regularly explores this emotion in her novels: “Fear is horror. It destroys body and soul. It is the worst of all negative feelings because our existence is threatened. Real fear is fear of death. You don’t want that, it’s anything but enjoyable.” Given all that has happened today, I fully agree. Just as I am about to turn around to walk towards the staircase, I hear it again. That knocking sound. And it gets louder and louder. Once again my heart is racing, I feel sick with anxiety. Suddenly there is an old, pale man standing in the doorway, leaning on a cane. His light hair hangs down in a shaggy mane, he is breathing heavily and slowly shuffles towards me. Okay, my time’s up. I prepare myself for the worst, thank my mother for the beautiful life she gave me. Short but beautiful. He opens his mouth as I gasp for air…
“So how long’re you folks figurin’ on staying? I’d like to close up, y’know,” the limping ghost babbles in his thick Swabian accent. Just then Max appears at the staircase with his camera. “I’m through here too. What about you? Oh, yeah, and your smartphone fell down earlier when you asked me to hold it for you. Sorry, forgot to tell you.”
“Yeah, I’m done for the day too.” Definitely. All of a sudden all tension falls away from me, a pleasant feeling spreads through my body. Even if repairing my phone won’t be cheap. I feel good now that I’ve overcome my fear.
The next morning I have my last interview with Gerhard Mayer from the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg. As it turns out, the psychologist is familiar with the Hotel Waldlust. Together with a group of colleagues, he interviewed former hotel employees here in 2005 to investigate the alleged haunting episodes. Based on his examination, he concludes: “Many of the phenomena that were reported here can of course be explained scientifically. We’re talking about an old building that was no longer in perfect working order. So it’s normal for a lamp to flicker or a cool breeze to blow through every now and then.”
So what about Adele, the murdered hostess? “Her real name was Emilie Luz. For our study, we anonymized the location of the hotel and the names of everyone involved. In fact, Emilie wasn’t murdered. Historical documents confirm that she lived to a ripe old age and died of natural causes.” And that creepy face on the wall? “The human brain is designed to see faces in amorphous shapes. That’s important for our survival.” Then Mayer takes a brief pause and slowly adds: “Though the story about a female hotel guest sitting in the bathtub who suddenly feels a hand on her shoulder even though her husband was in the next room – we haven’t been able to explain that one yet.” Just like the beeping in the Golf. Which brings us back to the remaining two percent…