Spooked at McMenamins

Legends and truths from haunted hallways, mystical murals

By Neil Zawicki

My first experience visiting a McMenamins was in 2004 at the Kennedy School, a former elementary turned brewpub, movie theater and hotel, in North Portland. Like all the brothers’ properties, the building is venerable and steeped in history. Honoring the school’s original purpose, the numerous murals and paintings struck me as creepy: pale and surreal images of schoolchildren staring from the walls with an almost palpable energy; they were quite simply like ghosts. Since visiting other properties, I now understand the great possibility that ghosts roam the halls as stories of odd occurrences, sinister sounds and inexplicable events regularly come out of the woodwork throughout many of McMenamins’ historical buildings.

It’s hard to tell which came first in McMenamins’ storied buildings: the spooks, the murals or the tales. The simple fact that these properties are replete with history makes it easier to believe the inspiration for the artwork could actually come from beyond.

As an artist myself, here’s what I know: Inspiration stems from someplace not here. I also know I have had a real ghost experience. Not at McMenamins, but in Alaska. These two elements, put together with the stories that seep from the halls of McMenamins, help me understand there is clearly more here than meets the eye.

Edgefield, a hotel anchoring a labyrinth of little pubs, music stages, a winery and more, is covered with McMenamins’ signature paintings. What used to be a “poor farm” in the 1930s and then a nursing home and rehab center for a decade or so, Edgefield’s multiple cast of characters watch from the murals. Suppose these images are from beyond, finding their way onto the walls by way of a mystical muse influencing the team of talented artists?

Tales of pentagrams carved into floors, etchings of animal bones and other artifacts abound from the days before Edgefield was refurbished. Portland resident John Flannery was helping a friend with some work boarding up the windows in 1989, only a year before it opened. He swore the vibe and a later experience convinced him something supernatural was definitely afoot.

“We went into this long room with a bunch of closets,” he said. “And when we turned on the light, I saw a person peeking out from a closet. It was definitely male, and not too old. He had his hand on the closet door. But when I looked closer, he was gone. I asked my friend if he saw it, and he agreed there was a strange feeling in the room, so we got out of there as quickly as we could.”

A year later, when Flannery was invited to the grand opening, he asked if they’d taken care of the room with all the closets. He said they acted surprised he knew about the room.

“They told me they’d brought in a priest and a shaman and a bunch of others to clear the room,” he said. “So I figured that should take care of it.”

But this brings us back to the strange murals. All of them are odd, with dream-like, strangely specific scenes depicted. So Flannery was alarmed to recognize a detail in one murals depicting exactly what he’d seen in the closet room that day.

“There it was, a picture of a person peeking out from a closet, with his hand on the door,” said Flannery.

The hotel, in fact, appears on a national list of “top ten most haunted hotels.” It is true that the murals there are interesting and creepy, in a Grateful Dead meets Edgar Allan Poe sort of way. But it doesn’t stop there.

A guest log, kept at the front desk, stands as a record to the ghost stories.

One staffer wrote, “I was doing housekeeping about a month ago, and I was standing at the foot of the bed when suddenly I felt ‘something’ firmly grab my ankle and not let go until I jumped away. I looked under the bed and there was nothing.”

Another guest used the log to describe how an invisible something grabbed her while she showered.

“I screamed and grabbed my towel to dry off and get my clothes on,” she wrote. “Right as I spotted my shirt, it flew up in the air!”

Many guests tell of waking up in the middle of the night to find a figure standing over their beds. Others report spirits tapping on their chests.

These spook stories, of course, can be positive for business, but McMenamins marketing manager Renee Rank Ignacio says the interest is external. In other words, the ghosts themselves sell the experience. She receives a few calls a year from paranormal investigators who want to come out and have a look around.

“I think people believe what they want to believe,” she said. “I think it just really depends on the person.”

Asked whether she believes in ghosts, Rank Ignacio gave an appropriately open answer.

“I think there’s more out there than just us. So, yes, why not?” she said.

Another McMenamins with a rich history of spirits is Hotel Oregon in McMinnville. In fact, it houses a “regular” named John, seen wandering the rooftop bar and hallways.

An anonymous guest posted this unsettling missive on an online forum:

“The entire time I was there, I felt like someone was watching me,” he described. “I was lying in bed and rolled over to see this picture on the wall of Ollie. I was staying in her bedroom. I’m a grown man and don’t scare that easily. But this was different. I felt like I was just being pushed out.”

A former employee named Michael shared a strange occurrence in 2002.

“I had finally completed my shift — we were allowed to stay open until 1 a.m., by far the latest hours of any part of the property — and having just completed my register count, with a pocket full of tip money, I hurried down to the cellar bar office to make my cash drop. This is something I had done at least a hundred times before, but was always just a tiny bit creeped out by the vibe of the cellar.”

Michael explained the process of putting his cash for the night in a steel, rotating cylinder, where it stays for safe keeping. But on that night, things got a little scary.

“I notice that the heavy steel cylinder is spinning. Spinning very fast,” he wrote. I start to process the facts: I’m by far the last staffer to leave for the evening. Even if someone was hiding in the tiny office, there’s no way to make that heavy piece of steel spin for more than maybe two seconds. It’s just too heavy.”

Michael also recounted the room turning cold in a hurry.

“I have never had any paranormal experiences up to that moment, nor have I since,” he continued. “I’m not a believer in ghost stories in general, but after that night, I have no doubt that Hotel Oregon has active spirits, and they are quite mischievous.”

Well, such anecdotes from other people seem curious, but it would not be proper for this story, nor would it be courageous, if I didn’t visit Hotel Oregon myself. So I did. Specifically, I wanted to experience Ollie’s room, No. 203. I wanted to see if I could experience her presence.

Walking up to the room, I took note of murals, reminding me of Flannery’s story about the person in the closet. The images on the walls at Hotel Oregon appear as strange as they come: A chef standing in a stormy field, children in black and white, emerging from the elevator. Floating faces. Babies sitting in a tree. Twins smiling from a zodiac wheel. One particular mural depicts a Japanese boy standing in a suit next to a bus. Again, strange, but specific.

Next, I found myself in front of room 203, with her name, Ollie Ruffler White, inscribed on the door. The room had been rented, so I couldn’t enter, but my curiosity made me put my hand on the door to determine if any spooky, cinematic jolts, or at least a frosty sensation, would come through the wood. Nothing. So, I snapped some photos of the door, before my wife sent me a text saying that she and the kids were ready to leave. So, I walked down the stairs but couldn’t find them.

“Here it comes,” I thought. “My visit to Ollie’s door had probably unlocked a bad energy that has caused my family to vanish!”

Actually, no, they had simply crossed the street, and were waving to me to come along.

Okay, so nothing spooky happened at the hotel. But later, as I looked at the pictures I’d taken, I noticed what I am pretty certain is the outline of a face on Ollie’s door. There it is, just above her name: two sunken eyes and the bridge of a nose. It’s Ollie, making herself known.

If I return and take another picture, will that face outline still be there? Maybe. Even if it is still there, does that mean the place is not haunted? An overnight stay may be in order.

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