In perhaps an ill-advised move, I booked a stay with my family at what may be the US’ most haunted hotel – and one of its most notorious.
The Skirvin Hilton, the grande dame of Oklahoma City – a sort of Waldorf Astoria in America’s Heartland – is an imposing 14-storey, Art Deco property from 1911 that’s said to be haunted by Effie, a Prohibition-era chambermaid who jumped to her death with a love child fathered by hotel founder WB Skirvin. Such stories, like the tornadoes that plague the region, have swept through the hotel’s English Gothic lobby into the city and beyond, most notably among visiting NBA basketball teams who have overnighted here before playing the Oklahoma City Thunder, only to experience inexplicable creaks, groans, cries and ghostly molestations.
“There’s the spooky, sad Effie, and then there’s the Effie that wants to get it on to Barry White music,” said Steve Lackmeyer, co-author of the book Skirvin, as we sat at the hotel’s Red Piano Bar. “And with the NBA it tends to be the latter. This is the most legendary ghost story in Oklahoma City, if not the entire state. You have even these famous people claiming they’ve had encounters with a horny Effie.”
The Skirvin has spooked NBA athletes and regular guests for years (Credit: Betty LaRue/Alamy)
Lakers forward Metta Sandiford-Artest, formerly known as Ron Artest, claimed he was assaulted by an amorous ghost at the Skirvin in 2016. In 2010, Ed Curry, a seven foot, 295-pound centre for the New York Knicks, slinked off to spend most of his Skirvin stay in the room of 5’9, 180-pound teammate Nate Robinson for protection. Kyrie Irving, now with the Brooklyn Nets, has plans to star in a film about the Skirvin’s hauntings.
“I don’t think it’s haunted,” said Petra Germany, the hotel’s current artist-in-residence who makes cosplay weapons and armour. “I think NBA players are just a bunch of sissies.”
The words “HELP ME” have been known to appear on foggy bathroom mirrors
“People will tell us their lights will flicker at night or a closet door will slam unexpectedly or there will be a creaking door,” said Don Jackson, the Skirvin’s director of sales and marketing. “There are some haunted stories floating around out there about the hotel, but we prefer to stay away from them since they have never been proven to have happened.”
I mentioned to Jackson that a guest I met who was attending a conference at the hotel claimed her colleague discovered the words “HELP ME” written in the post-shower mirror fog. He responded: “We’ve had recent reports that that verbiage may appear in the mirror.”
Look closely and even some of the hotel’s small details can seem rather creepy (Credit: Ross Kenneth Urken)
Effie aside, the hotel has a colourful past. Its first manager is said to have shot himself in 1913 – a suicide that was later investigated as a murder. A rigged roulette wheel and Prohibition hijinks fomented Wild West-style gun fights inside the place. But for hotel management, the legendary visitors of yesteryear – past guests include US presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, as well as Paul McCartney and Elvis Presley – is the true ghostly inheritance the property bears.
“The history and grandeur of The Skirvin are palpable,” said general manager Skip Harless. “It feels almost haunted by or heavy with the DNA of all those who have visited here and all that has happened in this special, majestic place.”
“I’m a see-it-to-believe-it gal,” said Kelsey Huber, the hotel’s express meeting manager, during an elevator ride. Raised in a funeral home, she said she’s seen no evidence of paranormal activity during her 10 years at the hotel beyond the costume-wearing Mary Kay conference attendees infiltrating the premises. “But never say never…” she added as the lift’s bell chimed.
To get a more in-depth understanding of the hotel, I sought out Susan Riley, who, until recently, served as its in-house historian.
During Riley’s six and a half years working at the hotel, she claimed she often heard a crying baby during her shifts, but later realised that when a side door was opened in blustery Oklahoma, it let in a banshee-like cry from the gust.
A woman in a red dress is said to lurk in the Skirvin’s halls (Credit: Betty LaRue/Alamy)
Climbing up to the 10th floor, we searched, to no avail, for a bullet hole supposedly lodged near the elevator bank in one of the many Wild West-style shootouts; while up on the 11th floor, a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door handle flapped strangely, perhaps from a draught beneath the door. Riley added that a woman in a red dress, not always detectable as a phantasm, is said to lurk in the halls.
“The acoustics are alive,” she said, snapping her fingers, as we reached the Venetian Room, an ornate ballroom on the top floor. “This room has the most ghostly activity.” She explained that she’d set up banquets here only to return the next morning to find tables and place settings inexplicably disorganised. She wondered whether it could be explained by a recent uptick in earthquakes instead.
Dr Bryan Farha, a professor and director of applied behavioural studies at Oklahoma City University and the author of Pseudoscience and Deception: The Smoke and Mirrors of Paranormal Claims, told me he surveyed the Skirvin in 2004 to search for ghosts.
My wife claimed she heard ghostly laughter some nights
“I walked every inch of every floor and found nothing of substance,” he said. “And I did so under the creepiest of conditions – before the restoration, below freezing with the electricity shut off, so a flashlight was the only means of visibility most of the time. Still, nothing was found. Just an old, empty, cold hotel.”
After my wife claimed she heard ghostly laughter some nights, Tanya McCoy, a ghost hunter who founded the Oklahoma Paranormal Association – which offers murder mystery dinners and ghost walks throughout the state – came by our room with her husband to investigate.
“You can just lay your hand on the wood downstairs and feel the energy,” McCoy said. “It’s crazy.”
McCoy wielded her phone as she used the GhostTube SLS app to capture a green stick-figure outline sitting in the baby carriage, which was unoccupied to the naked eye. A spirit, she said, was sitting in our stroller. My daughter slept in the next room.
The author recruited a team of professional ghost hunters during his stay at the Skirvin (Credit: Ross Kenneth Urken)
McCoy scrolled through her various apps with care, as she’d recently popped a tendon in her right pinkie after falling in The Raven’s Gate, her occultist shop. “Possibly the result of a push from a demon,” she said.
She ran through tools to monitor electromagnetic fields (EMF) and record electronic voice phenomena (EVP): a parascope to track static electricity, a device used by fire departments to find hot spots and an REM Pod and a Geo Pod (to track disembodied footsteps).
Stepping into the hall, McCoy had her husband pull up his Ghost Hunting Tools app that, he claimed, allows a spirit to attach itself to different frequencies and communicate intelligently in slow drips of language through a text box. She used her phone to scan the hallway for visuals.
It’s a ghost
“Get out,” read the words on the Ghost Hunting Tools app. A shiver ran down my spine. We walked through the hallway on the hunt and felt a temperature shift. Could it have been a draught?
“It’s a ghost,” McCoy said – an adult one. She noted that she felt a shiver from the top of her head down and showed me the goosebumps on her arm as we moved towards the elevator bank.
The outline of a tall figure seated on the hotel’s chairs appeared on the Ghost Hunting Tools screen (Credit: Betty LaRue/Alamy)
“Seat”, appeared on the Ghost Hunting Tools screen. McCoy, using GhostTube SLS, showed the stick-figure outline of a tall figure seated on the jade-green chairs in front of the lift. McCoy said it was a man in his late 20s named Charles who was a contractor downtown pre-1950. She told me she felt a pain at the back of her head – often, she explained, ghosts will want to indicate to the living how they died.
Back down the hallway, we passed another cold spot in a slightly different location. I felt a shiver, and goosebumps again appeared on McCoy’s arm. “It’s coming from 813,” she said, pointing to the door in front of us.
“Pen” appeared on the app. Lowering my pen from my notebook, I then became sufficiently uneasy and decided I’d had enough.
McCoy handed me a small perfume sample-sized glass container of protection potion – an olive oil base with a hodgepodge of herbs.
“Your own shield in a vial,” she said.
That night, I kept a watchful vigil over my wife and daughter – the neon glow of the nightstand alarm clock throwing eerie shadows around our room as I stayed alert for signs of Charles and, yes, Effie.