By JILLIAN KRISTINA
Hotels are the epitome of liminal spaces, if you think about it. Revolving doors, blurred faces, unique foot falls echoing along marbled corridors that hold stories all their own. Constellation points in time lived by countless souls with various destinations, all passing through these darkened walls. A sort of limbo in its own right, a hotel; serving as an in-between space, providing shelter during times of travel and transition, and sometimes, a longer stay.
A much, much longer stay.
Welcome to the Read House Hotel.
As the valet opens the front wooden doors, the interior glass doors then part ways on their own, offering admittance into the dimly lit lobby – dimly lit, as was the way during the Roaring Twenties, when the current building was erected on this spot in Chattanooga, TN in 1926. As your eyes begin to adjust, the full scene slowly begins to materialize – grandiose crystal chandeliers, deep green velvet furniture, eerily evocative art. Period light fixtures. Statues and carved candle holders whose eyes seem to follow you as you pass through the room, transfixed by the portal unfolding before you. Because mark my words – the Read House Hotel is a portal, and a very powerful one at that. This place holds not just the imprint of time, but the imprint of those who’ve entered through these doors for the last time.
There are reasons some places are haunted, and even more reasons some are more haunted than others. Celebrating its 150th year, the Read House Hotel has assumed myriad functions and forms, hosting its share of bodies – both warm and cold. But the history of this location goes back further, to the first structure to occupy this space – the Old Crutchfield House. This inn was located across from the railroad, ensuring the bustling success of the establishment. During the Civil War, the inn also became a hospital for Union soldiers, and, according to our tour guide, is linked to one of the most brutal battles of the Civil War – the Battle of Chickamauga.
“In 1863, fifteen years after the house was born [he actually said ‘born,’ not ‘built’], the Union troops in the Civil War took over the Crutchfield House to be a Civil War hospital. September 20th, 1863, we accomodated 500 Union soldiers all in one day. That was the last day of the Battle of Chickamauga, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War and a nearby battle here. So probably those wounded troops on September 20th, 1863 came from the Chickamauga battlefield, so a lot of people have died on this property, not just our permanent guest in Room 311.”
The story of Annalisa Netherly varies. Some say she was a prostitute in the area during the 1920s and 1930s who stayed in Room 311 on an extended basis, and died at the hands of a jealous lover. Some say she was from out of state, accompanying her husband on a business trip. Growing bored while waiting for him to return to the hotel, she took to entertaining a man in the room and was discovered by her husband upon his return. Whatever the scenario was, Annalisa was found brutally murdered – her almost wholly decapitated head hanging over the brim of the tub where she took her last bath…soaking in her own blood.
Murder. Tragedy. A spirit trapped in trauma. A room suspended in time. Closed, isolated, alone except for when visitors who may have been engaging with some spirits of their own come to call. Always curious, always infuriating. Disrespectful. A woman imprisoned by rage, crystalized in betrayal, immortalized in brutality. Annalisa doesn’t seem to appreciate visitors – especially men who smoke, we’re told – and I can attest from my personal experience touring Room 311, the energy filling that space is not a welcoming one. And I wouldn’t think for a second that it ever would be.
“The people who stay here overnight seem to agitate Annalisa. One guy was lying on the bed here, and he felt his wife sit at the foot of the bed, by his feet, he looked up and his wife wasn’t there. It wasn’t his wife,” our tour guide explained.
“Another couple surprisingly made it through the night; most people don’t. They couldn’t sleep all night though, because they thought someone – a figure – was standing in the corner here, observing them all night. And then a third story that is the creepiest, and verifiable: Halloween of 2020, the guests that stayed here didn’t make it past midnight. They went to the alternate room that we’ve opened for people who try to stay overnight. The lady called the desk and said, ‘I need out of this room. I’ve never seen him like this. I need another room.’ Now Dennis, the Night Auditor who was at the desk and answered the phone, he sent up Dylan and Lisa, two food and beverage managers at the time, to help the couple – according to Dylan (who still works in the restaurant here), the guy was on the floor – he had been drinking – but he was on the floor shaking and cursing everybody in the room with this dark voice. According to Dylan, he said, ‘I think the guy was possessed.’”
Tragedy and trauma leave their own energetic imprints. Room 311 is only available to rent during the month of October, otherwise, it’s available to tour by request. The room has been restored to what it would have looked like during the 1920s and 1930s; the tub, we were told, is actually from 1916, but our guide couldn’t confirm whether it was the actual tub Annalisa was found in. Period furniture and fixtures feature prominently – there’s no television or modern amenities (although, there is a WIFI router in the closet), preserving the essence of the time in which the room remains frozen. In which Annalisa remains frozen.
The hotel itself, however, is not frozen. Not at all. The hotel feels like a sentient being all its own. You can almost feeling it breathing, but only on the inhale; pulling you in through the front doors as you check-in; pulling you through the darkened halls, pulling you from one painting to one antique to one staircase to one gilded mirror. But perhaps the most unnerving inhale is the one you feel when you exit through the front doors onto the bustling sidewalk of W M.L.K. Boulevard. Every time we left the hotel during the course of our almost week-long stay, I felt a dizziness – a sense of vertigo. Like something was pulling me backwards, or rather, like I was falling backwards. Panic immediately washed over me and I had to work to regain my center. This happened every single time we left the hotel, without fail.
One day, while I was sitting in the library room attempting to start this piece, my brand new computer started fritzing out – the cursor started jumping all over the place. I couldn’t delete, I couldn’t type. During the same writing session, after I was able to open a new document and start over, a thick, heavily-scented perfume surrounded me. It was an older scent – it swam with the weight of pungent chemicals, both powdery and sickeningly floral. I immediately began feeling ill. I got up and walked into the open hallway running adjacent to the room, and nothing – no scent, not even a faintly lingering one. I went back to my chair, sat down, and was immediately enveloped by the scent again. I was the only one in the room.
Another day, we were standing in our fourth floor room, watching the rain fall from our window. My husband looked at me and said, “It doesn’t look like the rain is reaching the ground. Can you see that?” I could. It’s like the rain just disappeared before even hitting the rooftop of the patio area below us. I felt like that atmospheric interruption was symbolic of the energy at the Read House Hotel. Rain is nature’s ultimate cleansing, ultimate release – reset. The area around the hotel is effected by the enormity of the energy there – nature bows to it; bows to the power and tragedy of the suffocating sorrow and death saturating its walls.
The last act of the hotel was interesting – my husband went down to the lobby to get a luggage cart, and attempted to make his way back up to our room. Unlike any other time we’ve ridden the elevators, each time he tried to board, he was was met with an obstacle; the first attempt, he pushed the Up arrow, only for the doors to open, revealing a cleaning lady with all of her accoutrements. The second time, the elevator was full of a teaming family. The third time, even though he pushed the Up button, he was taken down to the basement floor, upon which the doors opened, revealing another cleaning lady, cart and all. After finally making it up to our room and loading up, we road the elevator down to the lobby and attempted to check out. This time, we were alerted to additional valet charges (valet was the only option at the hotel), and the man attempting to the take the charges off was having a difficult time figuring it out. He hailed a manager, who eventually resolved the situation. Then, upon exiting the doors for the last time, the now familiar sensation of vertigo swept over me, and my husband handed the valet the ticket for our truck. Whereas our vehicle had been retrieved within five to ten minutes previously, we were told that the last person to park our truck had neglected to note the latest location, which led to a near 30 minute wait for our vehicle. It was as if the hotel didn’t want to let us go.
This whole experience has really made me rethink the paranormal, rethink our engagement – or rather, our disturbance, of it, and the concept of certain places with such high concentrations of spirits who just haven’t, or won’t, move on. I mean, in theory, we should be surrounded by spirits all the time, right? How effected are we on a daily basis by spirit interaction that we’re not even aware of? This experience has given me so much to think about and reflect on. It’s challenged my perspectives on the waking world and how the worlds of the seen and unseen coexist, influence, and even guide each other. Steer each other. Disrupt and possibly manipulate each other.
I hope the best for Annalisa. I hope, someday, she’s able to find peace. Able to move on. Able to let the pain and rage and deep, heartbreaking sorrow go, if for nothing else than to heal herself. Because she needs healing, even now. She was human once, and part of her still is. And that part is hurting. That part needs recognition, love, and liberation. I hope these things for all of the spirits who call the Read House Hotel home.
“There was a white mist I saw traveling through the wall out there – I was in the hallway. I stopped in my tracks and the guests were like, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I think I just saw a ghost.’”
The Read House Hotel is full of ghosts, full of memories and stories and last breaths. It heaves with the exhales that are still reaching out to be heard, trailing down hallways and through walls, simultaneously inviting and shunning. Drifting through this liminal space, neither here nor there, yet somehow, everywhere. Because no matter where you are in the hotel, you’re never alone. It’s both comforting and disorienting, a lot like life outside the shadowed walls.
There’s also a valuable lesson here. The more we hold onto pain, onto trauma, onto betrayals and violence and transgressions, the more we imprison ourselves. We too, like the ghosts of these places, become trapped in the echoes of our past. We become ghosts ourselves, not able to move forward, lingering in the spaces between, neither here nor there, never really present. Maybe we’re searching for those pieces of ourselves that we lost through these turbulent times, looking backwards for some signpost of resemblance, some recognition of ourselves. Maybe we visit these places because we too are searching for answers, for comfort, for confirmation. Maybe, in the end, we’re all just reaching out, trying to find and help guide each other home.
“Ghosts are guilt, ghosts are secrets, ghosts are regrets and failings. But most times, most times a ghost is a wish.” Stephen Crain, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE