It’s been a long day. The sun sets so early now. You roll into town long after darkness has fallen.
Being from out west, you thought you knew what it meant to drive through mountains — but this place confounds you. At first glance, this place is nothing like the towering Rockies — you hesitated to even call the Ozark Mountains “mountains” before you arrived. However, the longer you’ve spent here, winding through an endless forest, the crags and hollows (”hollers,” as the locals call them) have begun to press in on you, making you not only feel lost… but like you want to become lost. You sense the forest carries a personality. At moments the trees feel friendly… at others… judgmental — even pugnacious. Sleep claws at your eyes.
It is in this beleaguered state that your headlights illuminate the Main Street of Healing Springs, Arkansas. You know the town has a reputation for its spas and recreation, but you are taken aback at the sudden micro-urban environment that has sprouted up before you.
Deep in the valley, multi-story buildings rise to darken the already hemmed in sky. You spot your place of lodging immediately: The Holler Spring Hotel. However, finding a place to park your car is another matter. You drive the circuitous, undulating streets of downtown three, maybe four, times before you finally find a parking lot at the base of the valley.
You heave your bags up San Francisco-esque inclines until, gasping for air, you finally reach Holler Spring Park, which neighbors your aforementioned hotel. You look around and notice several establishments with illuminated “OPEN” signs.
A tiny, brass bell tinkles as you pull open the door to Pub Asteria. A rich, musky smell — the scent of autumn — greets you. The pub is sparsely populated; a couple sits at a small table in a nook near the back, while the sole patron sitting at the bar is just getting up to leave.
“Money’s on the counter, Diana,” the scruff-looking mountain man shouts as he heads towards you. He glances at you with a kind glint in his eye, and nods in greeting. You offer an awkward nod in return. The front door opens and the bell tinkles as he leaves, a cold gust hits you in the back as he does.
You survey the pub in more detail as you try and work up the courage to approach the vacant bar. A large, rainbow flag adorns a wall in the back. Throughout, you notice collections of hillbilly paraphernalia: banjos, straw hats, hack saws, and the like. You also perceive a mystic vibe to the place based off references to the major arcana of tarot dotting the establishment.
“Hey there, sweetie. Why don’t you set that bag down and take a load off over here for a sec.” The voice of the bartender — Diana, you assume — snaps you from your observant trance. You approach the bar and take a seat, setting your duffle bag on the stool next to you. “Can I get you anything, or are ya just settling into town?”
It’s been a long drive. A drink sounds pretty good. You eye the eclectic assortment of tap handles. You imagine yourself a connoisseur, so you always look to try something local wherever you go.
“What do you have on tap? I’d like to try something local.”
“On tap?” Diana doesn’t miss a beat. “Mountain Spring Lager, Buffalo Coffee Stout, Ancient Age IPA, Faerie Games Sour.”
“Mountain Spring sounds good.”
Diana takes a glass and begins a pour. “Haven’t seen you round these parts before. This your first time in Healing Springs?”
“It is. I’m from Colorado, out around the Fort Collins area.”
“Oh! You know your beers then. Here —” she places the glass of golden liquid in front of you. “Hope this stacks up to your standards.”
“I’m sure it will.” You take a sip; the first sip of a cold beer is always special, especially after a long day — Wow! It’s really good. Smooth and refreshing. The word ‘magical’ comes to mind.
“I can see it on your face,” Diana smiles. “You like it. So, what brings you here?”
You pause and ponder. You’ve been thinking about that very question. You’ve felt drawn here for a time by some inexplicable sensation. You’re unsure of the answer.
Diana doesn’t immediately say anything. She leans against the bar, slowly taking you in. She stares; it feels more like she’s looking into you than at you. After a moment, she breaks the silence: “I appreciate the honest answer. Tell you what, this one’s on the house. Call it a welcome gift, from the town of Healing Springs to you.”
You nod a thanks for the drink, exchange final pleasantries, and pick up your duffle bag.
As you open the door to leave, Diana says, “You can find a lot of things up in these hills. Make sure you figure out what’s calling you before you go too deep in.”
The next morning, you shuffle downstairs to the Holler Spring Hotel’s restaurant for breakfast. After a pleasantly hardy spread and a couple cups of coffee, you feel charged and ready to meet the day.
You step out of the lobby onto the street, unsure of your destination. You could mosey around the downtown area, see the shops and the people, to get your bearings. There’s also the famously haunted (and fully operational) Selene Hotel & Spa up the large hill to the north that draws many tourists. Or, you could take it easy and enjoy the amenities of your Hotel, the Holler Spring, as you get a lay of the land.
You’ve heard so many tales about the Selene Hotel & Spa that your curiosity can’t keep you away. You head off walking north — the hotel is about thirty minutes away.
As you trudge up a steep incline through quaint residential neighborhoods, your mind floats away from the present to thumb through what you know about the “haunted” attraction. For one, the hotel is old: originally built in the 1880s, the premises were conceived as an elite, luxury hotel and rest stop along a railroad being built out west. It was remarkably popular until the Great Depression shuddered its doors in the early 1930s. After this, the hotel rapidly changed hands — one most notably being a charlatan who posed the establishment as a medical asylum to attract and trick the sick and desperate out of their money. Death and dismay had been old friends to the hotel for a long time; it was no wonder it had a reputation for being haunted. Nowadays, the Selene Hotel & Spa is fully functional (and not scam… to your knowledge). It accepts guests and leans into its eclectic past, offering ghost-hunting tours and similar supernatural attractions.
Thirty-five minutes later, you stand huffing and puffing beneath a towering sign for the Selene Hotel & Spa. Its Victorian architecture immediately exudes the haunted vibes of its reputation. You pass through a well-manicured garden on the premises as you make your way to the main entrance. You hold the door for a bell boy maneuvering a cart of luggage; he nods at you and smiles.
The lobby is somehow even more the way you imagined it would be. A young woman behind the front desk looks up and beckons you over. “Hello, welcome to the Selene Hotel & Spa! How can I help you today?”
You hesitate. You spent the entire walk over mulling through the hotel’s history and reputation – you didn’t even consider what you’d do when you arrive.
You tell the woman behind the desk that you’ve come for one of the Selene’s famous (or possibly infamous) ghost tours.
“Wonderful,” she says. “Lucky for you we have a tour leaving in about…” she checks her watch, “ten, fifteen minutes. Is this your first time here at the Selene?”
“Yes, my first time in Healing Springs, actually,” you reply.
“Wonderful! You’re in for quite the treat. The daytime tours aren’t as thrilling as the nighttime ones, but they are much safer.” She winks at you knowingly, yet her meaning remains inscrutable; you find the whole exchange a bit disquieting. Maybe it’s all part of the “charm”.
Thirty minutes later you walk through the bowels of the hotel in a group of five people: four tourists (of which you are one), and one guide. The guide, a young man with a thick Appalachian twang, is good at his job. He’s personable and speaks at a rapid-fire speed while remaining completely cogent; his fine-tuned articulation is mesmerizing.
“And now…” the guide says. “We’ve reached the part of the tour where I gotta remind y’all of the waivers you signed beforehand.” A brief, confused silence falls on the group. Just before things get awkward the guide grins from ear-to-ear and utters an infectious chuckle. “I’m just pullin’ your leg, y’all. I reckon we would’ve told you if y’all needed to sign a waiver.” The group releases a metaphorical stress valve with collective laughter. He motions as he steps down a flight of stone stairs leading to the basement.
The three other tourists follow close on the guide’s heels, but you linger. Something, some light or motion in the periphery, catches your attention. You look down the carpeted hallway… but see nothing.
You call out to the group: “Uh, hey. Hey! I think I saw something down this hallway.” However, the group has already passed into the basement; they either can’t hear you or have chosen to ignore you. You rush down the stairs to catch up.
You’re a bit distressed by how far they were able to make it through the basement’s catacombs in such a short time, yet you catch up — your breathing now slightly-labored .
“There you are,” the guide says in an overly-cheery manner. “I thought we had one more in the group.” A playful smirk stretches across his face. “You’re lucky this is a daytime tour, or something mighta jumped out the walls and gotcha!” The tourists laugh. You do not.
“I-” you feel silly pushing the issue at this point, but you’re too deep in. “I think I saw something upstairs — down the hallway.” A hush falls on the group.
“You think you saw something, do ya,” the guide repeats. “Not a big surprise. This is a haunted hotel, after all.” His fingers do that stereotypical scary-wiggle thing. “That, and the mind can play tricks when we expect things to go wrong.”
You feel silly. Of course it was likely just your mind playing tricks. Confirmation bias and all that psychology hibblety-bibblety. And yet… something at the corner of your consciousness is telling you it was real.
You let the issue drop and continue following the tour group through the basement — although now you make sure to hang back in the rear. The under-workings of the Selene Hotel are as dank and creepy as you’d expect. Chilled air all around gives you the sensation that you’re in an actual cave. As the tour guide gives the group heads up that you’ll be taking a left into an old sanatarium, you see your change to slip away… and take it.
Retracing your steps, you wind back through the catacombs. Left, straight, right, another right… almost there, just one more left and… a sinking shutter drops through your body; the stairs aren’t here, you must have gotten turned around. You spent so much of your energy looking for a chance to slip away, you must have misremembered the basement layout.
You steady your breathing. Everything is fine. You’ll find your way out. Things seem scary because they’re supposed to be scary, just like the tour guide said.
And then, you hear the faint scraping of chains. Was this sound always here… or is this new? It doesn’t matter. As you stand and listen, the scraping sound grows. It reverberates throughout the halls, making it impossible to pinpoint its origin. Louder and louder it grows — scrape, sccraappe, SCCRAAAAPEE.
Fear seizes you as you frantically look for a place to hide. You spot an armoire further down the hallway. You rush to it and duck inside — luckily there isn’t much in it, leaving plenty of room for you. A musty smell envelopes your senses. You wait, trying to moderate your breathing as best as you can.
The scraping of chains grows louder. The sound grows and grows until it is seemingly coming from right outside the armoire… and then it stops.
You wait, breath held.
“I know you’re in there,” a gravelly voice says. “I don’t mean to scare you. I bring a message. I’ll set it on the ground.”
You stay perfectly still and wait. After a moment in time, you’re unsure exactly how long, the sound of scraping chains resumes. SCRAAAPE. SCraaape. sscraaape. scrape. scra… until the sound fades away.
Slowly, you peek through the armoire doors. Nobody’s there. You step out.
Surely enough, on the ground before you rests a folded sheet of paper. You pick it up. It feels old, more like some medieval vellum, with texture and topography, than a smooth sheet of modern stationary. You unfold it, and read:
“You’ve answered the call. So few do, and fewer still find their way to us. We need your help. Come to the Holler Spring Bath House tonight, at five minutes after midnight. There, you will witness what has been calling you.”
The Selene Hotel tour ends as uneventfully as it began. The guide makes another glibly morbid joke as the tourists disband, grins on all their faces except yours — your mind is still fixated on the letter left for you at the armoire.
That evening, you sit at the bar inside your hotel: the Holler Spring Hotel. The bath house is close; it is a mere five minute walk.
The story so far...
You’ve made a long drive from the Colorado Front Range to the Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas. The small town of Healing Springs has been calling to you for some time — a call you’ve finally decided to investigate. You settled in your first night by visiting a downtown bar: Pub Asteria. Here, among the eclectic decorations, you met and conversed with the bartender (and presumed owner) Diana. She asked what you were doing in Healing Springs, and you confirmed you’re not quite sure… only that you’ve felt drawn here for some time.
The next day, you decided to visit the Selene Hotel & Spa: a functional hotel, yet also a tourist destination known for its ghost tours. You went on a ghost tour, which started lighthearted enough, but soon turned foreboding as you diverted from the group to investigate a sensation from the corner of your eye. In the bowels of the Hotel, you ran from the sound of scraping chains, hiding in an old armoire. A voice spoke to you, telling you it didn’t intend to scare you, and left you a note. The note claimed to know what had been calling you here, and to meet at the Holler Spring Bath House five minutes after midnight that night. You returned to your hotel, the Holler Spring Hotel downtown, and deliberated your next course of action…
You’ve made up your mind — you’ll do as the letter requests. You sit at the Holler Spring Hotel bar until the last call at 10:50 p.m., having nursed a couple of cocktails throughout the evening to steady your nerves. You spend a restless hour in your room, checking the time every thirty seconds. After what feels like an eternity, the time comes and you make your way down to the lobby and out into the night.
The Holler Spring Bath House is not far; it’s a mere five minute walk, if that, and is located in the heart of downtown. You did some research on the place while you waited. Originally constructed in 1889, the bath house was a major tourist draw in the town’s early days and helped establish the area as a getaway, healing resort. It remained in operation until 1989, when a fire destroyed most of the interior. It was faithfully reconstructed, but no longer functions as a bath house — it now houses other businesses on the ground floor, with the top serving as a museum of sorts.
Crisp, cool air nips at your cheeks as you approach. You cross a distinctive wooden bridge that passes over a road, which is on a terrace about twelve feet down. Immediately on the other side stands the bath house. A wooden porch extends from the bridge, providing access to the building’s second floor. You look up and see white-painted writing on the brick below the ornate cornice: “Holler water has made 90 percent of the cures in Healing Springs.” You try the door, expecting it to be locked… but it opens.
You step into a cavernous, tiled chamber. Moonlight streams in from windows high above. You check the time: 12:04 a.m. Before you step farther into the room: a sudden, loud thud echoes through the bath house.