Haunted rumors don’t spook business from Congress Hotel

Some believe the historic hotel is haunted, but Congress Plaza Hotel management does not support the rumors. But the hotel also hosts the annual Haunted Halloween Ball. 

By Savannah Eadens

Just about every self-respecting hotel ends up with a ghost story sooner or later, said Adam Selzer, a Chicago historian, author and leader of “Mysterious Chicago” tours throughout the city. 

The Congress Plaza Hotel, 520 S. Michigan Ave., is one of Chicago’s oldest hotels and was constructed in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exhibition, according to its website, which notes it has been the home of numerous historical events and hosted former presidents Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt But with all the hotel’s history comes paranormal rumors. 

The Congress was named the most haunted place in Illinois by Travel + Leisure magazine in October 2016. 

Selzer said there have been several stories circulating about the hotel over the years.

“It was almost like somebody had taken a list of all the famous people who had ever stayed there and imagined they were all haunting the place,” he said. “[Rumors] grow up around any old hotel. Ghost stories are certainly a part of [Chicago] culture.” 

Mark Souder, the hotel’s director of Human Resources, said management does not acknowledge the hotel’s haunted rumors. He added that the hotel’s busiest months are in September and October, as well as May and June. 

Souder said while he does not know whether ghost rumors about the hotel have affected business, the 10-year employee strike likely did. 

What was considered one of the longest employee strikes in U.S. history took place at the hotel and lasted from June 2003—when Congress Hotel workers walked out in response to the hotel’s planned wage cuts, health-care contribution freezes and right to contract out some jobs—to May 2013. 

About 10 years ago, Selzer said he was allowed to lead tours through the Congress and talk about the mysterious occurrences that had happened in the hotel. At the time, he said, the hotel was operating at 20 percent capacity and needed any business or attention it could get. 

Souder would not verify the hotel’s current or past occupancy levels.

“Some easily debunked stories have started going around about the place that I’m sure they’re tired of hearing about now,” Selzer said. “People never know what to believe with a ghost story. Something that can sound like an obvious joke, people will latch right on to.” 

Selzer said a writer in Chicago invented a rumor that Stephen King’s novel “1408” was based on Congress Hotel. Whether the hotel acknowledges the haunted rumors all comes down to what kind of reputation it wants to have, Selzer added. 

 “Places that don’t need that kind of publicity will avoid it, and places that could use whatever boost they can get are only too happy to be ‘the haunted place,’” he said. 

Nicholas Thomas, associate professor at the School of Hospitality Leadership at DePaul University, said the haunted hotel reputation is not necessarily negative. 

“Sometimes that buzz and intrigue could be [an] appealing factor,” Thomas said. “These buildings have so much history associated with them. The traveler today [is] looking for a unique, individualized, customized experience.” 

Leisure travelers who have flexibility often look for a hotel with a story behind it, he said, and the Halloween season could be the perfect time for a hotel to play up a haunting theme. Thomas added that it would not be a strong strategy for a hotel to completely market itself as haunted. 

The Congress will host the annual Haunted Halloween Ball Oct. 28, a 21-and-up event that attracts up to 2,000 people with live music and a costume contest, according to Chris Sanchez, who markets the event. 

Sanchez said the hotel’s world ranking as a top 10 haunted hotel by USA Today in 2014 helps the Haunted Halloween Ball become a combination of a haunted house, night club and hotel. 

The event is held within the ballrooms of the hotel—including the gold ballroom, believed to be one of the most haunted in the hotel. 

“It’s just rumors, [and the hotel] doesn’t acknowledge them, but it goes with the theme of what we’re doing,” Sanchez said. “I don’t think everyone believes the venue is specifically haunted, but some people come specifically for that. It’s just one of the additional perks.”