In the middle of Death Valley – one of the harshest and most extreme environments on earth – stands one of the most unusual hotels in America. It is the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, and it is listed as one of the top 10 haunted hotels in the country.
The Amargosa, whose name stems from the spanish word for “bitter” (amargo), is located in a town called Death Valley Junction – Population: less than 20, Restaurants: 0, Gas stations: 0.
In fact, the only thing going in Death Valley Junction today is the white-washed, sun-baked, and reportedly haunted Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, which was featured as a location in David Lynch’s Lost Highway and whose guest list has included the likes of Ray Bradbury, Red Skelton and magician Criss Angel.
The Amargosa’s story is two-fold. Not only does it have a haunted reputation, but it has a fascinating history as a beacon of artistic freedom and spirit. Both the opera house and the hotel were constructed in the 1920s by the Pacific Borax Mining company, who built the town to accommodate its mine workers. Since the late 1960’s however, the property has been owned by Ms. Marta Becket, a free-spirited artist and dancer, who gave up life in the big city to blaze her own trail of artistic expression in the desert.
Ms Becket, a dancer from New York City, stumbled upon the Amargosa after getting a flat tire while on a road trip with her then-husband. It was an incident that would change the course of her life forever. According to Marta, she peered into the run-down opera house through a small opening in the door, and she “saw the second the half” of her life. So, she bought the place, and breathed new life into Death Valley Junction, restoring the opera house for performances, and painting murals on all the walls. She has been performing at the opera house ever since, and still does today, despite being eighty-something years of age.
Marta Becket’s spirit and the Amargosa are inextricably intertwined. There is no doubt that she will remain with the Amargosa for as long as it still stands, and perhaps longer, as evidenced in this mural she painted in the hotel lobby, which depicts her spirit dancing and flittering around the ruins of the property.
We were there in Death Valley Junction to see if spirits live there now – and if so, who? There have been many reports of unexplained phenomena here – from phantom smells, to the sounds of babies crying to full bodied apparitions.
Our gracious hosts, property manager Rich Regnell and his wife, along with Marta herself, allowed us to explore the property. Rich provided us with a wealth of knowledge on the history of the town, and guided us to several of the reportedly haunted areas.
The nights are dark in Death Valley, and this night was also incredibly cold and windy. The wind screamed and dust blew into our eyes, as we dashed from building to building amidst the chaos of the desert storm.
We visited a building at the rear of the property with a sad history – a young girl had drowned there, Rich informed us. As we stood inside talking, several members of the group watched as a garden tool that was hanging from a wall started swinging with no visible cause. The wind was howling that night, but there were no major drafts in that room and the force of the swing was such that it should have taken more than a gust of wind to cause such a motion.
We also spent time in the opera house, where some of the stories of activity involve a ghost cat interrupting Marta’s performances. Surrounded by Marta’s hand-painted audience, we listened as odd noises emanated from the walls and watched as shadows outside moved across the opening at the bottom of the door.
Back inside the hotel, we soaked up some atmosphere, stopping in to one of the haunted rooms before following the main hallway past the guest rooms to an abandoned, un-renovated section affectionately referred to by the staff as “spooky hollow.” This is the section where the miners stayed during the Pacific Borax days, and it includes the areas that were the old hospital and morgue.
The entire experience up until this point had been surreal, but spooky hollow took things to a whole new level of eeriness. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
After roaming the halls of spooky hollow looking for the ghosts of miners, we returned to our rooms – we had booked the ones claimed to be the most haunted – and we tried to sleep. The sound of low voices could be heard throughout the evening, but it’s hard to say whether this was merely due to thin walls and restless neighbors.
Our investigation of the Amargosa didn’t yield much in the way of physical evidence of paranormal activity, however the personal experiences we had led us to conclude that the Amargosa is worth a return visit.
Besides, it is a deeply fascinating and enigmatic place. Amargosa touches the soul of those who pass through. Perhaps it is the desolate feeling that comes from being in a harsh, alien landscape, far from the trappings of society. Perhaps it is the momentary peek into the life of a woman who gave up traditional society in order to create her own world of artistic expression.
Perhaps it is the darkness of the night.
For information the Amargosa hotel and Marta’s performance schedule, visit their website: Amargosa Opera House and Hotel
To learn more about Marta’s inspirational story, check out the Academy Award nominated documentary Amargosa