A skeleton crawls along a ledge near a window at Hotel Congress in Downtown Tucson.

Ghost Guide

La Llorona and the Ghosts Who Haunt Hotel Congress and Fox Theatre

| By Amanda Oien
| Photography by Kristen Brockel

A chill running down your spine, goosebumps dancing on your skin, a tight gasp for air. Is it a chilly October night, or is that an eerie haunt floating in the dark?

Don’t Look Back

“Wrinkled skin dripping with fetid water, twisting fingernails covered with black muck, wailing and gnashing of teeth— and unspeakable sin. These images haunt the imaginations of millions of people…” Christopher Rodarte, La Llorona: Ghost Stories of the Southwest.

The cover of Rodarte's book, "La Llorona: Ghost Stories of the Southwest," is surrounded by black darkness, a pale woman's face is shown with dark eyes, dripping with black and plump, black lips.

Christopher Rodarte, born in Albuquerque, New Mexico and currently a teacher at Sam Hughes Elementary, said growing up, he heard a lot of stories about La Llorona. “It was really entrenched in my childhood, especially in the northwest region of Albuquerque,” Rodarte recalled. “There’s a lot of very dark sections of town without lights and it was definitely something we were well aware of as children growing up.”

La Llorona is one of the most famous ghosts in Latino folklore. According to Rodarte, the legend of the Wailing Woman may be the oldest ghost story in southwestern United States, South America, and Mexico.

Spanish for the weeping woman, La Llorona, sometimes referred to as “the ditch witch,” is a tale of a woman who, filled with anger, drowns her two children in a river. When she realizes what she’s done, she searches after them and drowns herself.

The ghost of La Llorona roams riverbanks, lakes, and abandoned wells searching for children to drown, just like her own.                           

Rodarte’s aunts and uncles claimed to have encountered La Llorona and told him about her story as he grew up. “It was really part of the lore, sort of the DNA, growing up, that she was definitely out there in those ditches and los arroyos—and there were plenty of them out there in Albuquerque just like there are in Tucson.”

When Rodarte drives through the Albuquerque pecan orchards at night, he still twists the rearview mirror so he can’t look back. “When I’m out there past dark, oh you can forget it.”

While working on a screenplay, Rodarte encountered so many La Llorona stories that he felt compelled to put them into a book. The more he talked about it, the more people contributed and told him about their first-hand experiences with the ditch witch. And thus, La Llorona: Ghost Stories of the Southwest was created.

“It’s absolutely something that continues to exist throughout the culture and has really spread throughout the world,” Rodarte said.

Rest in Peace. Or, Not So Much.

From Prohibition to the 1934 fire, from the Dillinger Gang to thrilling nightlife, Hotel Congress has seen a lot in its 100 years. But the three ghosts that tend to wander the halls during Congress’ summer lull are one constant visitors can rely on.

David Slutes, the entertainment director at Hotel Congress, said their most common ghost, who predates the current ownership, is the Little Old Man.  He is often seen in the window of room 214 or walking the halls in the seersucker suit.

Another ghost,Vince, a resident who came off the train, started living and working in the Hotel in 1966 and never moved out. David laughed and said, “He’s a real curmudgeon.”

Skeletons crawl along the side of Hotel Congress in Downtown Tucson.

In his pre-ghost days, Vince would often get into spats with housekeeping. He would visit the Cup Café and leave his bagel plate and butter knife in the desk in his room. David said housekeeping would scold Vince, telling him to bus his own plates: “You work and live here. You’re not a guest!” they’d say.

In 2001, Vince passed away. A year later, Vince began leaving his bagel plate and butter knives in his desk in room 220—a room that hadn’t been occupied. Oftentimes the room would be locked from the inside.

Before becoming entertainment director, Slutes ran the front desk for several years. One evening, a guest came downstairs and asked, “Did you have anyone that would have come in my room last night?” The guest recalled hearing someone in the room, but once they entered and turned on the lights, no one was there. The guest told David that all the towels had been stuffed into the toilet.

Two weeks later, another guest had the same occurrence. This playful ghost found their fun in room 216. 

Hotel Congress’ most well-known ghost haunts room 241. A woman came to an untimely end in that room, prompting housekeepers to actively avoid it. David said at one point, housekeeping even switched out the paintings in the room to religious iconography, trying to control the spirit.
For awhile, guests had a good time staying in that room. Visitors even requested the “ghost room.” But now, Hotel Congress rents room 241 last.

David recalled one experience with room 241 when he covered the overnight at the front desk:
“I see this guy running, he has his bags, saying ‘I gotta get out, I gotta get out right now,’” David said.

“If there is such a thing as paranormal activity, that’s the room that has it, for sure,” David said.

Happy Hauntings

Just down Congress Street is the crown jewel of Tucson: Fox Theatre. During its opening night in April 1930, Tucson partied like it’d never partied before—even Congress Street was waxed for dancing. After closing in the 1970s and sitting empty for 25 years, the Fox Theatre has been restored and is once again a go-to for movies and performances.

A vertical marquee sign reading "FOX" in Downtown Tucson at the Fox Theatre.

Tamara Mack, the house manager for the Fox, said the Theatre’s most famous ghost is a little girl. During the closure in the 1970’s, the roof caved in and the theatre became a homeless camp. “We don’t know all that happened during those times,” Mack said. “There’s still some curiosities about that.”

The Tucson Ghost Society has captured an apparition on video and has recorded six different Electronic Voice Phenomenons, including footage from the lobby of an orb that drifts out of the wall, rises up into the middle of the room, and moves to the back as it becomes a figure.

“I love to try to dispel things, you know, it’s an old building, but that one we can’t figure it out,” Mack said. People have seen The Little Girl at the stairwell and have heard giggling and hiccuping.

Some visitors see The Panhandler, but when they go to help him, he vanishes, Mack said.

Reconstruction brought a new stage to the Fox, but if you look closely, you’ll notice an inverted block over the center of the stage. “The theory is that there was a workman who died while working on the stage, and that they did that to honor him,” Mack said.

The auditorium inside Fox Theatre is original with a painted ceiling, chandeliers and wall sconces.

Fox Theatre brings history to people by embracing happy ghosts, as Mack refers to them, and invites paranormal peepers to the Theatre for free ghost tours during their Halloween movie nights, and an annual lights-out ghost hunt.

“Nothing has ever scared me so that I wouldn’t want to be here,” Tamara said. “I don’t get those kind of vibes. It’s just things I can’t quite explain.”

Encore

If you find your stomach aching for food after running from La Llorona along the banks of the Santa Cruz River, or your throat shriveled after wandering Downtown Tucson’s haunts, finish out the night with a slice of pizza and a brew at Reilly Craft Pizza and Drink. It’s to die for…No, really. Before its artisan pizza and beer garden days, it was Reilly’s Funeral Home, built in 1906.