Tales of Terrifying Highness: Escape From the Haunted Bordello!

Amy Phung

Halloween and highness go together like cannabinoids and human brains, which occasionally interact in ways that add up to TERROR!!!, or at least light paranoia and fear. This is due to THC’s mimicry of the naturally occurring chemical dopamine, which can trick the brain into sending out errant warnings of danger, leaving the brain’s owner to invent reasons to be afraid. It’s a kooky loop, and thankfully, it can be avoided—or at least lessened—in a variety of ways. (Play offense by choosing a strain noted for anti-anxiety properties, and if you need to play defense, help yourself out of a fear spiral with carefully deployed black pepper or CBD.) But enough about brains. In honor of Halloween and cannabis and the pleasures of watching other people live through nightmares, here is the second installment of Tales of Terrifying Highness: Adrian Ryan’s…

Escape From the Haunted Bordello!

The Dumas Brothel rises, lonely and looming, at 45 Mercury Street in Butte, Montana, my hometown. The menacing red-brick relic was established by two French Canadians in 1890, and for just shy of a century, the old bordello plied its sordid trade. Butte is an old, rough mining boomtown that for decades boasted the largest Red Light district west of the Mississippi. The noisy saloons and bordellos ran twenty four hours a day, every day, servicing the endless appetites of the miners who worked the hills. The Dumas Brothel was the crowning jewel of Butte’s Red Light District, and the only one of its kind still standing today. All of its rowdy, raucous neighbors have long since gone back to dust.

This was before the place became infamous for its ghosts. In 2009, the tour just focused on the history and the hookers.

At the time of our story, a bright July afternoon in 2009, the Dumas had recently been christened a historical museum, and was owned by a hard-bitten ex-biker dude we’ll call Jason, who got by giving $6 tours to whoever the wind blew in. This was before the place became infamous for its ghosts, attracting streams of paranormal researchers to creep in the shadowy corridors searching for bumps in the night. In July 2009, the tour just focused on the history and the hookers.

I had traveled home that summer on a road trip with Lisa, my best friend since high school. Butte High School, in fact, sits no more than two blocks downhill from the old Dumas, so in a literal way we grew up in its chilly, watchful shadow. Even so, this was the first visit to the infamous house of ill repute for both of us.

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We were parked out front, steeling ourselves for adventure by hitting her green-filled glass pipe over and over (and over and over!) until we were both floating peacefully at the bottom of a warm, very friendly sea. Lisa always brokered the good stuff. Even though neither of us touched the stuff as teenagers, we had both grown over the years into daily potheads and bona fide marijuana connoisseurs.

Lisa had procured a half ounce of rich, sticky, crystal-covered bud, shot through with more purple and green than Mardi Gras.

For our two-week trip, Lisa had procured a solid half ounce of rich, sticky, crystal-covered indica, shot through with more purple and green than Mardi Gras. Lisa and I might be termed “competitive stoners,” and we polished off roughly an eighth before getting out of her car (which now smelled like Jamaica in June) and making our way up the ancient, crumbling stairs for our first historic bordello experience.

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We cracked the door open. Dim and dusty afternoon sunlight sifted in through prehistoric skylights to reveal a long corridor, in serious a state of disrepair. This corridor was lined with “cribs,” small, private rooms with bay windows big enough to frame a provocatively dancing woman—the ultimate in window shopping. There were holes in the ceiling, craters in the walls, and even bigger craters in the floor, haphazardly patched with sheets of wobbly pressboard. It was at least ten degrees colder inside. If the City of Butte deemed this place safe enough for human habitation, much less city-sponsored sightseeing tours, the City of Butte was higher than we were. Fun!

We dropped our $12 entry fee with Jason at the door and he handed us the information sheets that would serve as our guide as we explored the upper two floors on our own. The upstairs floors were as kitschy as they were creepy. We were the only customers in the place.

We were having a great time. Until we went down to the basement.

The entire creaking dust palace was water-stained and sepia-toned, tattered and dank, and heavy on such decor elements as dusty feather boas and leather riding crops. The display of prehistoric dildos and vibrators, that looked more like power tools or torture devices, made Lisa and I laugh our faces off. The upstairs rooms were dazzling in their decay, like little dime store jewelry boxes buried for decades inside a chainsmoker’s lung. We were having a great time. Until we went down to the basement.

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The basement had, we learned, been sealed off for decades. It was low-ceilinged, barely more than elaborate cave, and it connected the Dumas to a subterranean tunnel system, ancient and long in disuse, that took you only God knows where under the old city.

The basement was far colder and far darker than the rooms upstairs, bathed in unnerving red light. It was as chilly as a root cellar, and the air was heavy and thick. My very high brain was taking it all in. First impression: We had literally descended into Hell. Second impression: Something down here was watching us.

First impression: We had literally descended into Hell. Second impression: Something down here was watching us.

It felt as if there were eyes on me from all directions, and the hair on my arms and neck stood at attention. I have never been one of those stoners prone to bouts of paranoia. Nevertheless, I chalked up my growing anxiety on Lisa’s most excellent weed—a likely, reassuring, logical scapegoat! But the silly kitsch upstairs suddenly seemed very, very far away. If I were to, say, start screaming, would anyone even hear me? And that’s when it happened.

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I was standing regarding one of the smaller cribs. The room was red, shabby, roped off with a dusky velvet rope. The remains of a blood-stained hand print could still be clearly seen on the badly damaged door jamb. I felt Lisa put her hand lightly on my right shoulder. “Something terrible happened there,” Lisa said, and I jumped out of my goose-pimpled skin.

The remains of a blood-stained hand print could still be clearly seen on the badly damaged door jamb.

She was standing decidedly to my left, too far away to touch my right shoulder at all, with both hands dangling at her sides. As I stood contemplating what had touched me in a growing state of confusion and alarm, a keening, grinding wail, metallic and inhuman, suddenly came screaming out of the shadows of the room like a scalded cat. Was it some sort of air-raid siren announcing impending bombs? Was some prankster cleverly hidden under the bed with an air horn? OR WAS IS THE SCREAM OF A LONG-MURDERED PROSTITUTE, LUSTING FOR HER HELLISH REVENGE?

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Lisa grabbed my hand, and we tore out of there, up the rickety old staircase, and shot out the door into the July sun in a state of utter panic. We were no longer giggly and happy. We were in the car and a million miles away before we even remembered to breathe again.

Since then, ghost hunters from around the country have come to investigate the Dumas ghosts. The place is famous for them now. And it’s easy to laugh about what I experienced down in that horrible basement.  Was there some logical explanation? Was the horrible sound maybe just an air bubble trapped in an old water pipe? Or perhaps a drill being used to repair something, somewhere? Was the hand on my shoulder just the product of a fertile, THC-enriched imagination, nourished by a sincerely scary environment? I don’t know and really, I don’t care. I’m never going back in that place to find out.