Legend: A woman is taken ill while traveling in a foreign country with her daughter. While the mother lies in her hotel bed, the daughter makes a trip across town to pick up a needed prescription. When she returns, she finds that her mother has disappeared without a trace, their hotel room does not exist, and no one remembers having seen either her or her mother.
Not long before the opening of the French capital's Great Exposition of 1889, a distraught young Englishwoman rushed into the British embassy in Paris and told a story that has reverberated through fantasy and fiction ever since. She and her mother were on their way home from India and, owing to the shortage of accommodations in the crowded city, had taken two single rooms in a hotel. The mother chose Room 342, decorated with rose-strewn wallpaper and plum-colored velvet curtains. Then the older woman collapsed on the bed.
After examining the prostrate guest and talking excitedly in French with the hotel manager, the house doctor told the young woman that her mother was seriously ill and must have some medicine. But the proper medication could be found only in his office on the other side of town. The daughter would have to take his carriage and carry a note to his wife, who would hand her the drugs.
What should have been a simple errand consumed four hours. The driver kept the horses to an amble and seemed to steer in circles, and the doctor's wife took a long time to produce the medicine.
Finally, the frustrated daughter arrived back at the hotel, only to discover that all queries about her mother were met with blank stares. "I know nothing of your mother," said the manager. "You arrived here alone." The doctor was similarly confused by the woman's questions. Frantic now, the young traveler examined the hotel register. Instead of her mother's familiar signature, she saw a stranger's beside Room 342. Insisting on looking at the room itself, she found no velvet curtain, no flowered wallpaper, no familiar baggage — only the luggage of strangers. At this point, she fled to the embassy, where she was received with sympathy — and general disbelief. Trapped in a nightmare, the young woman ended her days in a British mental hospital.
The locale varies, although the usual setting of the story is Paris (during the Exposition of 1889 or 1900), where the woman and her daughter have just traveled from India. Sometimes the two women in the story aren't mother and daughter; they're traveling companions of roughly the same age. On rare occasions, both the searcher and the one sought after are male. But by far the most common tellings feature a misplaced mother and an increasingly frantic daughter.
In some versions the daughter has difficulty communicating with the doctor and hotel clerk because she does not speak the local language; in others there is no difficulty because the clerk and doctor are fluent in English.
When the daughter returns to the hotel, in some tellings she finds that the desk clerk and doctor are different from the people she dealt with earlier; in others, they are the same people, but they swear they have never seen her or her mother before.
The reasons for the delay in the daughter's retrieving the prescription are numerous. In most cases she has to travel all the way across town and back through a city crowded with traffic. (The Paris versions take place when the city is full of tourists come for the Exhibition.) Some versions require that she travel to the doctor's house to pick up special medicine from his wife. The daughter is held up by a slow-moving chemist (or doctor's wife), and language difficulties sometimes compound the delay.
The story has varying denouements. The "classic" horror version leaves off with the daughter's never seeing her mother again or finding out what happened to her. In other versions the intrepid daughter (sometimes assisted by a stranger or friend) doggedly pursues all leads until she discovers the truth: Her mother had contracted the plague, and the hotel (and the city), fearful of having to shut down and lose millions in tourist revenue if the truth about the mother's illness were revealed, had hastily removed the mother (who may or may not already have died) and secretly refurbished the hotel room while the daughter was sent on a wild goose chase to get her out of the way.
Origins: This tale is based on a classic "paranoia" horror plot: the protagonist finds that all traces of his life have seemingly been erased, and he must struggle against those who insist he is mentally ill and attempt to regain his identity. In most cases, some
sinister force or conspiracy has deliberately and carefully done the erasing in order to drive the victim insane or prevent him from discovering a dark secret.
There are two key elements that set this particular tale apart from all others in which someone vanishes and those involved deny the one who has gone missing was ever there to begin with. They are the refurbishment of the hotel room and the reason for the deception (contagious disease). (Though often pointed to as examples of this legend, both the 1957 film Bunny Lake is Missing and the 1938 film The Lady Vanishes lack these elements.)
Although this tale is the stuff of classic horror fiction, it has also circulated as a true story for about a century now. The most prominent version of the vanishing hotel room was related in Alexander Woollcott's While Rome Burns in 1934. Woollcott claimed the story had appeared in a Detroit newspaper in 1889, but no such article has yet been located.
Sightings: The vanishing hotel room was featured in the following novels: Belloc Lowndes' 1913 The End of Her Honeymoon, Lawrence Rising's 1920 She Who Was Helena Cass, Sir Basil Thomson's 1925 The Vanishing Of Mrs. Fraser, and Ernest Hemingway's 1926 The Torrent Of Spring.
It has also turned up in the following films: The Midnight Warning (1932), Verwehte Spuren (1938), and So Long at the Fair (1950).
This legend was also dramatized as a "true story" on a 2002 episode of the FOX television program Beyond Belief.