"A Haunted Writer’s Retreat" in the mining town of Victor, Colorado promised a “curriculum of horror writing workshops.” As a comedy screenwriter, it didn’t make sense to attend a novel-writing retreat, but what better way to learn the rules of horror than surrounded by ghosts?
Plus: I could wear my skeleton pajamas outside of October without someone calling me weird.
Working from home had buried my wanderlust. I hadn’t traveled alone in years. In college, I’d been known to trek twelve hours to NYC just for Vietnamese food. I’d slept on the bus floor as the “band filmmaker,” in it for the travel, or honestly, the partying. Three weeks after my husband and I met, we took a month-long road trip in a van we called "the $900 bet" because we had no idea if it would make the trip. I once took the night train to Marrakesh with only a tote bag.
But spontaneous wasn’t me, not anymore. Now, I was a Mom. A responsible executive. The writing retreat was a compromise—I convinced myself it was for work.
Except the purchasing site refunded the tickets because the retreat included free weed. I might have forgotten to mention weed sponsorship as the main draw for this particular retreat. I nearly canceled because a lack of organization can drive me insane, and what was the point of going? I didn’t need to spend the money. I could write at home, read books on how to write horror. The lovely hosts explained, so I repurchased my ticket, despite nagging concerns and my husband’s jokes about driving into a scam. I love Colorado, so at worst, I’d have a week alone to write.
I prepared by buying Stephen King’s The Shining on audiobook and took off into the world. Alone. As this was February 2020, I drove the two-day trip (each way) because of coronavirus whispers. One is never totally alone because of phones, but I hadn’t disconnected in the four years I’d been a parent. The silence of the trip, the emptiness of Kansas, restored me. There’s nothing quite like listening to a father’s fear of wanting to murder his child to lull you into a calming mood.
I was not spontaneous about the trip. Exact hotels were booked in precisely the right location. I didn’t waste time stopping for long dinners. Why my husband wants mid-America meals at Chili’s baffles me when you can eat popcorn and Slim Jims. The ultimate efficiency. Except the road had a different plan; I-70 westbound was closed. Bridge broken, impassable. Phone maps were stumped, sending me back the way I came.
I stopped at a middle-of-nowhere gas station, where you need a gross bathroom key, and the clerk (Tina) will talk to you for hours with a cigarette hanging from her lip. “C’mon, Trucker Fred, she doesn’t care about your kids back home—I need to get to my booked hotel on time!” All I got was a lesson in patience and a paper map. Remember those? Clerk Tina knew a way over. Through. Across. Around. Whatever the word is, I had to move forward.
I had no plan. No backup plan. No hotel. No major highway. No other cars to keep me company. No street lights. No cell signal. I drove for three hours, worried I was heading in the wrong direction, running out of gas until I saw a beacon: a hotel sign. The town, or lack of town, smelled of concentrated cow poop. I was thrilled to be there. The pungent smell grounded me back to humor. My plans went to shit, literally.
My parent friends will read this and think, “Plans? Her kid doesn’t even have a nap time.” And yes, that’s true. He’s allowed to be free, exploring, excited by the colors pink and purple and how they make him feel. He’s a child. He’s supposed to have magic, inspiration, and unicorns. I’m old. I’m a parent. I must be organized, with spreadsheets, protecting, working toward something at all times.
The next day, I received a Colorado welcome blizzard. Turns out, vacationing at the Continental Divide in winter is risky. I called the haunted hotel, and after an epic game of phone tag, the receptionist warned me not to drive the pass. Plus, she didn’t have my room ready. I worried the retreat was disorganized as I’d requested to arrive a day early.
I scrambled to find a local hotel. Then I sat in a jacuzzi.
I was wasting time, but I’d get back on track when the retreat began. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the calendar of events.
Morning came, and the base of the mountain shined. But halfway up, a snow squall dropped. My phone blared warnings as tiny tornadoes swirled across icy roads. Even the cows looked scared. Where were the guard rails? It was the perfect time to load Misery. What better story to get me through a storm than the one about a man who goes off the road driving up the same mountain? What could go wrong?
I had avoided danger since marriage. I want to preserve this life, thank you very much. This need for a plan is about control. I knew this. Loss, trauma, change, adulthood, I won’t bore you with the details of how I’d come to rely on a daily calendar called Prevention 2020 (I had no idea the lack of control starting the following month in March with coronavirus, but that’s another story).
I was halfway up a treacherous mountain, and I wanted to stop. Local traffic stacked up behind me, honking. I stopped to let them pass, and my car got stuck. There’s a metaphor in there for writers. Just keep going, slowly, let everyone pass. You’ll still get to the destination if you keep going. My tires spun, and I got back on the road. No stopping me now! At 20 mph. Let ‘em honk!
The crisp blue skies from bone-chilling cold spread over the vintage mining town of Victor, Colorado. I had arrived! I stepped out into a balmy negative 10 degrees and felt like I’d conquered a mountain, literally.
Except I was still early. I checked into my haunted hotel, The Victor. A paranormal TV series had shot there just before I arrived. In my room! The retreat took place on the same street at an equally haunted former brothel called The Black Monarch. The only reason I didn’t stay there was a lack of bathtub. I feared I couldn’t live without gathering my writing ideas in a tub.
But that’s not the whole truth. I get cold when I’m high.
Except that’s not it either. I was afraid to stay in a dorm-style scenario with other writers. I was terrified I’d have nowhere to retreat on the retreat.
So, every night, after hanging out with my new best friends, which my husband coined "goth camp," I slept in a haunted hotel by myself! The Victor Hotel delivered on ghosts. The cage elevator shocked me with electric blue bolts, and it went up and down in the night, just like The Shining. A giggling child played with his ball in the room above (I was on the top floor). I blocked my door because a chair would keep out beings who can walk through walls, for sure. And I listened to knocking all night long. So much knocking. Why do ghosts knock? I wasn’t even sure about ghosts, but I now believe in their knocking. A Christmas Carol was onto something.
But we’re not there yet. This is day one. I plugged in my phone, my lifeline, and the battery drained. My high from accomplishing the mountain was draining along with it. A warm clerk with witchy vibes kindly let me know this is an energy requirement of ghosts and not to worry.
“Not to worry! My phone was dead! How would I know when to attend events at the retreat? How would I know if something was wrong at home?”
I was truly disconnected. My child was safe with his father and grandparents, but I was freaking out. The witchy clerk left an amethyst bath bomb charging in the sun with a sweet note about protection from ghosts. I have since learned an amethyst is said to keep one calm. Touché. Lavender is my favorite color, so I appreciated the gesture and tucked the amethyst under my pillow.
The dead phone meant I had no way of getting texts when the hosts arrived, so I headed into the small town amazingness post office/corner store/karaoke bar/ restaurant all-in-one and waited. I watched a woman in a sparkling dress fling open the curtains on the top floor of The Black Monarch. She got those curtains just right, opening and closing each one. Was she dusting? Was she getting the light just right for the writers? Why hadn’t she answered the bell when I rang?
People passed by with purple hair, Doc Martens, and faux fur, so I assumed writers. I waved at the woman in the sparkling dress as I wandered over and found the hosts. We carried in cases of beer up a candlelit staircase with a creepy “you’re welcome here, but only if you’re cool” vibe. A coffeehouse, a brewery, and a dispensary sponsored the retreat. Everything a writer might need.
The writers gathered in an intimate space decorated with shrunken heads, skulls, and devil-themed books. We were basically in a "Ripley’s Believe it or Not." Candles lit the room, even in daylight, so I assumed the woman decided on curtains closed to set that party mood. Even though it was just after breakfast, our hosts handed out beers.
I figured it’s lunchtime in my time zone. “Easy, Karin. You don’t want everyone knowing you’re a lightweight.” I turned down weed because if I smoke with friends, I’ll leave. When “relaxed,” I’m known for mixing up words. I recently asked Siri to load the film Maleficent by endlessly screaming into the remote, “Malicifent! Mellisa FENT!” I get embarrassed when I can’t find words for simple objects like a fork or hummus.
We chatted our introductions. I was terrified the other writers would discover that I’m pedestrian, worried my love of horror writing was basic. Everyone knows Stephen King, but do you read/watch: (fill in the blank with cool things I’d definitely not heard of). They would undoubtedly reject me because I didn’t yet know how to write novels. Because only accomplished novelists attend writing retreats, right?
One of the hosts, a self-described "ex-vangelical," writes horror novels based on growing up fundamentalist Christian with terrors of burning in hell. This was my upbringing, too, so I figured he’d get my socially inept sense of humor. He and his sunny girlfriend worked tirelessly behind the scenes, cooking and providing for us. The other host was a blue-haired rock star in heart-shaped sunglasses. Her near-constant smile had a gap in her front teeth, causing a slight lisp, like Madonna. She brought the party. And she’s a Mom! I wanted to know her secrets. How did she have so much brightness in the world of goth? It turns out I didn’t understand goth at all.
Goth is not the same as punk rock with different tastes in music. Goth is romantic and poetic, while punk is angry and rebellious. I was punk in my 20s, but clearly not enough since I had to look up the difference—on Quora, of all places. Since I’d become a Mom, I fought desperately to hide my anger. How was this rockstar mother of two hosting the retreat so relaxed? And when would she email the schedule of events? Maybe she printed it. I didn’t see binders or welcome tags like at film festivals. I’d attended screenwriting labs with every moment booked. When would we get to the learning? I was ready to list out the calendar to later check off in my planner.
But the schedule never came.
We just hung out. Like we were at a party.
There was food and drink and bowls of labeled weed. I had signed up for a week-long party, I just didn’t realize it yet. My husband made fun of me for thinking there’d be a schedule at a retreat sponsored by a dispensary. In lieu of a curriculum, I received copious amounts of free weed. Because I stayed up the block, every time I left, someone handed me weed to make sure I was “good.” Oh, the generosity of goth camp! We found ghost hunting to be our most favored group activity. On a ghost walk, I found a full nugget tagging along on my wool glove.
So here’s the skinny on the retreat ...
We met for breakfast whenever people crawled out of bed (after staying up late, drinking and talking).
We did a writing exercise as the key point of the day.
We analyzed Stephen King’s fear of his anger toward his children that led to The Shining’s theme.
We learned the basics of horror by discussing our darkest fears.
After the morning meeting, we wrote. Alone. Imagine that! Writing on a writer’s retreat! I was elated to have this much time to myself. But I’d grown used to writing-for-hire. Where there’s a plan. It had been a while since I could write whatever I wanted, and I was rusty.
I made the EMF reader go off when we went ghost hunting. Was I haunted? A question I had never asked myself. At home, I was going through terrifying circumstances out of my control. I didn’t want to think about loss, anger, or my fear that I’d never feel relaxed again. Let alone write about it. I didn’t want these anxieties to surface, which was haunting my writing practice. I used to turn everything into comedy, but I couldn’t find humor in these particular events. I was focused on preventing my fears, which stifled creativity. And joy. Letting fear out gives you peace. Who knew? (Yes, I see you, my friends who told me to go to therapy—you knew.) With ghost children playing above, I wrote, exploring my fears as the theme.
The retreat’s evenings turned into a party. The Shining played on repeat, and I realized I wasn’t so pedestrian after all. I love loud parties where intimacy isn’t possible, so I was out of practice in small groups. Truthfully, I was out of practice with all parties. I couldn’t rely on scrolling because I needed to save my phone battery, I hadn’t brought a camera to hide behind, and I couldn’t leave to “put my child to bed.”
I had to get to know other writers. To talk with people.
This terrified me more than ghosts.
The retreat was supposed to have events (to be fair to the hosts). There was a horse ride through the old mining town, tours of local flair, a day trip to a casino. But it was -10 degrees in a blizzard, nothing to be done about a town shutting down. We had plenty of food and drink. And weed. And endless hummus, which I couldn’t remember the name of.
And you know what? After sharing our fears, I became at ease with these lovely and eclectic writers. There was an intense poet with a deep stare, but when she laughed, the room shook. And a musician with his skeleton guitar, a journalist who danced like a sprite, an illustrator with happy, puppy energy, a photographer with a calming presence, and a self-described fearless witch. Literally: she’s missing the gene allowing one to feel fear. Good thing, too, because she slept in the room where pictures flew off the walls.
I learned the rockstar host’s secret to happiness. She was willing to play, the spirit of her inner child still intact. She inspired us to explore, be silly, wander graveyards like teenagers, and lounge around like characters in a French film. The haunted writer’s retreat gave us the freedom to roam, physically and in our writing. I realized I am the most fearless (despite having the gene). I charged into the haunted basement, the innermost cave of the story. I had no problem touching the wall where the EMF ghost reader goes off. I wasn’t worried about ghosts. Because you know what the ghosts in The Black Monarch do? They party!
If you stay awake long enough in The Black Monarch, the ghost party sounds begin. You can hear laughter, the clinking of glasses, and Victrola music. And the woman in the sparkling dress I saw when I first arrived? She’s legendary in Victor. She’s a ghost getting the hotel ready for guests, closing the curtains for that party vibe.
With endless time for my writing, I let go of plans.
And you know what happens when you take the time to play?
Your very best self. Your childlike free spirit. Allowing myself to waste time let creativity find its way out of the dark.
I did write a horror feature that filmed in October 2020. But what came next surprised me.
What I remember from my punk rock 20s isn’t anger, but instead, the gatherings. The celebration. The retreat sparked something I thought I’d lost. I began to write in my authentic voice. About something I missed.
I wrote about parties.
*Feature image created for Pipeline Artists by Kirksey Wells