Duluth, MN

Mystery of the Makeup Brush

The Mystery of the Makeup Brush

This is one of the stories that brought the Travel Channel show ‘Ghost Adventures’ to the sanatorium in 2014.

The mud on our approach made the back road seem so much longer—the darkness didn’t help either, but we wanted to play it safe. There are two kinds of anticipation, one that ascends through a long wait to a crescendo of satisfying action, and the other a silent sharpening of senses, as if the brain itself is turning like a sunflower to take in something it needs.

What we needed was adventure, so we were going to camp in an abandoned hospital for a night.

It was a moment born in a ‘you had to be there’ story, specifically one of my stories about squatting at Nopeming. Present were my girlfriend, Elsie, my spelunking friend Ron, and his girlfriend Polly. When I had finished, Ron looked at Polly and smirked. She shook her head and said, “No, no way.”

I still do not know how Polly was talked into the trip, but I suspect it was the possibility of seeing lighthouses. Actually, I have no idea why Elsie agreed to the trip either, because, as she would say, she scares easily. Nevertheless, there we were, packed into a sedan and cruising north.

“Two cars, two guys, and their girlfriends go to an abandoned hospital for a weekend,” we joked on the ride up from the suburbs, “and NEVER RETURN!”

“So, why are we doing this again?” Polly asks hesitantly, as she was unconvinced that it was the right decision to go north.

“Adventure?” I suggested. A stock answer.

Fall fog swept up from the river valley, making the building look more like it felt--a ghost, out of time and place.
Fall fog swept up from the river valley, making the building look more like it felt–a ghost, out of time and place.

“Basically,” Elsie chimed in, “You think that anything worth doing is worth doing weird, or something like that.”

When I had stayed at Nopeming I saw and felt things I did not expect, and could not explain, and I wanted someone else to experience the same things. I knew that isolation could warp perspectives, and this trip was a test of whether my imagination had been running wild, or, perhaps, not.

Either way, my shoes were filling up with mud, I could not see the branches reaching for my eyes, and I was not convinced that my more nervous friends would let me sleep that night. I pushed the thought to the back of my head when we cleared the tree line.

“There she is. Home sweet, whatever.”

The plan with four people was slightly different than when it was just myself, I explained as we walked in. “I slept in the Chapel, because it had carpet and was slightly isolated from everything else. Instead, we’ll crash on the stage. I think it’ll be better to have the windows, and we’ll be able to hear a lot more of what’s going on in the hospital. Sound good?”

No response.

Then and Now: The Chateau’s Third Floor

“Well,” I went on, trying to read people’s faces as I guided my friends to the dining hall and its stage, “here we go,” pushing open the door the led between the kitchen and dining room.

“Let’s get our bags set aside, grab water bottles, and I’ll take you on a tour.”

In a few minutes we were holding flashlights, rubbing our shoulders were the backpack straps laid, and looking around the big hall. On either side of the stage were doors that led into side rooms. Stage left was a prop room that flowed into an employee locker room and stage right led to a beautiful staircase that had not changed a bit since 1930, when this building was constructed.

Now and Then: The Nopeming Stage

I led everyone out the way we came, through a door to the kitchen and then a double door that led us into the main building, once called Chateau.

“We’ll go floor by floor and make sure everything’s tight, and there’s nobody else here.” I thought back to one Halloween night when I had walked around the roof of the building, scaring the kids that would no doubt be flocking there to vandalize what they thought of as an abandoned ‘insane asylum’.

We weaved through Floor 1 of the Chateau, which is essentially one long hallway per floor, seeing nothing out of place and meeting nobody. This, after all, was not any such holiday that would motivate the bored to flock to the nearest ‘creepy’ spot. The old salon was empty, and so was the gift shop and boiler room, so we began to climb the stairs to Floor 2.

Halfway up the staircase, we heard a door slam back on the First Floor, loud enough to leave a ringing sound in the air. We stopped and listened, holding our breaths and asking our ears to reach out and retrace our fresh footsteps.

“Nothing,” I whispered, “that happens sometimes.”

“What happened?” Someone asked in the dark.

“Door slammed, and no, none of the windows were open—I checked as we were walking. Assuming that we’re alone—which I think we are—the door slammed itself.”

“THAT hard?”

“Yeah, why not? Let’s keep going, and we can double check the ground floor when we go back to the bags.”

We left the door from the top of the staircase and took a few steps on the second floor, when my eyes caught something on the ground. Something new.

“Huh, that’s new. Haven’t seen it before. A—a paintbrush?” I picked it up. “REALLY weird.”

I held it out for the others to see. Polly squinted at it and said, “That, sir, is a makeup brush.”

I looked down and, indeed, it had a makeup brand stamped into its handle. Elsie, who was at the back of the group came over too, and glared at the brush. I didn’t understand the intensity of her gaze, and instead just said, “Yeah, super weird.”

“That’s MY brush,” she said, with a shaky voice, as if she was holding back tears.

“What? No, can’t be,” I insisted.

“Was it in your pocket, or something?” Ron asked, crossing his arms. He was incredulous; this had to be some kind of joke.

It had crossed my mind too, that the girls would work together to try and scare he and I, for the ironic value if not revenge. But I was the first to go through the door, the first to see the brush, the one to pick it up. We had all been together since we left the car—the brush could not have been planted.

“I didn’t DROP it,” Elsie shot at Ron. Glancing to Polly she added, “It was in my makeup bag, downstairs…”

“On the stage?” I asked, “Impossible. We went through about five big doors, up a level, around a curvy hallway… how does it get here? We gotta go check your bag; I bet you it’s still in there and this is some other girl’s brush.”

She smelled the end of it, shook her head and said, “No, this is mine, I smell my makeup. This is MINE,” and I thought she was going to burst into tears.

Elsie finds her makeup brush across the hospital in the middle of the hallway. How did it get there?
Elsie finds her makeup brush across the hospital in the middle of the hallway. How did it get there?

I knew that the issue would not be settled until we returned to our bags, so I shrugged and we hiked across the second level, down a corner staircase and into the dining room.

“I don’t see any difference, in our stuff,” I said, and I didn’t. It looked like it had twenty minutes before. Elsie said nothing, instead she went straight into her bag, ripped it open, took out some clothes and pulled out a smaller shiny bag from what seemed to be the bottom of her backpack. She opened it and turned it upside down.

Its contents spilled onto the Nopeming stage. No brush fell out.

She simply said, “I can’t stay here.” Polly agreed, though I would not have pressed the issue.

“Let’s pack up, and head out,” I announced, adding, with a note of defeat “Not too late to get back to the city.”

“Two cars, two guys, and their girlfriends go to an abandoned hospital for a weekend,” the joke went, and in the end, only one returned—me.


I believe that Elsie found her makeup brush on the second floor that night. How, or why—if there is such a question—I have no idea. When I tell the story, I like the ask the question, “What if I put a GoPro or something on the makeup brush—what would I see? Did it float through walls and doors, zigzag up the staircase or elevator shaft to get where it did? Did it just POP—disappear—and similarly reappear in the middle of the hallway, where I found it?”

I have other questions, like the door slamming on the first floor right before I found the brush. Is there some connection? I do not know, though we may guess until our last breath.

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