“Have you ever seen a ghost up here?” I asked one of the men guarding the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building. It was 1:30 a.m., the air was crisp, and the city’s lights were doing little to break the darkness—the perfect setting for a ghost story.
“Uhh. No.” he said.
Old souls doomed to roam the Earth scaring tourists and evading guards are probably not the first thing you associate with the Empire State Building. King Kong is probably the first thing. Then Sleepless In Seattle. And then Gossip Girl. And then the idea of being very high up. However, at least one ghost is said to haunt the building’s tourist-frequented 86th floor: the ghost of Evelyn McHale.
Never heard of her? That’s OK. You needn’t be ashamed of your ignorance around me, a simple ghost hunter—I’ll tell you. On May 1, 1947, 23-year-old Evelyn McHale placed her coat and purse against the observation deck’s railing and jumped to her death. She was very pretty when she landed, and her lifeless beauty so captivated the ghoulishly horny men of the ‘40s, while no doubt terrorizing their poor, alive-yet-homely housewives, that now she and her ghost are famous.
Ladies, it never ends.
On May Day, just after leaving her fiancé, 23-year-old Evelyn McHale wrote a note. “He is much better off without me. . . . I wouldn’t make a good wife for anybody,” she wrote. Then she crossed it out. She went to the observation platform of the Empire State Building. Through the mist she gazed at the street, 86 floors below. Then she jumped. In her desperate determination she leaped clear of the setbacks and hit a United Nations limousine parked at the curb. Across the street photography student Robert Wiles heard an explosive crash. Just four minutes after Evelyn McHale’s death Wiles got this picture of death’s violence and its composure.
The events relayed in the sightings of Evelyn McHale’s ghost are always roughly the same. Tourists at the Empire State Building spot a beautiful woman, dressed in ‘40s-style clothing, face streaked with tears, on the observation deck. They watch in horror as she jumps to her death, only to find...
—She was already dead.
—Which explains why she was able to jump through the suicide-prevention fence that currently surrounds the observation deck.
There’s a little confusion over whether this ‘40s ghost is the ghost of Evelyn McHale or the ghost of a ‘40s war widow who is said to perform the same fence-clearing suicide ritual, distraught over the death of her husband. Some people say war widow, some people say Evelyn McHale. A nice way to think about it is: it’s both, and they’re friends.
Under the “Plan” tab on the Empire State Building’s website, you’re given three options for how you plan to visit: as a couple, as a family, or as a group. Oddly, even after clicking around a bit, I was unable to find advice for those attending as “a single ghost hunter.” It’s fine, I figured it out for myself.
I packed my purse with my ghost tools: notebook, iPhone, and the EMF ghost meter given to me as a gift to keep—and, eventually, to pass down to my children—by my coworker Taylor Berman. The observation deck remains open until 2 a.m., which seems remarkably chill for an architectural landmark, so I planned to get there around 1 a.m., meeting the ghosts at the time of day when they’re most comfortable: night.
Very few people had the same idea.
Something to remember is: if you want to go to the Empire State Building and, on your journey to the 86th floor, have the only (living) humans surrounding you be those employed by the Empire State Building, the time to go is 1 a.m. I had never been to the Empire State Building before this night, so it’s a little hard for me to imagine a visit working out any differently. Why so many velvet ropes that make you feel dumb and look like an idiot as you walk through them? Certainly the single visitor can handle walking through an open space. And why position the ropes in a way that forces you to walk through an exhibit about the, uh, environmental sustainability, or something, about the Empire State Building, or maybe somewhere else? We’re all just trying to get to the top to see a ghost.
Aside from the fears that accompany any single woman misguidedly traveling to a landmark alone at 1 a.m., one fear plagued me on my way to the building. I knew from my research that I’d have to go through security before being allowed onto the elevator. I knew from when I packed my bag that I had a ghost detector in there. I knew from the first time Taylor Berman gave me the ghost detector and said “I need it back” that he didn’t mean it and that it was mine to keep; however, I also knew that it would be a major blow to both of us if it were to be confiscated at the Empire State Building.
“Wait—you got a walkie talkie in there?”
I’d almost made it through security when the Empire State Building employee operating the x-ray machine stopped me. “Mmm, no.” I said, taking the device that plainly identified itself as “the Ghost Meter” out of my purse. “It’s, um, an EMF meter?”
After half-heartedly explaining what an EMF meter was before copping to the fact that I’d hoped to use it to, uh, detect ghosts, the x-ray man and his security friend showed me a bit of supernatural mercy. “You know, 20 years ago they would’ve laughed at you. Now—that stuff is everywhere. We are not alone.” Damn, he’s right.
“20 years ago they knew it too!” His friend chimed in, suggesting perhaps some sort of coverup that ghost hunters like me only recently began attempting to dismantle.
I was allowed to pass through with my ghost meter.
The 86th floor of the Empire State Building boasts its open-air observation deck, but the highest you can climb is the 102nd floor’s Top Deck. This is a much smaller, indoor area that allows you a bit of extra height as you peer out onto all of the little tiny taxi cabs and baby buildings and think about what it would be like if the glass broke and you fell through accidentally. There isn’t supposed to be anything supernatural about the 102nd floor, but I thought I’d check it out anyway just in case Evelyn McHale wanted a very slight change of scenery.
I’ll tell you what: She didn’t. At one point I saw something out of the corner of my eye, but it was just some man. At another point I tried to use the EVP tool on my iPhone app—the tool that tells you the words ghosts are trying to tell you—and it only turned up one word: “girl.” OK. Girl like Evelyn McHale? Girl like me? Girl like, “Girl, look what you’ve done to me / Me, and my whole world”? I don’t know. All I know is, “girl.”
It was pretty up there, though. And quiet:
I recommend going to the Empire State Building very late at some point; it’s nice.
On my way back down to the 86th floor, I was alone in the elevator with the elevator operator. I took this opportunity to bother him at the very end of his shift: “Have you ever seen any ghosts up here, or have you ever heard of anyone experiencing anything sort of paranormal?” I asked. He had not, however he offered this:
“We have those ghosts and what do you call them, with the brooms?” (“Witches,” I said.) “Yeah, those lights. They come out and fly around, and people down below can see them.”
Hmm, the Empire State Building’s Halloween light display is not exactly what I was talking about, but I do understand that it was probably difficult putting together a polite answer to my question and I appreciate his willingness to speak with me.
Outside on the 86th floor, I took in the view while running some tests. Although some spots had higher EMF readings than others, nothing seemed too abnormal. It was very cold and windy up there and, I hate to admit this, the cold and the wind did a lot to remove the element of spookiness I expected from the night. Mostly instead of spooky it was: cold and windy.
Another thing that helped remove any lingering spookiness was the fact that probably over half of the fifteen or so people up there were visibly and audibly very drunk. This makes sense. It was after 1 a.m. and we were in a very strange place. At one point, a group of men and women loudly concluded that the guards must be “fuckin’ gay,” because they were asked to leave after the women began dancing. (I assume the dancing must have been too wild for the Empire State Building, however I did not see it myself.) One man shouted, “YEAH, FUCK YOU!” at a guard who asked him to put out his cigarette, because he thought it was his friend who asked him to put out his cigarette, and he did not appreciate being condescended to by his friend.
Another woman, who I liked very much, shouted “OH MY GOD—I LOOK LIKE A WHORE WITH THIS SHIRT ON!” after asking one of the guards to take her photo. She was scandalously-dressed, it’s true. “A WHORE!” she screamed into the brisk autumn night, “AT THE TOP OF THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING!”
Perhaps she was inhabited by the spirit of Evelyn and it was, in fact, a spooky moment. Who am I to say?
The ghost meter alerted me only once. My other EMF readers didn’t agree with its BEEPEEPEPEEEPEPEEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP, but I took a picture of the spot just in case:
(Do you see a ghost?)
Because the majority of the guards were quietly standing by themselves, doing little aside from looking out into the night, I thought maybe they would be somewhat receptive to a stranger asking them if they had ever “seen a ghost, or anything like that.” This was incorrect. Most bristled, in fact, and responded plainly: “No.” Well—fine. One told me he hadn’t encountered any ghosts personally but, after a little prodding, he admitted that maybe one guy did, once, but he doesn’t work here anymore—maybe. OK, man.
Despondent and alone, though likely surrounded by no less than hundreds of ghosts, I made my way back down to terra firma, which is Latin.
Before exiting the building, making my way past the Empire State Building Wall of Fame which boasted photos from both Hillary Duff and Danity Kane, I decided to ask one last gentleman in a red Empire State Building uniform if he’d ever seen a ghost in there. His name was Edwin, and he was, rightfully, at the information desk. Take it away, Edwin:
“I haven’t seen anything myself, but I’ve heard of people who’ve seen things in the building. Like one time on the 86th floor, you know there’s, like, a ramp where the double doors are. At a certain time everybody’s out of there, so the deck was clear, there were no guests up there. So, a couple coworkers were standing there talking and they see somebody pass by on top of the ramp. So they look at each other like—Hi, hello!”
At that point two young women came in looking for “golf balls,” and the “Hi, hello!” was directed at them. Golf balls at the Empire State Building at 2 a.m.? Now I’ve seen everything...
—Except for a ghost.
“So they look at each other like, ‘Somebody just passed by? Did you see that?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah!’ So they looked, they looked, they looked, and there was nobody. So, I mean. You know.”
I know. He had another story, too, which he heard from another coworker about two or three years ago:
“Another time, somebody who’d been here for a long time saw an old manager who had passed. I don’t know how he passed, or whatever, but they actually saw him. He always used to wear the same suit—they had a certain suit they wore. He saw him in that suit. And this guy’s been gone for a while. Like, he looked like he was coming to work, with his bag, or whatever. And that’s kind of, like, creepy.”
It is creepy. He then told me a final story about a coworker who once saw a ghostly woman handing out papers, as if to survey ghostly tenants. “I mean, people see things, you know,” he said. “As long as I don’t see it, I’m good.”
Same, Edwin. Or wait, no—opposite.
Would be helpful if I could see a ghost one of these times.
Empire State Building By the Numbers
- Ghosts Perceived: 0
- Ghosts Allegedly in Residence: 1 famous, a lot of non-famous
- Selfie Sticks Spotted: 1
- Guards Willing to Indulge an Idiot: 1.5
- Hours of Sleep Lost: 3.5
- Whores at the Top of the Empire State Building: 1