How to Tell if Someone Died in Your Hotel Room
Hotels don’t like to talk about it, but it’s not unheard-of for people check into hotels with the intention of permanently checking out. (Of life, you see.) Long after the body is gone, hotels go to great lengths to gently cover up the fact that someone died right there on the carpet/bed/balcony/toilet/mini-fridge. In high-profile cases, hotels may even go so far as to change room numbers -- see the Beverly Hilton after Whitney Houston’s death.
But sometimes you can suss out what the hotel would prefer you didn't -- that someone died in your very room. We asked a guy who cleans up after the recently deceased. He dished not only on why so many people die in hotels, but how the mess gets cleaned up, and how you might be able to tell if your room was once a crime scene.
Why do so many people die in hotels?
“People don’t want to inflict the kind of damage a suicide does on their homes, so they go to hotels,” says Chris Vegors, who owns Crime Scene Cleaners Northwest in Seattle, and who for years was contracted by a large hotel chain to clean up, yep, its crime scenes. “A lot would also rather their family not find them. And it happens a lot more than you think.”
How much more? Hotels obviously aren’t ecstatic to advertise that information, and only one real study has been done on the frequency of hotel suicides. That study, done in Seattle in the early 2000s, found that locals who registered at Seattle-area hotels were about 20 times more likely to commit suicide than folks who were at home.
And though taking suicide statistics in Seattle and applying them to the whole country might sound a little like extrapolating skin cancer data from Hawaii, hotel deaths are certainly not exclusive to the dreary northwest.
What happens after someone dies in a room?
Once the police have CSI-ed the place, a crime scene cleaning crew comes in to assess the damage. Usually they throw away anything with a permeable surface: sheets, blankets, mattresses, wooden tables, lamp shades, or anything else that would get wet if you threw water at it. So don’t worry that you’re sleeping on a dead man’s mattress.
Most electronics also get tossed, since small amounts of blood and other matter can get into the devices’ crevasses, making them nothing you’d want to plug in and turn on. “You can’t let them heat up and start to stink,” Vegors says. “Hotels have stockpiles of the exact same stuff to replace it.”
Carpet gets ripped out too, as does any permeable linoleum or other flooring. Headboards, artwork, also gone. Pretty much all that’s left are the bathroom fixtures, the walls, the ceiling, and maybe some metal furniture. At which point everything gets sanitized and cleaned with solutions not available to the general public, like synthesized bovine enzymatic cleaner (the stuff they use to sanitize slaughterhouses) or industrial-strength hydrogen peroxide.
Once that’s done, someone has to sand down or fill holes in walls that may have caught a bullet or other debris. Wallpaper gets torn down and replaced, or the room is repainted.
“Everything has to basically look like new construction,” Vegors says. “If the cleaning is done right, you’ll probably never be able to tell if someone died in your hotel room. We do it right, but not everyone does.”
And if they don’t, they might leave behind these signs that your room played host to some foul play.
What are the signs someone might have died?
There’s an odd bump in the wall. Feel for an uneven surface where the wall was filled in and not sanded down properly. Of course, holes in the wall could be caused by a number of things -- a clumsy furniture installer, rowdy kids, The Who. A good rule of thumb is to look at the size of the bump. “If it’s smaller than a quarter,” Vegors says, “it’s probably a bullet hole.”
The room is only partially renovated. If you see, say, half the room with what appears to be fresh wallpaper, and another half with stuff that looks a little faded, chances are something happened in there that required only part of it to be taken down. But it’s not just wallpaper. “If half the room is done, and the bed and nightstands are completely new, but the kitchenette and bathroom are older-looking stuff, that means cleaners went in, did something in the living area, and didn’t do the turn on the rest of the hotel room,” Vegors says.
The A/C unit smells awful. If you’re in a hotel room with a wall A/C unit, Vegors says it’s the most commonly missed item by crime scene cleaners, and often has human remains stuck in the vents after a death. The blood and other matter seeps through the vents and into the wiring, and the air blowing out of it will smell like decomposing flesh. Most guests are likely to mistake it for garbage, and write it off as “stinky A/C” in a two-star TripAdvisor review. But not many things can make a wall unit smell that bad.
There are flies in the light fixtures. “I take all the fixtures down and either toss them or sanitize them,” says Vegors. “But not everyone thinks that thoroughly. So if you look up at those, that’s where you’ll see some interesting shit.” People who kill themselves may be in a room for a few days after they die, especially in longer-stay hotels where they’ve pre-paid. Flies begin to infest the room and crawl up in the light fixtures, either getting stuck there or leaving waste behind. This isn’t likely to happen in nicer hotels, but if you’re in the kind of place where light fixtures aren’t regularly cleaned, dead flies could be a tipoff.
The ceiling is noticeably different than the rest of the hotel. Ideally, a crime scene cleaner can scrape whatever needs to be scraped off the ceiling, sanitize the ceiling, and fill it in to look new. Since imperfections aren’t as easily noticed on the ceiling as a wall, it’s typically an easier fix. But if you look up and see a janky ceiling, it can a sign of a particularly nasty death.
Of course, none of these things definitively mean someone expired in your room. A family of chainsmokers could have fumigated the place. Or the hotel might have been due for an overhaul anyway. Or the ceiling had a bad leak. But since death in hotel rooms isn’t completely unusual, it’s worth it to scan for the signs. Because the hotel sure isn’t going to tell you.