NEW YORK —
The room smells like corpses.
At some point in your life — probably while you were driving across Pennsylvania or something — you may have rented a room in a cheap motel, opened the door, sniffed the air, and yelled "Who died in here?" Often, the answer is "the previous occupant." Stories abound of corpses stashed under hotel beds, often for inexplicable lengths of time; in 2010 — and this is the most extreme case I could find — a Memphis woman named Sony Millbrook mouldered under the box springs of a bed at the Budget Lodge for six weeks before being found. If your room smells like death, don't just send down for some air freshener. Find a better place to stay.
The website is inept and hostile.
Most respectable hotels put a lot of time and effort into their websites, which is why you should be very suspicious of hotel websites that look like they were created with Microsoft FrontPage 97. Take New York's Hotel Carter, for example, a notoriously dirty Times Square hostelry known for its body count: a woman thrown out of a window, an infant beaten to death, a goth rocker stashed under a bed, a hotel clerk killed by another hotel clerk. Its website is inept, ungrammatical, and at times perplexingly belligerent. "We do not receive package/shipments for guests. We will refuse to receive package to those who order online and use our hotel address," the home page states, emphatically, in red italics. You know what else is red? Blood. A clear sign that this might be a murder hotel.
The closet is actually a chute leading down to a secret murder chamber.
Not to take anything away from turn-of-the-century serial killer H.H. Holmes — whose terrible true story was told in Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City" — but come on, victims. Do a walk-through before you put a deposit down on a room. If you see any unexplained trap doors, leave.
Peters writes Slate's crime blog. @slatecrime.