By J.C. Thomas
It’s the spooooo–kiest season of all, the most weird and wonderful time of the year for visiting unnerving attractions across California. We’re not talking about your neighbor’s haunted house, however impressive it might be. No, these seven places are the real deal, shrouding sinister backstories, authentic true crime happenings and ghostly legends that send a chill down even a cynic’s spine.
Mission San Miguel
Mission San Miguel, near Paso Robles, is the 16th California mission, founded in 1797 but rebuilt in 1816 after a fire. It’s similar in its style and heritage to other large and well-preserved missions up and down the state, although notable as the only one to still have its original interior painted walls intact. Stop in for a visit and you won’t readily find references to the Mission’s most gruesome historic event, the real-life root of many a ghost tale – the Reed family mass murders of 1848.
Between 1834 and 1859, Mission San Miguel was secularized and controlled by a civilian administrator. In 1848 it was occupied by William Reed and his family, who shared the property with a sizeable household staff and – legend says – a hidden cache of gold. One fateful day in December, a band of six men, among them three military deserters and a desperado escaped from jail, arrived at the Old Mission, ostensibly to sell some gold to Mr Reed. According to author and historian Wally Ohles, the men stayed the night, left the next day but returned on the third day. Upon their return, these five men rampaged through the Mission and murdered every soul on site: William Reed, his pregnant wife Maria, their four-year-old son, a 15-year-old girl, a cook, a shepherd and his grandchildren. In total they killed at least 10 people by ax and knife.
The murderous crew fled with all the money and valuables they could find at the mission, but not the hidden gold. They were chased down by a posse of around three-dozen men, the pursuit ending in a standoff near Summerland. Two of the murderers were killed while trying to escape, and three were arrested and later executed by firing squad. One member of the posse was killed, and when a significant cache of silver was recovered from the prisoners, William Reed’s business partner instructed it to be given to that man’s widow.
Today Mission San Miguel is a National Historic Landmark and is once again administered by the church as the residence of Franciscan Friars. Local legend says if you find yourself alone in one of the old rooms at night (although I don’t know how or why you would), you’ll hear the screams of a young woman, along with the sounds of the murderers rummaging around in their never-satisfied search for hidden gold. The ghostly white figure of Mrs Reed, covered in blood, is said to wander the grounds looking for her murdered children.
The Winchester Mystery House
The Winchester Mystery House, a sprawling, seven-story mansion in San Jose, is a popular tourist attraction with a genuine claim on uniqueness, and it’s all thanks to Mrs Sarah Lockwood Pardee Winchester. Sarah had what was surely a blessed life in New Haven, Connecticut, as the wife of the incredibly wealthy firearms magnate William Wirt Winchester. Mrs Winchester’s fortunes took a downward pivot when her infant daughter and her husband died within a few years of each other, after which she moved west to California and purchased an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose. It was here that things got weird.
From 1886 until her death in 1922, Sarah Winchester invested her massive inheritance in her home, funding and overseeing a continuous construction project that seemed to have no overall plan. She would instruct her builders, who often worked day and night, to add more and more rooms, a new floor or wing, stairways and windows at will, all with no end in sight. There were rumors that Sarah felt haunted by the ghosts of those killed by her husband’s rifles, or that a physic had told her to build a room for every lost soul before she could save her own. Perhaps she was driven mad by grief, or maybe Mrs Winchester was simply an eccentric with virtually unlimited funds and an affinity for architectural adventure. You can draw your own conclusions on a tour of the mansion, which ended up with 160 rooms, some 2,000 doors and 10,000 windows, plus curious features like stairways leading nowhere, series of inches-high steps and a thoroughly discombobulating floor plan. And, of course, there are ghost sightings aplenty.
Bodie Ghost Town
Bodie Ghost Town, a late 19th-century boomtown turned time-warped collection of abandoned wood and brick structures, hides in a remote valley in the eastern Sierra. You’re unlikely to come across it by chance, but if you’re visiting Yosemite or Mono Lake, both to its southwest, Bodie is an intriguing destination for a day trip. The eerie photo ops are incredible – think buckled timber and crumbling brick storefront facades, chicken-wire windows and outhouses scattered amid the sagebrush, wagons unhitched and set down a century ago and never returned to again, even the rusted-bare bodies of early cars representing Bodie’s more mature days.
The last of Bodie’s permanent residents left in the 1940s. By then the town had been twice devastated by fires, the last one in 1932 leaving just 10 percent of its buildings still standing. They’ve been untouched since then, the general store’s shelves still stocked, houses fully furnished, a century-old mill ground forever to a halt. But, the gold-mining boomtown that Bodie once was is still palpable. At its peak the town was home to almost 10,000. Many were made rich by the millions in gold extracted from the Bodie Hills; others engaged in gunfights, lawlessness and general vice surrounding the 60-plus saloons, dance halls and red-light district that gave Bodie its reputation as one of the wildest towns in the west. Bodie even had its own Chinatown, complete with Taoist temple.
On a few select summer nights the park is open late for ghost walks and star stories (book tickets early). Bodie sits at over 8,000 feet, making it inaccessible to cars in winter. The visitor center closes in mid-October and opens again in mid-May, so for a brief window of time around Halloween you may well have the park all to yourself, amplifying its spookiness no end.
The Cecil Hotel
Be it a curse, coincidence, simple misfortune or bad PR, the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles seemed a sorry place to be for most of the 20th century. It was supposed to be so grand, with its gleaming marble lobby, stained glass windows and 600 fashionably appointed guest rooms. But with the Great Depression hitting shortly after the Beaux Arts beauty’s 1927 opening, its owners’ lofty ambitions were foiled, and the Cecil Hotel soon gained a dark reputation. From the 1930s through to the 1960s, guests seemed to have a habit of checking in under a fake name then ingesting poison, shooting themselves in the head or jumping out of a high-story window. Among the more notable stories, in 1962 Pauline Otton jumped from a ninth-floor window, landing on and killing poor old George Gianinni who happened to be strolling by. More recently, 21-year-old Canadian student Elisa Lam disappeared from the hotel in 2013. Her body was found in a rooftop water tank almost three weeks later. A maintenance worker discovered Lam’s sad fate after guests complained of tainted water. In total there have been at least 16 deaths of Cecil Hotel guests from suicide, murder or accident.
But that’s not all. The Cecil is connected to the still-unsolved Black Dahlia case, as the femme fatale was seen in the hotel bar just days before her gruesome 1947 murder. Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, stayed at the hotel for several weeks in 1985, and possibly murdered a number of victims during this time. And finally we have Jack Unterweger, an Austrian serial killer who checked in to the Cecil Hotel in 1991. The writer was on assignment with an Austrian magazine covering crime in Los Angeles, but his own story is far more gripping than any he’d write. You see, Unterwegger improbably got this gig after being released from prison, where he’d served 15 years of a life sentence for murder. He would receive a similar sentence again in ’94, this time without possibility of parole, having been convicted of even more murders. Three of them were Los Angeles sex workers who Unterwegger strangled and killed while staying at the Cecil Hotel.
In 2011, the Cecil Hotel changed its name to “Stay on Main,” which sounds a bit like a plea. Book a room for Halloween night… if you dare.
The Mystery Spot
In the redwood forest just outside Santa Cruz is the Mystery Spot, of bumper-sticker fame. Covering an area about 150 feet across, it’s a purported “gravitational anomaly” that defies the rules of physics, discovered in 1939 by a group of surveyors whose instruments refused to work as they should in its vicinity. Is there an alien spacecraft buried under the spot? Does carbon dioxide permeate from the ground in unexplainable volumes? No. The structures built upon the Mystery Spot – a wooden hut upon whose seemingly flat floors you lean at improbable angles, boardwalks where taller people’s heads are below their shorter buddies’ and courtyards where balls roll uphill – are creations of optical illusion. But they’re really, really good ones. Even when you know there’s a reasonable explanation, the Mystery Spot is wonderfully weird and makes you feel physically off-kilter whether you like it or not. Plus, it’s a great place to take children, especially those young enough to have their sense of magic still intact.
Alcatraz Island is one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco, which makes it one of the most-visited places in California, and probably the world. So you’re likely familiar with “The Rock” and might have taken a daytime tour of the storied former penitentiary, which operated from 1934 to 1963. There’s no denying Alcatraz has an eerie feel to it, with ice-cold winds cutting at every angle and riling up the waves in the bay, the building’s brutal institutionalism, the cold and hostile weight of its steel doors and echo-inducing metal stairs. And there’s the knowledge of the evil-doers once incarcerated there, who spent at least 19 hours a day in 5-by-9-foot cells, the rampant suicides and murders occurring inside only adding to the compendium of crimes in their collective pasts.
That a prison designed to hold the worst of the worst, the irredeemable, was built on Alcatraz might be considered a dark kind of destiny. It’s said that in Alcatraz Island’s pre-prison days, the Miwok Indians had long considered it to be inhabited by evil spirits. Supernatural stories associated with the island include that of an inmate in cell 14D who screamed all night long about a demon with glowing eyes, only to be found dead in the morning. An inmate later housed in 14D was acquitted for stabbing another inmate to death – his successful defense was that living in the cell had damaged his psyche. In 1984, the park service brought famous psychic Sylvia Brown and a CBS news crew to Alcatraz to hold a séance. Brown claimed to communicate with the ghost of “Butcher” Malkowitz, a hit man who was murdered in the laundry room by another prisoner.
These anecdotes take on an especially chilling character when you’re on the Alcatraz Night Tour, which has you exploring the island and cellhouse blocks after dark. Book early as night tour tickets are limited. Plus the views of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset and the twinkling city after dark are pretty awesome.
The Queen Mary
Time magazine called the Queen Mary, the stately ocean liner permanently docked in Long Beach, one of the top 10 most haunted places on Earth. The popular tourist attraction certainly doesn’t discourage ghost stories and offers a variety of spooky-themed tours year-round, among them the Haunted Encounters Tour, Dining With the Spirits and the Investigation and Paranormal Ship Walk, lead by resident ship paranormal investigator Matthew Schulz. The Queen Mary naturally goes all out for Halloween, hosting the spectacular Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor event through November 2nd. Visitors, who can stay overnight in one of the ship’s 347 rooms and suites, sometimes report seeing a woman dancing alone dressed all in white (but of course), hearing unexplained screams or the cries of children, sudden temperature changes and flickering lights (terrifying!).
What’s certain is that the Queen Mary has a heritage ideal for spooky speculation. She made her maiden voyage in 1936, completing 1,001 transatlantic crossings and serving in World War II before retiring to Long Beach in 1967. There were 49 recorded deaths on board during that time. The Queen Mary’s immaculately preserved appearance evokes nostalgia for an era none of us living today can remember – surely prime circumstances for paranormal shenanigans.