Tag Archives: ghosts

The Lucky Ghost in Aisle 2C

It sounds strange describing someone who died from bleeding to death from an axe wound as “lucky,” but that could be the case for Johnny Johnson.

Johnson, as the story goes, was a Sunnyvale, California farmhand in 1881, who was in love with Elizabeth, his boss’ daughter.

Unfortunately for Johnny, Elizabeth loved someone else, and refused to marry him.

It was a bad week for Johnny, because a short time later, he was chopping wood when the axe slipped and lodged in his leg, killing him.

Moving to the present day, we find a Toys R Us store built on the exact spot where Johnny died.

For the record, despite having spent more time in cemeteries than is healthy finding the graves of the famous and infamous, I have never experienced anything paranormal. So when talk turns to all things “spiritual” – I’m a skeptic.

Still, I’m nothing if not curious, so this past weekend when Kimi and I were in the Bay Area, we went over to Sunnyvale for a walk on the weird side.

According to the book Weird California where I first heard mention about the ‘”Haunted Toys R Us of Sunnyvale,” Johnny is usually found hunting for his beloved Elizabeth around aisle 15C.

We traversed the store and couldn’t locate the aisle because as we later learned, the store had recently been remodeled.

This forced me to ask an employee for directions to the current hangout of their resident ghost; something I felt a bit embarrassed to do.

Trying my best not to sound like a Ghost Hunters groupie, I stopped an employee, who we will call Mike, and told him I was a writer doing a piece on the store’s “supposed ghost.”

You mean Johnny,” he said, as matter-of-factly as if I were inquiring about a living stockroom attendant. “You can usually find him in Aisle 2C.”

Mike explained that Johnny likes to knock toys off of shelves, roll balls down empty aisles, and trip sensors which open doors in the middle of the night when no one is in the store. He also explained that Johnny only seems to pull his pranks on employees, generally leaving the customers alone.

We were standing in Aisle 2C, which was lined from floor to ceiling with dolls. While he was talking, dolls on both sides of the aisle were gurgling and gyrating, which was to be expected, as they were activated by motion.

But what was strange was that as soon as Mike left the aisle, the dolls stopped moving.

Although Kimi and I ran up and down the aisle, the majority of them remained inert until Mike returned, which brought them to life again. We were able to get some of the dolls to move without the employees around, but we basically had to shake them.

Odder still was a baby doll that would giggle when Mike was around. This doll was not motion activated. (Although, it did appear to be activated by heat. We were able to get it to giggle by nearly touching it. When Mike was around, it went off even though he stood several feet away.)

Am I now a believer? Hardly.

There are several possible explanations for the happenings in Aisle 2C that have nothing to do with anything supernatural. And had I not known of the story ahead of time, I wouldn’t have paid any notice to the peculiar actions of the dolls.

But who knows?

Should it turn out that there truly is such a thing as a disembodied spirit, and that the ghost of Johnny Johnson is responsible for the shenanigans that are said to happen in the store, then it makes his death a bit less tragic.

That’s because this “lucky” ghost gets to spend eternity playing with skateboards, action figures, and toy trucks, rather than having to creep around dank, spooky cemeteries and haunted houses.

Stars & Spectres: The Santa Maria Inn

The Santa Maria Inn, where lots of famous guests have stayed ... and some have never left.

Back in the 1920s, when El Camino Real was the main thoroughfare between Hollywood and William Randolph Hearst’s castle, the Santa Maria Inn was a popular stopping-off spot for Hollywood’s glitterati making the trek.

The Inn, in the city of Santa Maria, was originally constructed as a 24-room English-style hotel in 1917. Later additions brought it to its current total of 166 rooms.

The hotel proudly publishes an impressive list of past guests which contains over 100 names, including President Herbert Hoover, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, and Shirley Temple. Cecil B. DeMille stayed here while filming his epic silent film The Ten Commandments nearby in 1923.

But the one famous guest who is said to have liked the accommodations so much that he never bothered checking out, is Rudolph Valentino.

Room 221, with former (and current?) guest Rudolph Valentino's star on the door.

Valentino, who died suddenly in August 1926 from a ruptured appendix, once stayed in Room 221, and if the reports made by several guests since that time are to be believed – he never left. He is said to enjoy reclining on the bed and knocking on the walls.

If true, it makes Valentino a very well-traveled spectre, since he has regularly been spotted making personal appearances at former homes in Benedict Canyon and Oxnard, and occasionally at Stage 5 and the Costume Department of Paramount Studios.

Room 221 seems to be a gathering place for otherworldly presences. A former sea captain and his mistress have supposedly taken up residence there as well. The woman, who was reported to be  murdered, has been seen floating at the foot of the bed. Once, a housekeeper who was making the bed in the room got so frightened by an icy touch to her shoulder that she fled the premises never to return.

Guests in other rooms have also encountered “bumps in the night.” One man missed being struck by a light bulb that flew out of a socket. Another woke to discover a ghostly party of guests in 1800’s clothing gathered at the foot of her bed.

The staff at the Inn tell tales of clocks wildly spinning, furniture mysteriously stacked up in closed rooms, doors on ovens spontaneously slamming, and a piano (not a player piano) that comes to life behind locked doors when no one is around. One housekeeper was seen being followed by a mysterious balloon all around the second floor.

I’m not sure if the Santa Maria Inn is truly haunted, or if ghosts even exist. In matters of the afterlife, my mind is reinforced by a strong sense of skepticism.

But that doesn’t stop me from being curious. Who knows? Maybe on my next trip up the coast I’ll get the nerve to spend the night in Room 221.  I’ve always wanted to meet Valentino.

Griffith Park: Born of a Curse?


The obelisk in the center of the picture marks the grave of Col. Griffith J. Griffith at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Griffith Park Observatory, which he donated to the city of Los Angeles, hovers overhead.

As anyone who has ever jogged there after dark can tell you, L.A.’s Griffith Park can be a pretty eerie place. But did you know that the park actually exists because of a curse?

The story begins during the Mexican era when the land that eventually became the park was part of the Rancho Los Feliz. Don Antonio Feliz inherited the property and lived on it with his blind niece Dona Petranilla. When Antonio died in 1863 the land was swindled away by a neighbor and his crooked lawyer, leaving the girl with nothing. Petranilla was said to place a curse on the chiselers as well as on the land, which she punctuated by promptly dropping dead.

If the stories are to be believed, everyone connected with the con met untimely ends and the land passed down to “Lucky” Baldwin, whose luck quickly ran out, when the ranch and dairy he started on the property went bankrupt and he was shot to death by bandits. A few years later the property passed into the hands of Col. Griffith Jenkins Griffith.

Griffith J. Griffith, a man with the same first and last names to go along with a dubious military rank, was born in Wales in 1850 and emigrated to the U.S. around the end of the Civil War. Six years later he became a publisher in San Francisco and within a short time was the mining correspondent for the newspaper Alta California. He was able to glean enough knowledge about mining to become an expert at discovering gold and silver. He netted a large fortune which he and his wife Christina used to purchase the former rancho.

Griffith created an ostrich farm on the site, which was run by a man named Frank Burkett. Sometime around 1884, there was a lightning storm which severely damaged the property, but what really frayed the ranch hands’ nerves that night was the appearance of the ghost of Don Antonio Feliz on horseback. Griffith soon closed down the farm, which enraged Burkett enough for him to shoot Griffith down before turning the gun on himself. Griffith survived, but the curse wasn’t quite through with him yet.

Griffith, trying to rid himself of the haunted property, donated it to the city of Los Angeles in 1896. After this, he became increasingly paranoid, believing that his Catholic wife was conspiring with the Pope to poison him. In 1903, while staying in Santa Monica, he shot her in the eye. She too survived, but Griffith ended up spending two years in San Quentin after pleading insanity.

After he was released from prison, the city spurned his gift-giving. It was only following his death in 1919 that the city accepted a $1.5 million fund from his estate to build the Griffith Park Observatory and the Greek Theater.

So, the next time you are out jogging past dark along the park’s equestrian trails, make sure the horse and rider ahead of you are real, and that it’s not Don Antonio out looking for some swindlers.

(FYI – Marc Wanamaker and I started work this week on an Arcadia Publishing book entitled Images of America: Griffith Park. Look for it in 2011.)

Scarier Than Ghosts?

Is this the most haunted house in America?

We crossed an item off the bucket list on Saturday when Kimi and I visited the Whaley House in San Diego’s Old Town district. The Whaley House is reputed to be the most haunted house in America by many psychic researchers, and if the stories about the property’s past are true, it’s easy to see why. 

Thomas Whaley was a forty-niner who made a small fortune selling supplies to miners in San Francisco before relocating south to the sleepy settlement of San Diego, where he built this house in 1857. Whaley must not have believed in ghosts because he constructed his home on the bad juju site of the public gallows, where a few years earlier he witnessed convicted row boat thief Yankee Jim Robinson pay the ultimate price for his minor offense. Whaley soon became a believer when footsteps began appearing in empty rooms in the house, and his family members started dying on the premises in mysterious ways. 

The Ninth Step.

The docents who work on the grounds dress in period costume and all seem to have had personal encounters with a host of otherworldly presences, such as footsteps, slamming doors and smells of perfume and cigar smoke coming from empty rooms; an invisible baby crying in the nursery; and even a disembodied dog who will occasionally hump a tourist’s leg. A sour-faced Whaley is said to appear on the second floor, and his long-deceased wife sometimes shows up at a back window to inspect her gardens below. One particularly haunted spot is said to be the ninth stair leading to the second floor, which was the same spot where Yankee Jim once dangled. Guests at the house have reported choking at the spot, and some have even found rope marks around their necks after climbing the stairs. 

We felt nothing unusual during our visit, but many a skeptic has become an immediate convert during a tour, including Regis Philbin, who reportedly once encountered a ghost at the house. 

Mrs. Whaley checking on her gardens? Nope, just a tourist.

The Whaley House was still worth the $6 admission cost, but there is another place two blocks away that comes with a large creepiness-factor, free of charge. 

Yankee Jim's grave in El Campo Santo Cemetery.

Nearly 500 bodies, including the unfortunate Yankee Jim, were buried in El Campo Santo Cemetery from 1849 to 1880. Sometime around 1899, the city government decided that a horse-drawn trolley was a greater need for the citizens of San Diego than the preservation of burial sites, and a line was cut through the cemetery without anyone bothering to relocate the bodies first. Eventually the street was paved, and today when tourists drive over San Diego Avenue or walk down the sidewalk next to the street, they are crossing over at least twenty graves that are now marked with small brass plaques that read “grave site.”  

Which just goes to show you that dead people are often less scary than the living ones in city government. 

A grave in the middle of San Diego Avenue.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Haunted” House

Do you happen to be in the market for a mansion in the Hollywood hills that was designed by a famous architect, was often seen in films, is unoccupied (except for maybe a few ghosts), and you’ve got an eight-figure budget to play with? Then I have just the place for you.


Kimi and I watched a marathon of great old Vincent Price movies the other night, including the original House on Haunted Hill from 1959. The plot involves an eccentric millionaire and his wife, who invite five people to a “haunted house” party, promising each of them $10,000 if they remain in the house until dawn.

The main actors in the film are Price, Richard Long, and Elisha Cook, Jr., but the real star is the house itself. It got me to wondering where the exterior shots were taken. Mr. Google revealed that it was the Ennis House in Hollywood, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was time for a road trip.

We wound our way through the Hollywood hills near Griffith Park towards the hulking edifice at 2655 Glendower Avenue. We rounded a corner and there it was. The house, which was built in the 1920s and was influenced by FLW’s interest in pre-Columbian art, hovers over east Hollywood like a Mayan spaceship. The exterior is surfaced with 16-inch interlocking cement blocks that were cast on site using local materials to make the house fit more smoothly into the color scheme of the surrounding hills.

The house was used as a film location as early as 1933, and in addition to Haunted Hill, it has been seen in Blade Runner (1982), and the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It was heavily damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and a non-profit organization named The Ennis House Foundation poured millions of dollars into its reconstruction. A year ago the foundation put the house up for sale with an asking price of $15 million.

Incidentally, if an eccentric millionaire just happens to invite you to a “haunted house” party and offers you a princely sum if you are willing to stay the night … you may just want to opt out and enjoy a quiet evening at home.