The strange and true(-ish) tales behind the region’s spookiest urban legends.
You may have noticed that elaborate haunted house events are all the rage this time year. They’re pretty ambitious these days and even the advertisements for them are super scary by themselves. Yet, for every one of these hip Halloween happenings we’ve heard about over the past couple of weeks there seems to surface a more unsettling dose of haunted local mythology. Sure, Great America is currently running their annual Halloween Haunt, but have you heard the story of the 13 year-old who died on Willard’s Whizzer and is said to now roam the theme park?
So partly fascinated and kinda terrified, we delved into some of the region’s most enduring ghost stories, in all of their many fog-shrouded forms. Take a look and don’t venture to them alone…..
Water Dog Lake Park
The 10 million gallons filling Water Dog Lake in Belmont hold sinister secrets. Treacherous trails twist ’round the lake like the gnarled past of the park itself, and long, dark tunnels that once carried water to Ralston Mansion sit hollow beneath the soil, filled only with rumors of Satanic rituals. Today, the trails host running locals, chittering chipmunks, and even the occasional mountain lion, but years ago the shadowed paths were prowled by beings much worse.
Legend has it the lake is haunted by the ghost of a boy who once drowned there, but rumor is no match for the real-life horror story that unfurled one fateful fall. On a dark and terrible night in October of 1984, three girls from Ralston Middle School sneaked out to Water Dog Lake Park to smoke cigarettes away from watchful eyes. A young man approached them — blonde, pimple-faced, with dirty teeth and a retainer, they later said. His name was Jon Dunkel, and though the girls left quickly, Dunkel’s next encounter ended in tragedy. 12-year-old Lance Turner was found unresponsive beneath bushes later that night, and Dunkel was arrested and charged with his murder. How long had Dunkel stalked the crooked network of tunnels and miles of shrouded trails? No one knows. Although today the water is cold — braved only by children splashing about on the hottest summer days — it’s the chilling past of Water Dog Lake that will leave you with goosebumps.
Sunnyvale Toys R Us
It makes sense a playful ghost would choose a Toys R Us for its escapades. Because really, why wouldn’t you want to spend the afterlife gliding and galavanting down aisles of toys? Workers and customers refer to the boisterous spirit in question as Johnny, and report him bouncing balls down the rows, pushing the baby swing sets and tossing rag dolls off the shelves. One time, Johnny kept leaving a teddy bear in each aisle for the men waxing the floors.
But this specter’s backstory isn’t so lighthearted. Legend has it he’s the jilted suitor of a woman who owned the land in the 1800s … and that he bled to death from an ax-wound (either a victim of carelessness or of murder, depending on who you ask). During the ’80s, the location appeared on That’s Incredible!, a television show that documented a group séance led by psychic Sylvia Brown. Before this renowned retailer closed its doors for good, teens often begged the staff (unsuccessfully) to let them sleepover in the space. One lucky screenwriter from the movie Toys actually got permission to do so, spending two nights here in the name of research.
Winchester Mystery House
What better setting for a spooky story than within the twists and turns of the aptly named Winchester Mystery House? Visitors and tour guides alike bear witness: of a tapping or pushing pressure from unseen hands, of spectral strains of music from a phantom organ, of a strong and sudden smell of roses (said to announce Sarah Winchester’s presence). But there are numerous sightings of Clyde the caretaker, a ghost with overalls and a mustache. Most frequently, witnesses say the otherworldly handyman carts a wheelbarrow of coal between Steam Alley and the boiler. He’s also been spotted repairing a fireplace in the ballroom and taking a break from his endless task list by leaning against walls. We don’t know much of his backstory, although local psychic Annette Martin claims she’s communicated with Clyde and learned of his undying, secret love for Sarah Winchester as well as his vow to look after the mansion in his mistress’s absence. Even the televised paranormal investigators at Ghost Adventures have testified to a Clyde encounter in the depths of the basement. I mean… if you’re going to get haunted, it might as well be by a helpful ghost, right?
Moss Beach Distillery
Perched precariously on a cliff’s edge overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Moss Beach Distillery fools you into panoramic bliss. You can see the ocean from every table, and the bar’s bootleg beginnings are hidden deep beneath the floorboards, but a series of strange happenings keep guests on their toes, always in search of the one guest who never left.
The Distillery was built in 1927 by Frank Torres, who used it as a speakeasy — rum runners sailing to the secluded beach under the cover of fog and dragging whisky up the rocky cliff. Guests reveled, loosened by the abundance of illicit alcohol. Some say that one guest — a young married woman always dressed in blue — could be seen with the bar’s piano player night after night, convinced in her whisky-fueled stupor that she was in love. Rumor has it that as they strolled along the desolate beach one night, an attacker emerged from the shadows. The Blue Lady lost her life, but the piano player escaped, leaving her ghost to mourn in solitude. In the decades since, customers and employees alike have sighted her ghost, roaming the restaurant and beach, looking for the piano player. Levitating checkbooks, stolen earrings, and rooms inexplicably locked from the inside have all been attributed to the Blue Lady — one employee even swears she felt a ghostly hand stroke the back of her neck at the end of a long shift.
So visit the Distillery and enjoy the ocean view, but make no mistake: as you watch the blue, the Blue Lady’s watching you.
The Necropolis of Colma
The Bay Area’s very own “City of the Dead.”
Yes, the town of Colma (on the northern end of the 6–5–0 area code) is a place composed mostly of cemeteries. In fact, the ratio of dead residents to living clocks in somewhere around 1000 to 1.
“There’s about 1600 people above ground,” Historical Society secretary Richard Rocchetta explains, “and about one-and-a-half million below ground in the town of Colma… give or take.”
Colma’s undertaker origins date back to the 1920s, when the dead were literally priced-out of San Francisco. Above considerable public outcry, SF officials ruled that cemeteries were too expansive in a city where land was in such short supply. So they banned graveyards and exhumed the existing bodies to be relocated to Colma.
Little surprise then that Colma is rife with tales of haunted happenings and other aberrant occurrences: such as the myriad accounts of a gargoyle-like creature that hops between tombstones at night. Or the bloody zombie-type figure spotted by a night-shift police officer before quickly vanishing.
Of course, those are just the rumors, perhaps spurred on by big bouts of fog and spooky cemetery atmosphere. Many real crimes have taken place around Colma over the years, as well. There was the bludgeoned corpse of a Russian prostitute discovered in the Serbian graveyard (still an unsolved crime). Or the female body discovered in a tree wrapped in a rug near one of the city’s largest graveyards. Other odd stories abound: A suicide on a relative’s grave, animal parts found in cemeteries, evidence of late night seances…what else would you expect from a thriving necropolis?
California’s Great America
This year, California’s Great America hired a horde of monster actors (500 strong) to infest the mirror and chain-link passageways of Chaos House, the leafy corridors of CornStalkers maze and the infected hallways of Zombie High… But people swear the park hosts a few ghosts who are much more than just powdered performers.
One ghost, reported knocking over wares at the merchandise shops, is said to be a 10-year-old who burned in a house or barn fire when the area was a ranch. Apparently, the very spot where the Tidal Wave/Greased Lightning once stood also doubles as his death site. But a Palo Alto boy who died in a ride malfunction in the ’80s remains the park’s most famous specter. The story goes that the electric eyes of a ride called Willard’s Whizzer didn’t properly register a space already occupied by a car. Another train rammed the stationary one, killing its 13-year-old passenger in the process. He’s been witnessed wandering around that particular section of the park ever since. For years before it closed, the ride’s computer occasionally stopped for emergencies, reporting a ghost train where there was none. And during the graveyard shift, one employee even claims hearing phantom footsteps clattering across the wooden bridge above the Whitewater Falls splash zone … The area where the fatal coaster once stood.
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