Professional Ghost Hunter Shares Stories of Southland's Supernatural History
• Longtime Residents Say Malibu Has Its Own Halloween-Themed Incidents Involving the Unexplained
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
Author and professional ghost hunter Richard Senate was at Bank of Books in Malibu recently, to share some home-grown ghost stories.
Senate described his first encounter with a ghost in 1978. "A snap decision changed my life," Senate said. He was staying at the Mission San Antonio de Padua in California as part of an archeological team, he told the audience. Finishing his work late one night he decided to stop by the kitchen for a snack before retiring. He started across the mission courtyard instead of going directly back to his room. "I saw a monk with a robe and a candle not 10 feet away from me," Senate said. It was never transparent. It was there and then it vanished. My first impression was that it was a real person and that he must have fallen into a hole, or something. Then I realized the courtyard was gravel and I never heard his footsteps."
The next morning, Senate asked the monks in residence at the mission about the incident. "'We see them all the time,' the Cistercian brothers replied." Senate's ghost was identified as a Cistercian who for many years would light a candle at 12:30 a.m., and walk across the courtyard to the chapel to pray for an extra hour each night. "I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck," Senate said. "That was what I saw. You can't forget the sight of your first ghost, not even if you want to."
The episode at Mission San Antonio de Padua made a huge impression on Senate. He has spent the past 30 years "hunting ghosts" throughout California, and as far afield as Nevada, Hawaii, England, New Orleans and Baja Mexico. "It's been great fun," he says.
Senate says that he has found that ghosts are "surprisingly common." According to Senate, all of the California missions have ghosts, many have more than one. Theaters, schools the remaining Hollywood studios and even some radio stations are also popular haunts.
"I've found that people who are artistic are more likely to see—and become—ghosts," Senate said. "Every major film studio is haunted," Senate adding that the practice of recycling and saving set pieces—and whatever energies or memories remain attached to them—may be a contributing factor.
Sound Stage 28 at Universal Studio's, where the 1925 Lon Chaney version of "Phantom of the Opera," was filmed and where an electrician tragically fell to his death during the film shoot, has a long history of haunting, according to Senate. "'The Phantom of the Opera' set is still there," Senate explained. "Chaney was upset by the accident, he felt that he ordered the man to his death. They actually stopped production for several days, that was unusual back then. I have found that guilt or psychic shock is an important factor in hauntings."
Senate recommends the San Fernando Mission, the Queen Mary in Long Beach and the William Hart Museum in Newhall as good spots for aspiring ghost hunters to seek a paranormal experience.
Senate said that he has investigated a number of Malibu hauntings at private residences, but that he could not discuss them, since the matter was confidential.
One case he was willing to discuss involved a woman who built her home on a Chumash sacred site. "Sometimes she would hear chanting, and a sound like 'ziz,ziz,ziz,'" Senate said. He added that his research indicated that the curious sound might be the long vanished reverberation of a bullroarer, a type of instrument used in certain ceremonies.
"It was a sacred area, a place where you are not supposed to walk through," Senate said. "I think that was the message."
A Malibu area mystery that Senate was willing to discuss with the Malibu Surfside News after the presentation was that of actress Thelma Todd, probably the area's best known ghost story.
Todd had a successful career in the late 1920s and early 1930s, co-starring in a number of comedies, including the Marx Brothers' films "Horsefeathers" and "Monkey Business." She was also the proprietor, with partner Roland West, of the Sidewalk Cafe located at Castellammare, just outside Malibu.
Todd was found dead in her car in the garage of her apartment located above the cafe on Dec. 15, 1935. The incident was ruled a suicide, but the grand jury investigation revealed numerous details that did not appear to support the ruling. The autopsy indicated bruising around Todd's neck, broken ribs and other injuries not consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning.
The case continues to be regarded by many as a murder. Todd's ghost has reportedly been observed by many witnesses. She is most often seen walking down the exterior staircase connecting the former cafe and Todd's upstairs apartment to the garage on Posetano road, according to Senate.
"I've found that there are five motives for most ghosts," Senate said."Egotists, unfinished business, the need to check on children or loved ones, love, and rarely, revenge. I think Thelma's ghost has unfinished business."
There are allegedly plenty of other specters closer to home.
Some say that the Adamson House Museum has a ghostly presence. The Malibu Pier is also allegedly home to at least one specter.
One of the oldest residences on Point Dume reportedly has a helpful haunt that closes doors and turns off lights and a ghost cat that likes to climb onto the guest room bed at night.
Another residence, built during WW II as military barracks, was reportedly haunted for years by the hesitant footsteps of a phantom serviceman.
Early Malibu residents who reported ghost lights out to sea may have been observing real pirates, who found western Malibu's secluded coves and pocket beaches convenient for alcohol smuggling operations during prohibition. Drug runners have also used the same beaches, starting with opium and marijuana trafficking in the 1920s and continuing today.
However, Los Angeles County Lifeguards still receive occasional reports of unidentified lights on the water. Often the source of the lights is a fishing boat, or even an SOS flair; sometimes the lights remain inexplicable.
Ramirez Canyon children used to scare each other with stories of the Hanging Tree—a massive oak located at the side of the road that reportedly was once used to administer "justice" to a gang of outlaws. When the Santa Ana winds blow, they say, one can hear the sound of the hanging rope creaking.
The Keller Oak, in Solstice Canyon, and nearby Keller House, which was destroyed in the 2007 Corral Fire, are also focal points for local legends. However, the watchful presence in the shadow of the ancient oak or near the old stone building has allegedly diminished following the 2007 fire.
Some say the presence is that of Matthew—Don Mateo—Keller, the Irish-American businessman who bought the Malibu Ranchero in 1857. Others claim it is the spirit of a long forgotten vaquero, whose bones rest in the grove of trees.
Longtime Malibuites still call rockslides that close PCH and power outages that plunge the community into darkness "Rindge's Revenge," as a nod to May Knight Rindge, Malibu's most famous defender. Rindge, the widow of Frederick Hastings Rindge and the last owner of the entire Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit, spent two decades and the family fortune fighting to keep first the railroad and then the highway out of Malibu. Rindge was a formidable horsewoman, who rode her range armed with a pistol to discourage trespassers.
Her fierce love of the land she fought to preserve gives her a lasting presence in Malibu that is substantial, not ghostly.
Richard Senate is the author of "Haunted Southland," and the "Ghost Stalker's Guide to Haunted California," and other books.
He frequently leads ghost walks in the Ventura area. More information is available at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Richard-Senate-Ghost-Hunter/122903611086691