Prompted both by British interests in western North America and Russian incursions onto the west coast, the Spanish government decided in the 18th century to begin colonizing Alta California (or, as we now call it, the state of California). Missions were established at regular intervals from San Diego up to San Francisco, all of them falling within a relatively short distance from the coast.
The missions have their share of ghost stories, some due to the amount of death and misery that occur ed within them, others due to the simple fact that these are amongst the few recognizably historic features on California's relatively young constructed landscape. I lived, for a time, just a few miles from Mission La Purisima Concepcion, just outside of the town of Lompoc, near Vandenberg Air Force Base. I spent many afternoons at the mission, enjoying walks through the open land as well as wandering in and out of the mission buildings. And, of course, I began to hear rumors of ghosts who stalked the mission grounds.
In and around the main building, the chapel, people have reported seeing a monk walking the halls, as well as phantom monks walking about inside the building. Cold spots and feelings of being watched are common, as are the sounds of voices. Some people have claimed that "energy vortexes" (often claimed, never explained) are found within the chapel. One park ranger, and a few visitors, has reported seeing a man in a white sleeping gown (described by the ranger as "Benjamin Franklin in drag") in the old living quarters. Others claim to have seen various different priests, neophytes (the Native Californians who resided within the missions), and various workers appear and vanish within the various outbuildings and workshops at the mission.
Outside of the mission's buildings, mysterious lights have been reported in the cemetery as have voices and other sounds. Speaking voices, the sound of flutes, and singing have been heard throughout the ground. People claim to have sen shadows moving at night. Strange sounds are often reported on the mission grounds. A phantom greyhound dog has also been reported.
Commentary: The La Purisima Concepcion state park exists at the second location of Mission La Purisima. The first mission was founded in 1787 at a location that now resides within the central portion of the City of Lompoc. The mission was damaged in an earthquake in 1812, and the decision was made to move the mission several miles to the north, in the location where the restored buildings currently stand. The mission operated until 1834, when it, along with most of California's other missions, was secularized. After this, the mission lands passed through the hands of a succession of landowners - most of them ranchers - and the buildings and other facilities fell into a state of disrepair. Many of the buildings, including the mission's impressive chapel, were reconstructed in the 1930s as part of the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
California's colonial era is largely mythologized, the missions being the subject of both demonization and romanticization, and even those who think of themselves as well-informed usually know more myth than fact about this period of California's history.
To be certain, the missions would have been a miserable place for many of the neophytes, due to the physical constraints placed on them by mission life, the probably incomprehensible ritual required by the padres who ran the missions, and the disease caused by cramped quarters and poor sanitary conditions.
The Spanish priests and soldiers likely weren't much happier about conditions. They were far from home, the military and religious authorities clashed bitterly over who should be responsible for the colonization of Alta California, and violence both among the Spanish and between the Spanish and the native people of the area was not uncommon.
In short, everyone was miserable. When one considers that the mythology that has risen up around the missions tends to amplify and exxagerate this misery, and the fact that the missions are some of the few recognizably historic landmarks on California's relatively recent constructed landscape, it is no surprise that all of them seem to have a reputation for hauntings.
La Purisima is often described as the "most haunted" mission (though, again, I suspect that every mission has at least some number of people who will label it the "most haunted"), and has been a mecca for many self-styled paranormal investigators.
Amongst these investigators is Richard Senate, who I find to be a fascinating character. First off, the guy is clearly a good sport, even agreeing to be filmed for Penn & Teller's Bullshit (though the segment was ultimately never broadcast). And, after reading a number of his articles and books, I am inclined to think that he is an honest person who is really trying his hardest to research something. The problem is that he does so with a methodology that is so sloppy that it is bound to give useless results.
For example, in his book Ghosts of the Gold Coast, Senate describes visiting La Purisima, and discovering that there was something strange and powerful in the main chapel. His evidence for this was the fact that people in the group that he brought kept going to the same spot in the chapel and spinning around, as well as reporting cold spots, feeling as if there was a presence nearby, and so on. The problem is that he had all of these people in the room together at the same time, so that, even if they were not speaking with each other, they were seeing each other's behavior and taking cues from each other. He had brought the people in to observe their behavior as an experiment, but he failed to put even the most rudimentary controls on that experiment (such as leading people in one at a time to observe them). This sort of sloppiness permeates his investigations at La Purisima, as well as many of the others that he has performed elsewhere.
Ultimately, Senate demonstrates the right attitude (experiment, gather data, see if there really is something), but all of the wrong methods.
Anyone who truly wishes to investigate, rather than just sight-see, would do well to take a lesson from this, otherwise you're more likely to simply reinforce your own preconceived notions than to find anything real.
I love it when I can post videos as well. This one has a moment in which the two young women featured in the video tell a spirit that it can not leave the grounds of the mission - which lead me to wonder if the legal prohibitions against taking anything from state or federal lands also applies to supernatural entities. What would the attorney general say?
Sources: Printed Book, Newspaper, Local Folklore, Richard Senate, Richard Senate - again, Internet, Internet