Monday, October 29, 2012

Calico Ghost Town

The town of Calico, now abandoned (sort-of), is a ghost town in more ways than one.

Portions of the old abandoned town of Calico have been re-built and are now a regional historic park in San Bernardino County.  The setting, in the Calico Hills in the California portion of the Mojave Desert, seems eerie and otherwordly at the best of times.  And, naturally, the old town is said to be haunted.

Among the ghosts of Calico are Lucy Lane, who was born in Bismark - which overlooked Calico - and married John Robert Lane when she was 18.  The Lane's ran the general store, but left Calico when it was in decline in the late 19th century, only to return again in 1916, and take up residence in several different buildings throughout the remained of her long life (she lived to the age of 93).  Her spectre is said to have been spotted walking between the last house in which she lived (now a museum dedicated to the Lanes) and the store that she and her husband ran, wearing a black lace dress (which, naturally, many people hold is the dress in which she was buried).  Also, her rocking chair in that final house is said to often start rocking on its own.  Also, people working in the store have reported seeing movement out of the corner of their eyes, as well as hearing odd sounds, all of which is naturally credited to Lucy.

The Lane Museum, Lucy Lane's final home

The school house, which occupies the highest spot in town, is said to be another hot spot for spectral activity.  Some visitors have reported seeing a small, moving ball of red light (sometimes said to emit a beam of white light from within it) within the school house; and numerous visitors claim to have seen both female adults (thought to be school teachers) as well as children, all in late 19th-century clothes, through the windows of the school.  One very common sighting is that of a girl, aged 11 or 12, who is primarily seen by children and teenagers, appears in the window and seems to be aware of passers-by, though she vanishes mysteriously.

Calico schoolhouse, and the bridge crossing the gully to it
One story holds that two British tourists visited the schoolhouse, where they interacted with a costumed staff member who was playing the part of a school teacher.  They had their picture taken with her, but, upon having the film developed, discovered that she did not appear in the photos.  Follow up inquiries found that there had been no costumed staff members at the school on that day.

At the old hotel, people report feeling unseen hands grabbing, pulling, and (in one case) punching them.

Hank's Hotel, where you can get groped or assaulted by a ghost

The mines were dangerous, if sometimes rewarding, places to work, and so it is no surprise that many men met their ends there.  It is, perhaps, even less of a surprise that many people believe these tunnels and shafts to be haunted by the spirits of the past workers.

Looking out from one of the old mine tunnels
While intriguing, and rather creepy (having been in one of the tunnels, myself), I must admit that I am a bit disappointed by what is said about the mine tunnels.  It's vague, non-specific stuff about weird uneasy feelings and cold spots (which, really, is not uncommon underground).  In the midst of these much more wonderful stories about apparitions and strange phenomenon, can't help but be something of a letdown.

Other ghosts said to haunt Calico include the apparition of "Tumbleweed" Harris, the last marshal of Calico (whose tombstone int he cemetery is pictured above); Dorsey the mail-carrying dog (subject of a Kenny Rogers song), whose specter has been reported at the Calico cemetery; a ghost named Esmeralda who is said to haunt the old theater (now a mineral shop); and a mysterious woman in white who wanders the outskirts of town.  And, of course, there are numerous claims of feeling as if one is being watched, people just glimpsed out of the corner of one's eyes, weird smoke-like mists, and the now-ubiquitous claims of "shadow people."  All in all, Calico is rich in ghostly as well as historic lore.

Commentary: Calico was founded in 1881 by a group of miners who headed into the local mountains looking for silver. Within two years, the town had grown to house around 1,200 residents, had 500 mines, and the usual accompaniments of a successful old west town (justice of the peace, post office, hotels,restaurants, numerous brothels, etc.). Before long, Colemanite borate (an ore of Boron that can be purified, and can itself be used for the manufacture of glasses, medicines, cosmetics, as well as for numerous industrial processes). The town swelled to 3,500 people, with settlers from both Europe and Asia joining the American settlers. However, the Silver Purchase Act of 1890 had the effect of reducing the price of silver. As the decade wore on, Calico's silver mines became less economically viable, and the town began to depopulate. By 1898, the post office shut down, followed by the school, and the town was pretty much abandoned by 1900.

 In 1915, an attempt was made to recover unclaimed silver from the old mines, using cyanidation (a metallurgical process for the extraction ore using the chemical properties for cyanide). While this did result in the brief resurgence of silver mining, it did not cause Calico to boom again. In 1951, Walter Knott, of Knott's Berry Farm, bought Calico and began restoring many of the buildings. While the purchase of historic buildings by the wealthy is hardly unusual, this was a unique turn in two ways: 1) Walter Knott had, as a young man, been a local homesteader and helped to build the cyanidation facilities, and 2) he turned it into a historic park with restored buildings, repaired or re-built based on old plans and photographs, and donated it to the County of San Bernardino in 1966.

 So, that is the history, but what is one to make of the ghost stories? Certainly, people may well have had strange experiences here, but a few things should be kept in mind when evaluating these tales of dread. As is the case with California's missions, western ghost towns are among the few signs of antiquity on California's relatively young European-historic landscape. As such, they tend to attract tales of ghosts, as they are among the few places/objects that most Californians will encounter that seem old and semi-mysterious.

 Another part of the equation is that tourism is both important to the local economy, and increasingly harder to come by. Calico is located off of the appropriately named Ghost Town Road just off of Interstate 15, one of the major thoroughfares between southern California and Las Vegas. The region was once an important stopping-off point for travelers on Route 66, but as the Interstate Freeway system has become more efficient (and cars more comfortable), sight-seeing road trips have taken a backseat to those travelling to get to a particular destination. As a result, the old reliable stopping places along the way have had to step up the razzle-dazzle in order to get travelers to pause for a bit and check things out.  In this context, it shouldn't surprise us to see a historic park playing up local ghost stories in order to bring in more travelers - and indeed, when I visited in October, of 2012, the entire place was done up with, frankly, very tacky prop skeletons and ghosts in order to advertise the various "haunted" events.

All of which makes it difficult to tease out what people have actually experienced from the hype.  Still, without the hype, I'd likely not have been made aware of the stories, so there is that for which one might be grateful.

The sign pointing to the ghost town, photographed after sunset

Sources:  Legends of America, Paranormal California, Calico Ghost Walk

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

So, you want to be a paranormal investigator?

This isn't a story, but it is relevant to this site in that I am routinely contacted by people who wish to conduct investigations at the locations described on this website.

I make no claim about being a paranormal researcher, but I have been trained as a scientist, and as such have learned how to think my way through an area of research, from initial data gathering to final interpretation, and I have seen that the vast, overwhelming majority of people going by the title "paranormal researcher" are not really doing research at all.  Their methods are sloppy, their data is shoddy, and their conclusions therefore are not very well founded.  There is a tendency to rely on tools without a clear explanation of their purpose, a failure to compensate for biases or ambiguities in data, and a general unwillingness to do the necessary background research.

But, it doesn't have to be this way.  While I am unpersuaded by most of what is given as evidence for ghosts, I am open to having my mind changed if someone can generate good evidence.  To that end, I have begun thinking through the ways in which a paranormal investigation should be conducted (based on the types of claims typically made and the types of hypotheses generally tested), and am putting the entries up on my other blog (as I think that the readership there would enjoy them).

The first part, which covers problems with data collection, posted a little while back, and it is available here.

The second part covers the pros and (mostly) cons of much of the measurement equipment that is carried into the field by investigators.  It is here.

The third part will get into issues of developing a field of study and how to go about doing so.  It is posted here.

Subsequent posts may be developed, and I will update this page when they do.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Witches' Trains AKA Zombie Trains

Witches trains, also known as zombie trains, are an element of the folklore of Southern Africa.  As the story goes, a person wandering alone at night may encounter a train, sometimes on an established track, sometimes simply moving along the landscape as if on a track despite the lack of rails,  that will stop for them.  If the unlucky wanderer boards the train, a conductor will ask whether they are seeking a "single" trip (one way) or a return trip. 

Answering "single" results in the unlucky passenger being killed and resurrected as a zombie, to spend their un-life doing the bidding of a witch or sorcerer.  Those who respond "return" will find themselves beaten, and then thrown from the train several miles away from where they boarded, often stranded with no clear means to return home.  

Commentary:  It needs to be made clear - the Zombie of African and Caribbean folklore is a different creature from the zombie of U.S. and European pop culture. 

In African and Caribbean folklore, the zombie may be someone who has actually died and been re-animated by a sorcerer or priest, or they may be someone who has never actually died but been made to look dead, and then had their soul captured by the sorcerer or priest.  Either way, the body is alive again, but without a mind or will of its own, and can be made to do the bidding of its master.  There are numerous accounts of former zombies being released, or otherwise re-gaining their minds/souls/wills, and leaving their masters.  And there is active debate as to just how much truth there may be to claims of pharmacological zombies - people put into a zombie state through the use of herbs or chemicals and used as slave labor by the people who prepared the concoctions.  A discussion of how much, if any, truth there is to these often sensationalized accounts is beyond the scope of this blog.  I would recommend that anyone interested start by reading materials available through groups such as National Geographic, and beware the frequent news accounts, which tend to dwell on the creepy or gruesome without critically examining the claims made.

The story of the zombie train appears to be tied into the concurrent development of railroads and European colonization.  Local folklore mixed with political realities in which the European colonists were oppressing the locals in a matter somewhat reminiscent of how a sorcerer oppresses his zombie slaves.  In post-colonial times, this story appears to have become attached to the development and enforcement of apartheid laws in South Africa, where a white minority held both de-facto and legal control over the lives and well beings of a large but subjugated black majority.  Moreover, both during the apartheid era, and following it, cheap workers from other locations were often brought in to work sites  by train rather than hiring local workers, leading to further impoverishment of local communities, the exploitation of migrants, and a distrust of outsidersm, making the zombie train a fearful thing both for migrants who fear becoming zombies, and for those who are displaced in the workforce by migrants, who they perceive as zombie-like. 

In a sense, this appears to be a case where political realities came to be reflected in the folklore.  An interesting, if disturbing, development.

Sources: Wikipedia, Blog

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Ghost of Marco Polo's Wife

After Polo returned from Asia to Italy, he was imprisoned, due to his involvement in a war then occurring between Venice and Genoa.  However, there are rumors that persist to this day, nearly 700 years after his death, that Marco Polo was imprisoned for reasons other than involvement in the war.  According to these rumors, he was imprisoned on the orders of the church, because he had married a non-Christian, the daughter of Kubla Kahn, Hao Dong.

According to these stories, Hao Dong came back to Italy with Marco Polo, but found the people to be unaccepting of her due to differences in appearance, religion, and language.  She became increasingly alienated from all but those closest to her, and became an effective shut-in.  Her only solace was Marco himself, and singing - she is said to have had a beautiful singing voice.

When Marco was arrested, his sister went to Hao Dong and told her that Marco had been executed.  In despair, Hao Dong lit her clothing on fire, and then jumped out of the house's window, into one of the Venetian canals, drowning herself.

It is said that people traveling along the canals at night can hear her singing, as if she was not ready to forgive the treachery of her sister-in-law or let go of her husband even centuries after his own death.

Commentary:  I was delighted to discover this ghost story.  Marco Polo was, by any standard, one of history's great adventurers.  His travels to China are, quite literally, the stuff of legend.  It is open to debate how many of the more fantastic elements of his writings were due to his claims, and how many were due to a writer to whom Marco Polo dictated his narrative.  This writer, Rusticcello, was a writer of romances (generally adventure stories) popular at the court, and it is concievable that, even if Polo had said everything accurately, it might have been embellished.  It is also possible that Polo did the embellishing, and Rusticcello took faithful dictation.  We'll likely never know.

However, even the more mundane elements of Marco Polo's books are sufficient to show that this was a man who lived a life the likes of which most of us would only ever dream of.  He travelled the world during a time when it was rare to travel far from your home town.  He spent time in the court of China during a time when most Europeans were only vaguely aware that this place called "China" even existed.  And then he returned to Europe to tell his story.

Given that there is a good deal of confusion regarding how much of Marco Polo's story is true vs. hullabaloo, it is only fitting that a ghost story would be associated with him that is likely far more myth than fact.

The historical record indicates that Marco Polo married a woman named Donata Badoer as his first and only wife, with whom he had three daughters.  There seems to be little more than rumor to suggest that he was married to Hao Dong, indicating that it probably did not occur.  Still, medieval record-keeping being what it was...

It should also be noted that the majority of references to this story are found on the websites for walking tours, suggesting that it may be of a more recent vintage than it's proponents would like to think, and that it may be more a product of tourism than paranormal activity.  Also, the claim that Hao Dong had lit herself on fire seems more consistent with a 1960s/70s view of Asia (when footage from the Vietnam War showed protestors setting themselves alight) than the expedient suicide of a heartbroken 14th century woman (also, if you wanted to burn yourself to death, why would you then jump into water?  Seems like there could be more about the story said here, but I have yet to see anything of the sort). 

Anyway, there seems to be some parallels between this story and two of my other favorites: La Llarona, and Paganini's Phantom Violin.  On the whole, it's a good story.

Sources:,, Stuff You Missed in History Class Podcast

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cock Lane, High Wycombe, England

Cock Lane in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England, is reputed to be haunted by at least one specter, maybe even two of them. In the 1980s and 1990s, people reported seeing a woman dressed in gray either walking or floating along the road, only to have her vanish.

On another occasion (described in the podcast linked below), a man was walking along the road late one night, and encountered someone in a hooded sweatshirt. Figuring that it was better to walk with someone else than alone, the man walked up alongside the other int he sweatshirt, and asked to walk with him.  The fellow in the sweatshirt crossed the road to get away from the man.  Trying again, the man walked to the sweat-shirted individual and again asked if they could walk together, only to see the silent pedestrian again cross the road to get away.  Finally, the original pedestrian demanded to know why the one int he sweatshirt was being so rude, and they turned to him, revealing only blackness under the hood of the sweatshirt.

Commentary:  The story of the pedestrian encountering a phantom is in most respects a fairly standard "encountered a ghost on the road" tale, elements of which are common from both pedestrian stories and phantom hitch-hiker tales.  The unwitting person going on about their normal business (walking/driving/working) encounters what they take to be a normal individual, normal individual does strange things/exhibits strange traits (avoiding the unwitting person/having very cold skin/speaking with a strange voice/etc.), and then the reveal, where the strange individual is revealed to be not human (they vanish/they turn and have no face/the unwitting person finds out that the person they encountered has been dead for decades). 

The other phantom people have reported is also interesting in that it is a grey lady - a common type of ghost sighting.  Women dressed in grey, usually in 19th/early 20th century garb, are reported throughout the English speaking world, and usually are part of a local tradition, being integrated into stories about warnings of disaster, lost loves, or unfinished business.  Although there are places where you will read that grey lady ghosts always accompany prophecies of doom, the truth is that most grey lady stories are just like this one, stories of a particular ghost that has no connection with any particular future event, but may be associated with past events.

Sources: Paranormal Database, Anything Ghost Podcast

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Allegedly Haunted House Party, Hull, England

Neighbors of a rented house in Hull, England, have long complained of the noise of partiers and loud music cranked up late into the night.  Worse, the garden of the house has been covered in trash (largely empty alcohol bottles) which had a tendency to end up in other people's yards as well. 

When confronted by neighbors, Leanne Fennell, the 20-year old woman who rented the house and resided there with her young daughter, claimed that the loud noises were the result of a poltergeist.  She claimed that she would be in bed at night, only to hear the stereo turned up loudly, and that her attempts to get the ghost under control resulted only in further mischief.

the young woman was cited, and ordered to pay 875 pounds to the council, which she failed to do.  She has now been taken to court.

While I get the desire for a poltergeist to turn up the stereo - after all, the term poltergeist is a German word meaning "noisy ghost" - it's tendency to empty alcohol bottles and dump them in the yard is rather more confusing.  Perhaps it is unclear on what the term "intoxicating spirit" is supposed to mean.

Commentary:  History is full of examples of people concocting ghost stories to cover up for their own misdeeds.  The Amityville Case is probably the most gruesome and notable, but more minor cases are not uncommon. 

While this particular story seems especially silly (honestly, it wasn't me making the!  Yeah, it's a haunted house party, that's the ticket!), it's no more so than the Amityville case (it just seems sillier because of the relatively trivial nature of the infringement: loud parties vs. multiple murders), nor is it really all that different of the many non-newsworthy cases where people blame missing car keys or other items on impish spirits. 

Although it is likely that this is just an example of Fennell being in a tight spot and coming up with the first excuse that came to mind (a very stupid excuse, really), there is always the possibility that she has managed to convince herself that it is true.  Weird thing about human memory, we can convince ourselves of the truth of all manner of outlandish things, no matter how absurd. 

Incidentally, I once lived next door to two kids attending the local community college who would have all-night, loud parties, and never seemed to grasp that their neighbors might object.  I kind of wish they had claimed that ghosts were responsible - it wouldn't have kept me from calling the police, but it would have at least given me a better story to tell my friends.

Sources:  IO9, This is Hull and Reading

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Isla de las Munecas

On Teshuilo Lake in the Xochimilco canals in Mexico's Federal District, there is a strange little island, now known as Isla de las Munecas (Island of the Dolls).  It was once the home of a very eccentric hermit, and it is his decidedly odd legacy that the island is covered with dolls, many of them hanging from tree branches. 

Don Julian Santana left his family and home (which, as far as I can tell was a nice home where he had a wife and child) and decided to go to live on a small island in the canal district of Xochimilco.  Stories vary as to how he became convinced that the ghost of a young girl haunted his island - some say that one of a trio of girls drowned here in the 1930s, others say that he witnessed a girl drowning but was unable to save her, and some simply say that he had become convinced without reason that a girl had drowned there - but regardless, he was convinced that he shared the island with the ghost of a little girl who he felt must be appeased.

In order to appease the spirit of the girl, and some stories say to protect himself from her, Don Julian began to collect dolls that he found floating in the river (it was near towns, and so finding garbage of various sorts in the river was not uncommon), and would sometimes take them from garbage dumps in the towns that he would occasionally visit.  He would hang these dolls from the trees, creating a strange, and rather creepy, landmark.  He would also collect other toys, placing them around the island, but dolls remained the most prominent.

After a time, people began to bring him dolls in payment for the vegetables that he grew in his garden, and he would also generate income by selling these, as well as giving tours of the island for a fee.

The ultimate fate of Don Julian is not clear.  While it is generally agreed that he died, likely by drowning, there are many conflicting dates for this event.  Most stories agree, though, that he drowned at the same spot in which he was convinced that the girl had drowned.

Commentary:  This is an odd story.  While there is definitely a ghost story element - the drowned girl's spirit being the impetus for Don Julian to collect the dolls and other toys and display them in the very weird fashion in which he did so - the thing that grabs our attention about this story is the weird-ass collection and display of the dolls themselves rather than the ghost story portion. 

And it is weird and creepy.  Isla de las Munecas has attracted many a photographer (and some great photos can be found here and here), and it is easy to see why.  The strange display of dolls hanging from trees, buildings, clothesline, etc. makes for a deeply surreal experience, and while I have never taken LSD, I wonder if I need to after having seen those photos. 

The island has become something of a tourist attraction in its own right, and now boasts a bar where one can do shots while pondering the nuttiness of Don Julian.  It's been a while since I was last in Mexico, but this does make me kind of want to take a trip there.  Perhaps, in a couple of years when life has stabilized a bit, I will be able to head on down there and take in the strangeness of this place.

Special Video Bonus:

La Isla de las Muñecas (with english subtitles) from Garupa Filmes on Vimeo.

Sources:  I09, Atlas Obscura, Boing-Boing, How Stuff Works, Michael Demeng's Blog

Friday, January 6, 2012

Del Rey Cemetery, Sanger, CA

Del Rey Cemetery, also known simply as Sanger Cemetery, is the final resting place for the good people of Sanger, California, in southern Fresno County.  

Local lore holds that whispering can be heard when nobody is present, and a strange moaning sound has been reported.   Many visitors have also reported cold spots, which may move.

Stories hold that one of the tombstones glows at night, though what this signifies is unknown.

Commentary:  This is, in most respects, a fairly standard haunted cemetery story.  The whispered voices, the shadow figures, etc.

One feature that is odd, though, is the glowing tombstone.  This is an interesting claim that shows up in a few different haunted cemetery stories throughout the U.S., most notably in Benton Kentucky and in Springtown Texas.  In many cases, it has been found that the tombstone is reflecting light from passing cars or a nearby stable source (such as a house, streetlight, etc.).  In other cases the tombstone is rumored to be somewhere, but the specific tombstone is never mentioned in any of the stories, leading would-be witnesses to wander the cemetery trying to find it. 

Although the folklore of the glowing tombstone seems to be more common in the American south and midwest, this is a good example of it from California.

I recently visited the cemetery, and the photos included on this page are from my visit.

Sources:  The Illustrious Internet, The Illustrious Internet, Weird Fresno