Walking With a Ghost | Rising interest in ghosts prompts investigation of Santa Cruz's spooky history | By Julie Eng, City on a Hill Press | Illustrations by Bela Messex

[Illustration of Brookdale Lodge.]
Illustration by Bela Messex.
[Illustration of a ghost girl.]
Illustration by Bela Messex.

“You know how when someone stands close to you, you can feel it? It’s like that. Or it’s a static energy-type feeling, that’s what makes your hair stand up,” Nancy Bowmen described.

The co-founder of Paranormal Zone TV (PZTV) is certainly qualified to describe the presence of a ghost. Since she predicted her father’s death at the age of nine, Bowmen has had numerous experiences with paranormal entities, including witnessing two full-body apparitions and developing a personal relationship with Sarah Logan of the Brookdale Lodge, one of Santa Cruz’s most famous ghosts.

For Bowmen, investigating supernatural activities is not just a job but a deeply rooted passion that is evident in her willingness to express her belief in ghosts with an emphatic “yes.” Her interest can be traced back to a paranormal incident from her childhood.

“I was sitting on the lawn with a girlfriend and I was picking at the grass — but you know, when you’re … doing something mundane, and you kind of go blank in your mind?” Bowmen said. “In a heartbeat I got this little message. I couldn’t hear a voice but it was like a message, telepathically, saying, ‘Your father is going to die.’ And a week later, he passed away. I really think it was what you would call your guide which prepared me. I looked at my girlfriend and told her, ‘My dad’s gonna die. My dad’s gonna die.’”

Since then, Bowmen’s interest in the supernatural has evolved from a hobby to a profession. She worked individually as well as with various ghost hunting organizations before joining PZTV as a co-founder. Though the group doesn’t operate specifically within Santa Cruz County, they are among the many paranormal investigation groups throughout California that have come to the area to search for its famous ghosts. The town does have its fair share of paranormal investigators — Bowmen’s colleagues at Santa Cruz Ghost Hunters share the field with the Santa Cruz Paranormal team, and haunted hot spots in the region have attracted investigators and researchers for years.

Santa Cruz’s ghostly history goes back as far as Native American legend, and the stories of an Ohlone tribe curse have endured to this day. However, it’s the Brookdale Lodge that really put the county on the map. The hotel, which was originally built in 1870 as the headquarters of a lumber mill, was host to stars like Marilyn Monroe and mobsters in its heyday. Brookdale was named the most haunted place in California by Haunted America Tours, and has appeared on numerous TV shows. In addition to Paranormal Zone TV, it’s been featured on “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Sightings,” and is believed to be host to 49 individual entities. One of Santa Cruz’s most famous haunts, the lodge has put Santa Cruz on the radar of the increasingly large number of people interested in the paranormal.

According to recent polls, the number of Americans who believe in ghosts is on the rise. In 2003, a Harris Poll online survey put the number at 51 percent. This is up significantly from a 1978 Gallup poll, which found only 11 percent of respondents saying they believed.

Maryanne Porter, co-founder of Santa Cruz Ghost Hunters, weighs in on the skeptical side, but a lifelong fascination with all things paranormal has led her on her current mission: to track down the ghosts of Santa Cruz.

“I wouldn’t say I don’t believe,” Porter said. “I am skeptical when we do investigations, because I don’t want to believe every little bump in the night is a ghost. I go into it with an open mind. But I do have beliefs, I definitely do, that there is something more out there — we just can’t see it with the naked eye.”

Porter had already investigated 12 of the city’s famous haunts before she joined fellow Santa Cruz County resident Deena Smith to form their group. Though they have received requests to investigate anomalies outside the county, Porter said the group has no plans to travel because “there’s enough here.”

The city’s history is rich with ghosts and unexplained phenomena, though some of the stories have deeper roots than others. Geoffrey Dunn, local author, historian and UC Santa Cruz graduate and former community studies lecturer, has high standards for authentic Santa Cruz ghosts.

“I’m sure you can get other people who might say something different — and God bless them — but for me, I stay away from what I see as that fluffy, haunted history in favor of real history, and real ghosts, that linger over the community,” he said.

Long pauses punctuate Dunn’s stories as the fourth-generation Santa Cruzan digs deep to recall the stories he said everyone knew — “if you were local.”

Dunn recalls several ghosts that have their origins in local history, but the ones that pique his interest most are the victims of Santa Cruz’s bloody history with minority residents.

“The ghosts that I feel haunt Santa Cruz are those of the two Californios who were hanged off the Water Street Bridge,” he said. “For me, that has always been a haunted place.”

This oral history, which Dunn has documented in his writings on the area, was the last lynching of Californios — natives of Spanish, Mexican, Indian or mixed heritage — in Santa Cruz. In May 1877, Francisco Arias and José Chamales, both suspected of murder, were hanged from the Water Street bridge by amob of Santa Cruzans. The two men were given an opportunity to say their last words and take a final shot of whiskey before they were killed.

This, Dunn says, exemplifies the “vigilante activity and oppression against newcomers here, particularly people of color,” that took place in California in the second half of the 19th century.

“[There is] a history of what was a very real genocide against the native peoples here,” Dunn explained. “So I do believe that that real history haunts this community, and in many ways defines the community.”

One specific aspect of this history is the abuses Native Americans suffered at the hands of missionaries.

“Particularly at the Santa Cruz Mission, the treatment was pretty bad,” he said. “There were some evil padres there, and I think a lot of people consider the city and particularly Mission Hill to be haunted because of the treatment of those native peoples.”

At least one local legend tells of the hanging of one of the mission’s priests by the Native Americans after he allegedly raped a woman. His ghost is said to haunt the area.

Like Dunn, Jennifer Nelson of Santa Cruz Paranormal (SCP) doesn’t deal with “fluffy” ghosts.

“It isn’t so much that we’re looking for ghosts, or spirits, or the stereotypical bare-footed woman dressed in white,” said Nelson, a recent UCSC graduate and co-founder of SCP. “It’s the idea that people seem to be experiencing things, and seem to be experiencing kind of a similar description of things. So what we’re looking for is not necessarily ghosts or spirits, but the perception [of them]. What can we see, what can we analyze, and what are people experiencing? And what is the difference between the two?”

Nelson and co-founder Christian Sacoolas began their careers as ghost hunters somewhat on a whim. In her third year at UCSC, Nelson and Sacoolas entered the SyFy channel’s national “Pair-anormal Contest” on its last day in an effort to forestall a homework assignment for a few more hours. Though both had long been interested in the paranormal, neither had much experience with ghost hunting beyond watching the station’s most popular show, “Ghost Hunters.” The couple put together a short video, which was judged by The Atlantic Paranormal Society and SyFy “Ghost Hunter” co-stars Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. The video was assessed on the basis of the team’s passion for paranormal research, group chemistry and their understanding of investigation techniques.

The couple won the competition and was dubbed the “Next Great Ghost-Hunting Duo.” With the title came $10,000 worth of ghost-hunting equipment, which the team unwrapped en route to their first investigation. Among the group’s new tools were an infrared camera system, a security system used to catch anomalies, and HD Sony cameras with night shot. The group christened their brand-new equipment with a night in a haunted house in Santa Cruz County — and they have the footage of a self-opening garage door to prove they weren’t alone.

“The notion of what these people are telling us they’ve experienced, that’s definitely running through your head when you’re sitting in that room by yourself and there is something that’s supposed to have happened, like a … really loud banshee-esque scream, that can get unnerving sometimes,” Sacoolas said.

Bowmen acknowledges that not all ghosts communicate in a friendly manner. Treating the dead with the respect ordinarily reserved for the living is an important aspect of Bowmen’s beliefs regarding ghost hunting, and a key ingredient in successful communication with spirits.

“It’s just like me talking to you,” she said of how ghosts often communicate. “And that’s why we say, have respect, these are people too. You don’t want to go into somebody’s house and just start yelling at them. You wouldn’t like that if somebody did that to you. They’re people.”

Though she warns against provoking ghosts or getting involved with negative spirits, Bowmen says interacting with ghosts is not usually a scary task.

However, she emphasizes the importance of exercising caution. Recalling an investigation at the Brookdale Lodge of a room believed to be inhabited by an Italian ghost, Bowmen describes how a fellow ghost hunter was injured by a spirit after calling out culturally offensive taunts.

“He heard something screaming in his ear,” she said. “Then it punched him in the eye and hit him in the back of the head, and he went down on his knees, weeping. And he’s a big guy, 6-foot-2.”

Another well-known piece of Santa Cruz history spawned an enduring ghost story and leads Dunn to mention the UCSC campus first when listing haunted spots in the town. The death of Henry Cowell’s daughter Sarah on the original property several miles above campus is the source for a story used to frighten Cowell College freshmen to this day.

Gabe Arden, a third-year psychology major from Cowell, remembers hearing the story at a Barnstorm Production. According to Arden, Sarah’s ghost haunts the Barn Theater, and actors have to thank her “or else bad things will happen.” Similarly, a Myspace profile for the theater building cites the presence of the ghost of Sarah Cowell, but refers to her as Henry Cowell’s wife.

Arden has the facts mostly right, though key details have been lost over many retellings since the school opened in 1965. Dunn points out that the “Haunted Meadow,” which Cowell students have visited in years past as a rite of passage, was not the actual scene of Sarah’s demise. And a Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper clipping from the day of the accident reveals she was a passenger in a cart and fell to her death when the vehicle hit a rock.

While a 1976 term paper housed in the Special Collections of McHenry Library shows the Cowell story in its various retellings over the years, no factual record exists of the rumored ghosts of Porter College.

According to fourth-year literature major Peter Hunter, there is a good reason for the lack of documentation of Porter’s ghosts. Though the stories have withstood the test of time, some important details cast their accuracy into question.

“The old rumor was that someone jumped off the then-nonexistent fifth floor of Porter A Building, and that said student supposedly haunted that floor thereafter,” Hunter said in an e-mail. “This was a myth only believed by those outside Porter, because anyone who knew anything about Porter at that time knew that A building had only four floors.”

He remembers a similar rumor concerning the basement level of B Building, also known as “the batcave,” where “a student apparently ended their life in its seldom-used bathroom, and haunted it thereafter.”

While the rumors of campus ghosts remain unproven, one of Santa Cruz’s paranormal hot spots draws visitors from across the country hoping to catch a glimpse of its most famous boarders. The Brookdale Lodge, a historic hotel a few miles outside the city, houses up to 49 individual paranormal entities, according to the numerous investigators who have paid the landmark a visit.

Among them is Paranormal Zone TV co-founder Bowmen, who has cultivated a personal relationship with the lodge’s most well known paranormal resident. A little girl named Sarah Logan who is said to have drowned in the indoor creek of the hotel’s restaurant has been seen and heard by numerous witnesses, but none except Bowmen claim Sarah knows them by name.

“Investigators call out, ‘Sarah, Nancy’s here,’ and then on the recorder you hear ‘Where’s Nancy?’ all excited,” Bowmen said, laughing. She adds that she often brings toys for the girl, and proudly says that Sarah always communicates.

Far from sounding scared, Bowmen speaks affectionately of Sarah Logan, almost as one would of her own — living — children. “I love it when she talks to me,” she said.

Though her belief in ghosts has been long-standing, Bowmen said her changed religious views have been more recent, and partly a result of her work in the field. While some owners of haunted homes opt to keep the spirit around, others require special efforts on the ghost hunters’ part, which can mean a religious ritual for the Paranormal Zone team.

Bowmen describes the need for a blessing to remove “dark” spirits, those who won’t leave when asked.

“I do believe there is a god, or whatever you want to call it, a higher power,” she said. “You do need to call on it for protection when you do an investigation, and you can call on it to help clear [a ghost].”

Whether or not the resident is welcoming of a ghostly inhabitant, Nelson of SCP says that receiving more information or validation of the spirit’s presence can help provide closure.

“People are scared to talk to each other about it, and then we come in and we find very odd things similar to their experience,” Nelson said. “It helps them to recognize and accept what’s happening to them.” Although Nelson acknowledges that there are naysayers who dismiss any stories regarding the paranormal, she says that people should not be discouraged to come forward with their experiences.

“‘Do I think that it’s Satan or demons or spirits, or is it great-grandma?’” asked Nelson. “You know, I’m not sure. But do people feel creeped out, or scared in the house? Yes. We want to hear their stories. We want to reach them where they’re at. You’re not crazy — this is happening to multiple people.”

Like Nelson, Bowmen seeks to provide explanations for the supernatural experiences that increasingly large numbers of people have recognized and taken an interest in.

“If you understand it, and you know that ghosts won’t hurt you, they’re just people, they’re like us, it just gets in your blood,” she said. “You just gotta go out there. It’s like a rush. But at the same time, our curiosity is getting us. We want to know what it’s like. We want to know what’s on the other side.”