If you’re in the San Jose area looking for famous haunted places, then the Toys R Us in Sunnyvale may be second in reputation only to the Winchester House. The recent announcement that Toys R Us will be closing all of its stores nationwide, having succumbed to bankruptcy, has inspired me to revisit this alleged haunting which was popularized on the 1980s variety show That’s Incredible. For decades, there have been rumors of customers and staff members having strange experiences inside the store. Overnight, toys are moved from shelves and piled on the floor in bizarre configurations. There’s often the sensation of being watched by invisible eyes. In the women’s restroom, the water taps may turn on spontaneously or ghostly hands might stroke your hair.
These strange occurrences were investigated starting as far back as 1978. The most best known inquiries were done by the late Sylvia Browne, a professional psychic as famous for self-promotion as she was for being a dubious prognosticator. You might remember that Browne completely immolated her reputation over the 2002 Shawn Hornbeck abduction case. Shawn was an 11-year-old victim of a stranger abduction in Missouri. Hornbeck was missing for four years when he was miraculously recovered by police looking for a separate kidnapped boy. Browne, who was a regular guest on the Montel Williams Show, did a “reading” about the Hornbeck case four months after the boy vanished and was wrong on almost every detail. More heartbreaking, Browne stated on the show that Hornbeck was dead. That must’ve been horrifying for his parents to hear. When your child’s missing like that, all you have to cling to is hope. Certainly the Hornbecks must’ve thought about their son’s fate all the time, but for anyone to state it as fact in such a public forum... terrible!
In hindsight, Browne’s excursions to the Toys R Us were just as much bullshit. Perhaps to silence her detractors, Browne produced a now infamous photo of a tall, thin man leaning against a wall behind the seance members. The man was not part of the seance party, Browne insisted, his form only showing up in one photo taken with an infrared camera. During this same seance, Browne claimed that she identified the thin man with the less-than-inventive name “Johnny Johnson.” Johnny was a suitably tragic figure right out of the professional psychic’s handbook. A poor immigrant farmhand, he was heart-broken when the beautiful rich girl he loved chose to marry a man most suitable to her station. Shortly thereafter, Johnson hurt himself with an axe while working in the orchards that once stood where the Toys R Us now resides and died from resulting the infection.
While the details of Johnny’s life sound a lot like the plot from a bad romance novel, what about that famous photograph? Again, we’re reliant only on Browne’s word about how the photo was taken and there are some obvious problems, including that the man appears to be wearing modern dress (not that of a 19th century farmhand) and is throwing a shadow on the floor (something a ghost would be unlikely to do). I am not posting the photos here since I do not own the rights to them, but you can easily find them online by searching for “Johnny Johnson ghost photos.”
Despite the Johnny Johnston story, it’s entirely possible that strange things have occurred in the Sunnyvale Toys R Us over the past four decades. At the very least, it wouldn’t be the first toy store that boasted of a ghost. The juxtaposition of such a mundane and comforting place having a spooky supernatural side is tremendously alluring for us human beings. It’s why so many similar venues, be they bookstores, theaters, amusement parks etc., are also thought to be haunted. Let’s face it, shopping for toys becomes even more fun if you think you’re being watched by the spirit of a lovesick farmhand, trapped forever among its plastic, neon-colored plastic merchandise.
Now doesn’t it?
If you grew up in Tucson, Arizona, during the 1970s and 80s, and were inclined to play miniature golf, Magic Carpet Golf was really your best choice. Located on Speedway Boulevard near Wilmot, it was not the city's only course, but it was the most authentic.
Designed in 1968 by Lee Koplin, the crazy artistic genius who built all kinds of miniature golf courses and roadside attractions starting just after World War II, the grounds were what I imagine the inside of Tim Burton's head must look like. Magic Carpet was an over-sized repository of kitschy Americana, right up there with roadside dinosaurs and cigar store Indians. The place teemed with strange concrete decorations — including a giant monkey with a swinging tail; a rampant bull with bulging eyes and lethal-looking horns; and an Easter Island mo'ai so large you could climb up its innards for a nighttime view of the surrounding city. And whether you considered these strange edifices to be art, architecture or just crap, they were a uniquely American invention which provided a uniquely entertaining mini golf experience.
During my childhood and teen years, I visited Magic Carpet regularly without ever knowing its pedigree. By the time I had kids of my own, age and lack of maintenance meant the two courses were an often dangerous thicket where masses of cactus overgrew the pathways and low-hanging tree branches tore at you from above. The strange menagerie which lived there had also lost much of its sheen. Concrete skins had begun to chip away, revealing the rebar and chicken wire skeletons beneath. Nothing had been repainted in years, unless you counted the several layers of graffiti. As the place continued to deteriorate, it became both sad and fascinating. Suddenly, you weren't just playing miniature golf — you were an urban explorer unlocking the mysteries of mid-twentieth century "roadside art."
Clearly, most Tucsonans didn't share my fascination because the last few times I went we had the place to ourselves save for the aging owner and a teenage employee who did everything from run the concession stand to repair the video game consoles. When the owner passed away in 2008, the era of Magic Carpet golf ended with him. A group of dedicated citizens rallied to save as many of the concrete statues as they could. The aforementioned mo'ai ended up on Fourth Avenue as the gateway to a popular nightclub. Others were sold to private residences or found an equally weird home at another local oddity, The Valley of the Moon.
Years after the golf course was demolished and turned into a parking lot for a local car dealership, my sister told me she had found the bug-eyed bull in her neighborhood. By that time I was living in Oregon however and quickly forgot about him. This past Christmas however, I went looking.
Hidden on a side street behind a Brake Masters and a massage parlor, there he was! He emerged from the trees like the minotaur bearing down on Theseus. (Wait, does that make me Theseus in this scenario? Never mind.) Honestly, I didn't even see him until I was practically on top of him. The Irish steakhouse whose parking lot he festoons is now closed and abandoned, so once again the bull is an orphan to time. The irony of this was not lost on me but it was still good seeing him. He looks well and he gave me a few gentle moments to remember all the fun I'd had at his former home. I don't know where he'll go from here. Hopefully there's a kind, nostalgic heart out there who's willing to give him another shot.
Back in December 2016, I went hiking with two of my best friends to Seven Falls, a natural area located just north of my home town of Tucson, Arizona. At first blush, such a thing would hardly seem blog-worthy, but for me it was highly cathartic. Before I reached my 50th birthday, which would happen two months later, I was making it a point to reconcile myself with a few things that had happened to me in the previous decades. This had been an ongoing process, started in earnest after I had left Arizona for Oregon in 2010. My reasons for leaving my home state were varied and complicated and I won’t bother addressing them here. But suffice to say that I left behind some unfinished business. In the author’s vernacular, these were incomplete stories, needing just a few more sentences before I could put them away for good.
Thus the hike to Seven Falls.
It’s been my tradition to share ghost stories and spooky legends on my blog for the Halloween season. Now that October is officially upon us, I’m decided to look at stories which originated in my own back yard — on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, Oregon.
American universities are rife with ghost stories, many of them remarkably similar in their details. Usually these are tragic tales of aggrieved or grieving coeds who are either brutally slain, die in freak accidents, or take their own lives in particularly horrible ways. Some are thinly veiled morality tales about how sex, drugs, alcohol and even poor grades will lead to suffering and death.
The two OSU ghost stories which intrigued me centered around Sackett Hall, a sprawling dormitory located near the campus’s epicenter. Both of the ghosts in question were of murdered women. One was allegedly butchered by an infamous serial killer in the dorm basement; the other by a fellow student in her own bed. At first blush, both stories seemed to be simple retellings of common urban legends, but I wanted to know if there was any truth behind them.
I found much more than I expected
The Serial Killer
Of the Sackett Hall legends, the one about the basement was easier to research and document, although details have become skewed over the years. The legend claims that Ted Bundy, a murderer, cannibal and necrophiliac who stalked college campuses in the early 1970s, had lured a girl into the catacombs below the dorm. The story was partially true, as a Sackett Hall resident named Roberta “Kathy” Parks was abducted by Bundy outside the building on May 6, 1974.
Ann Rule's famous biography about Bundy, THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, provides an intriguing account of Kathy's last day on Earth:
The next girl to walk away forever lived in Oregon. Nineteen days after Susan Rancourt vanished — on May 6th — Roberta Kathleen (Kathy) Parks had spent an unhappy and guilt-ridden day in her room in Sackett Hall on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, 250 miles south of Seattle. I knew Sackett Hall; I'd lived there myself when I attended one term at O.S.U. back in the 1950s, a huge, modern dormitory complex on a campus that was then considered a ‘cow college.’ Even then, when the world didn’t seem to be so fraught with danger, none of us would ever go to the snack machines in the cavernous basement corridors alone at night.
Kathy Parks wasn't very happy at Oregon State. She was homesick for Lafayette, California, and she’d broken up with her boyfriend who'd left for Louisiana. On May 4th, Kathy had argued in a phone call with her father, and, on May 6th, she learned that he'd suffered a massive heart attack. Her sister had called her from Spokane, Washington, with the news of their father's coronary, and then called back some hours later to say that it looked as though he would survive.
Kathy, whose major was world religions, felt a little better after the second call, and she agreed to join some of the other residents of Sackett Hall in an exercise session in the dorm lounge.
Shortly before eleven, the tall slender girl with long ash-blond hair left Sackett Hall to meet some friends for coffee in the Student Union Building. She promised her roommate she would be back within the hour. Wearing blue slacks, a navy blue top, a light green jacket, and platform sandals, she left Sackett for the last time.
Kathy never made the Student Union Building. Like the others, all of her possessions were left behind: her bike, clothing, cosmetics. [pp, 67-68]
So although Parks was abducted outside Sackett and probably killed at an entirely different location altogether, the history behind the haunting legend still had a firm basis in fact. But what about the girl murdered in her bed? Was this also based on a real incident?
On the discussion page for my novel The Men in the Trees, I have a variety of photos from an Arizona ghost town called Vulture City. Over the years, visitors have asked about the town and its mine so I've created this synopis of the area's history, legends and what you can expect when visiting one of the best preserved frontier communities in Arizona. It should be noted that the images and experiences shared here are from 2009, when my son Myles and I spent the better part of a day exploring the townsite.
The Beginning of Vulture City
Like many of the state's mining towns, the story behind Vulture City is an amalgam of fact, fiction and falsities. According to legend, the town's origins began in 1862 when a prosector named Henry Wickenburg shot a vulture while out hunting. Where the bird dropped to the ground, Wickenburg discovered some spectacular quartz formations infused with gold and promptly established a claim to the area. Although the dead vulture part of this story is most likely an affectation, Wickenburg's instincts about the quartz were spot on and the mine eventually became the most profitable gold producer in Arizona.
Wickenburg sold his controlling interest in the mine to Benjamin Phelps and a group of investors in 1866. Under Phelp's supervision, it is estimated that the Vulture produced $2.5 million in gold (or roughly $60 million in today’s dollars), with almost as much being snuck out by the miners and their corrupt foremen. The theft of raw gold was mentioned in The Men in the Trees in a conversation between Meryl and Rose (pp. 86-87):
Meryl exhaled slowly. “Okay, then. Let’s say you actually find the mine, which would be like finding a needle in a haystack I think, but let’s say you do it. Then what? I doubt if the U.S. government is going to let you go in there and dig out any gold. It’s a national forest, after all.”
“What if they don’t know about it?”
“Well, this mine is in the middle of nowhere. Who’s going to notice some old coot like me carrying out some ore in my backpack? It happened all the time during the frontier days. Miners would stuff a nugget or two into their boot and walk out with it. It was called ‘high-grading the gold.’”
“And if they caught you, they’d hang you?”
“And what would they do to you today?”
“Prison, I imagine,” Rose said with a casual shrug.
“High-grading” was such a persistent problem at the Vulture mine that there was actually a "hanging tree" on site for those who were caught. The tree was still around when Myles and I visited the site.
The mine changed hands again in 1878, being sold to a man named James Seymour who quickly identified another gold-rich vein and further increased profits. During this same era, Vulture became an important rest-stop in an otherwise unbroken stretch of desert. By the 1890s, the site included many houses, dormitories, an assayer's office, a general store, a post office and a school. At its height, the town was home to 5,000 people.
I'd heard of Ashland, Oregon, long before I visited it. Its Shakespeare festival, which runs February through November, has a international reputation and is often mentioned in the same breath as Stratford-on-Avon, where the plays originated. I can't say I'm a devotee of The Bard's work, but I have seen and enjoyed enough of his plays to jump at the chance to visit Ashland at the height of the festival. It was road trip time, down through the winding hills and thick forests of Oregon to just a few miles north of the California border. My anticipation was high, but my expectations of finding costumed denizens and live jousting ala a Renaissance Faire turned out to be very different from my experience.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is a celebration of live theater. But a word of caution about this... If you intend to see Shakespeare performed in the classical Elizabethan style, read the play descriptions carefully or you may be disappointed. Some of plays reengineer Shakespeare, placing them in times and places far removed from what the playwright had imagined. The performance I attended of Romeo and Juliet was an excellent example. Set in 1840's Alta California (a Spanish colonial province which is today the combined area of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah), the performance suffered from a unique case of split personality disorder. I'm still trying to wrap my head around actors delivering their Elizabethan lines in thick Mexican accents; or punctuating an impactful monologue with the occasional Spanish word as if only to reinforce how this version of Romeo and Juliet was so very different. Judging by the recurring snickers from the audience, I wasn't the only one who found this, well, ineffective.
Fear not. If altered Shakespeare isn't your cup of tea, the OSF and Ashland provide plenty of other live theater choices. In fact, we had twelve different options ranging from other Shakespeare titles to off-Broadway productions. The selection reinforced Ashland's catchphrase: "Come for four days, see four plays." With performances running continually in a lavish complex of both indoor and outdoor theaters, you could actually see more than four if you had the inclination and the money.
When I tired of Shakespeare, I strolled the downtown area which, in many ways, reminded me of Sedona in Arizona's Verde Valley. Most of the businesses were upscale boutiques, creekside cafés and art galleries with a strong hippie vibe. The penchant for live performances spilled out onto the sidewalks, where everyone from teenaged crooners to stringed quartets to transients with broken ukuleles vied for attention and tips. The heart of the downtown area is Lithia Park. Dating from early twentieth century, the park was designed as a tranquil refuge where urban dwellers could enjoy the arts, explore nature and ponder their existence. It was also the most visible expression of the Chautauqua educational movement, which strived to bring culture and beauty to America's more rural areas. A century later, Ashland still embraces Chautauqua and it was gratifying to see such large crowds (and so many children and teenagers) attending the plays, hiking the nature paths or listening to music. In the era of Jersey Shore and Twilight, it seems like America needs a good dose of Chautauqua. Kudos to Ashland for providing it!
For more on Ashland and the chautauqua movement, see my articles on the Oceanscape Network.
If you grew up during the 80s and 90s, chance are shopping malls played a pivotal role in your adolescence. Regardless of whether you were actually shopping (honestly, I and my teenage brethren did very little of that), malls were an important gathering place akin to medieval Europe’s village square or the agora during Classical times. They were a place to see and be seen; to catch up on news both vital and mundane; or enjoy a good meal or some form of entertainment. They were a place where you could feel included in a group — even when you were surrounded by strangers. They became such an intrinsic part of our consumer society that they had a regular place in popular culture, whether as a haven from zombie hoards, the site of a zany family comedy, or the glittering backdrop for teenage love. Not only did I spend a great deal of my teens and early 20s hanging out in malls, I even worked in one for two years, as did my sister and most of my friends.
The malls in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona, have gone through their share of ups and downs. Some are posh, others more blue collar. Some are so choked with people you can barely manuever through their walkways; others have such a small clientele you wonder how they even stay in business. Regardless of what kind of mall it is or who they cater to, there’s a truth looming over them all — their days are numbered.
A good example is the El Con Mall in Tucson. When I returned home this past December, I was stunned to find the city’s first and once most prominent mall had been replaced by a collection of free-standing big box stores. All traces of the indoor passageways which once connected businesses — and people — had been completely eradicated. Ironically, this is close to how the El Con area appeared before the mall was erected in 1965. In that year, enclosed and air-cooled avenues were constructed between the pre-existing buildings and dozens more businesses were added. Even the names of many of those businesses harken back to the Golden Age of Malls: Orange Julius, Walden Books, Chess King, Things Remembered...
El Con reigned supreme for years until newer malls siphoned off its customer base. There was an attempt to revive El Con in the early 2000s. Many of the 60’s-era structures were bulldozed and replaced with a state-of-the-art theater, a Home Depot and a circular food court which never served a single meal because it never had a single tenant. By 2012, this empty food court was being destroyed to make room for more big box stores and the rest of the mall would soon follow. (To read more about El Con's history, click here.)
So why does any of this matter? It's just a mall, after all. Well, in the larger scheme of things it doesn't. It is just a mall, but it's demise / transformation says a few things about our larger society, I think.
I’ve written other blogs about the changing buying habits of the American consumer, particularly as it relates to books. (See Haunted By Bookshops... Everywhere!) But the gradual extinction of malls isn't just about how we're shopping, it's about how we're socializing.
After all, malls may have only been a fixture in American society for the past thirty or forty years — but they played a huge role in the early lives of Gen Xers and Millennials, or those of us born between the years of 1965 and 1992. Today however, they do not appear to play any significant role in the social lives of teens. Or at least not of any of the teens I know. Most young people I'm friends with prefer to do their shopping online if at all possible — and that's how they prefer to socialize too. A trip to the mall is no longer an anticipated weekend outing with friends or family. If anything it's considered drudgery.
But in exchanging physical gathering places for virtual ones, we’ve also deprived ourselves of the simple human pleasure of seeing and interacting with each other face-to-face in large numbers. In doing so, we’re inadvertently put an end to a tradition which goes back a lot further than just a generation or two.
Related Feature: Abandoned Malls and the Urban Explorer
In the past few years, there have been numerous articles written about the deaths of malls, and how these abandoned structures have become popular haunts for photographers and urban explorers alike.
This past December, as I wandered through the vacant space between Super Target and Burlington Coat Factory which was once the El Con Mall in Tucson, Arizona, I did feel a little sad. Malls had played a pretty important role in my young adult years (see my blog Farewell to the Mall for more), and it seemed somehow inappropriate that Tucson's first such venue was now define by an empty space. Even more disappointing for the urban explorer in me was that I'd missed the opportunity to photograph El Con as an abandoned place before it met its doom beneath the tracks of a bulldozer.
Fortunately, the photo documentation of abandoned shopping malls is a popular pasttime now and there are numerous online features which offer haunting and nostalgic looks back at what was a centerpiece of American culture during the 1980s and 90s particularly. Toward that end, I'm listing a few of the best photo essays I could find below:
If you've crept through the empty hulk of a shopping mall and would like to share any of your images here for others to enjoy, please email them here. You must be the copyright owner of the photograph(s) and give me written permission to use it in this blog. Thanks.
Major Jessie Marcel was dispatched from the nearby Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF) as lead investigator. He accompanied Brazel, the sheriff and another man (assumed to be a counter-intelligence officer) to the desert area and collected some of the debris. Marcel was apparently so intrigued by the fragments, he took a box of it home to show his wife and son. Some of the items included I-beam shaped fragments with a purple writing on them (which none of the witnesses could identify); and a foil-like material which would immediately resume its shape after being crumpled up. Major Marcel's son would later go on to be one of the primary eyewitnesses for UFO investigators on the case.
On July 8, 1947, the Army issued a press release confirming their capture of a "flying disk" which prompted a media sensation. But then something happened. By the end of the day, the Army was reversing it position and claimed the shattered object was actually a crashed observation balloon. Major Marcel even famously posed with some of the "balloon debris" for reporters' cameras. At the time, the public accepted the Army's explanation and the story disappeared from sight for the next thirty years. It wasn't until 1978, when physicist and UFO investigator Stanton Freedman interviewed Jessie Marcel — who refuted this official version of the crash — that Roswell became synonymous with UFOs, extraterrestrials and government coverups.
As time went on, new and more elaborate aspects of the crash emerged. A larger debris field was apparently discovered by a team of archaeologists in the Corona area — a debris field which contained multiple dead alien bodies. A smaller object (considered by some to be an escape pod) was also found closer to Roswell, partially embedded in a canyon wall on a local ranch. This "pod" was said to contain several dead and dying alien beings. The bodies of these creatures were allegedly sent to the funeral home in Roswell, where they were viewed by local mortician Glenn Dennis. Eventually, the remains were moved to Edwards Air Force Base and vanished. Presumably, they're still there somewhere. Maybe locked up next to the Ark of the Covenant?
As a change of pace, I've decided that this Favorite Spooky Story won't have a thing to do with ghosts, as ghosts are not particularly required to make something spooky. Instead, I'm going to take a look at the famous Roswell UFO crash of 1947 and my family's unusual but distant connection to what's certainly the most famous legend about extraterrestrials in American history.
In case you live under a rock, here's a brief summation of the incident:
In either late June or early July 1947, during a violent thunderstorm, a large object crashed in a remote desert area of central New Mexico. In the days that followed, a local sheep rancher named Mac Brazel discovered some strange debris on his ranch just north of Roswell and mentioned it to the sheriff.