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?