Halloween will start early in San Diego as legendary ghost hunter Hans Holzer reaches out from his grave with clues to haunting happenings he investigated more than a half-century ago.
In 1965, Holzer visited San Diego to probe stories of eerie and unexplainable sights and sounds in Old Town’s historic Whaley House, at 2476 San Diego Ave. As a result, he dubbed the 1857 two-story brick home-turned-museum the most haunted house in America.
Holzer, who died 10 years ago, was joined by psychic medium Sybil Leek in checking into reported sightings of the ghosts of former occupants, disembodied voices, footsteps, other strange sounds and a dark presence that defied identification.
A recent examination of Holzer’s old letters, photos, audio and visual recordings and case notes prompted the formation of a new ghost-hunting team. Aided by the insights of Holzer’s daughter, Alexandra, the team filmed return visits to 10 of the paranormal researcher’s most baffling cases for a Travel Channel series, “The Holzer Files.”
Numerous “close encounters” by Whaley House visitors currently appear on the TripAdvisor website. “1st we see a moving mist in the courtroom,” said a woman examining a video shot by her son there this past June. “I went frame by frame and, I kid you not, at least 4 faces. I couldn’t sleep the last couple nights.” In July, a visitor reported feeling nothing unusual until she arrived at an upstairs bedroom. “The moment I took the corner to go into that room I had an enormous feeling of despair and panic — it was so terrifying that I had to leave.”
Another reported last month: “I caught a face of a woman wearing a veil or scarf over her head. …” Her vision was in the bedroom of Violet Whaley, who committed suicide at age 22 over her failed marriage. Such observations were tempered by others, such as an Arizona resident Gary R., who posted: “We didn’t really see anything unique about this museum.”
Whatever the imagined, or real, tourist sightings, tonight at 10 the Travel Channel will try to clear the air. Veteran paranormal investigator Dave Schrader revisited the house last March with psychic medium Cindy Kaza, recording equipment technician Shane Pittman and a film crew. The episode is intriguingly titled, “A Grave Revenge.”
Schrader had listened to audio tapes of Leek channeling voices of Whaley family members and of thief “Yankee Jim” Robinson, one of three people publicly hanged on the site when it was the town gallows before the house was built.
But it was a powerful, dark presence that Holzer sensed, but never unmasked, tied to a centuries’ old vendetta, that drove the re-investigation project. Turns out, the Whaley House did not disappoint.
During an interview this week, Schrader painted himself as a healthy skeptic, more interested in history than in ghosts. The Whaley House had it all — a “weird and twisted history,” tragedy, happiness, oddities — a story to tell, he explained.
“Things began to happen right away,” Schrader said. After envisioning a pool of blood and other sensations, Kaza, the team psychic, who knew nothing about the house in advance, invited the spirits to channel their thoughts through her automatic writing tool. She immediately received an ominous warning, then Pittman’s camera shut down.
“One of our network executives was sitting outside watching a bank of computer screens, and one of the light bulbs burst over her head,” Schrader said. “It was very high intensity — this was a very profound experience for all of us.”
Something then happened to Schrader he said he never had experienced in his 13 years of active investigations. “It made physical contact with me in a very dramatic way. I got literally knocked on my butt by someone in the Whaley House,” said the 6-foot-tall, 280-pound investigator. His fall pushed Pittman into the wall. At first, Schrader suspected a member of the film crew, but no one else was around.
“I’m a skeptical believer and can break things down logically. … It really rattled me,” he divulged. Upon examining recordings on their electronic equipment, they detected numerous sounds, footsteps, disembodied voices and high energy levels.
“We uncovered another name with a unique history tied to the Whaleys as well,” he said. “Cindy unleashed some knowledge and we were able to track it, spot on, and the Whaley House people revealed information that we had never known. There were handwritten letters by the Whaleys talking about the ghosts in the house.”
The Whaley House “definitely earned the title Hans Holzer gave it as America’s most haunted house,” Schrader concluded. Upon revisiting the house a couple of weeks ago, he said it was hard for him to walk through the door again.
The paranormal detection team made no attempt to rid the house of its suspected spirits but, should they receive a request from the Save Our Heritage Organisation, which runs the historic museum and its tours, “we will come back and help clear whatever is here.”
“I’ve had experiences of my own that made a believer out of me,” said SOHO’s Whaley House historian, Dean Glass. Before opening the museum one morning, he recalls seeing the colorless apparition of a person he believed to be patriarch Thomas Whaley standing at the top railing looking down at him quizzically. “I’ve seen four or five other ‘shadow’ people — distinct fleeting figures.”
The spirits ramp up curiosity and attract tourists, helping raise money to maintain and improve the property, Glass explained. They also are part of the Whaley House history and should remain so as long as they aren’t evil, he said. “I have never gotten the feeling of being in danger or unwelcome,” he added.
Such phenomena clearly can be imagined, or engineered. But, whether you believe in spirits or not, the nationally aired ghost expedition adds to the lore of the Whaley House — just in time for Halloween.