OUT OF THIS WORLD
Ghost tours and paranormal investigations are all the rage in Hollywood and Long Beach, reports Julie Miller
IT is clear from the outset there is something odd about this house. Sebastian the resident rhodesian ridgeback is unnaturally restless, poking his wet nose persistently between our legs and issuing an odd guttural growl. It may have something to do with the chicken tacos our host David Oman has prepared. But that doesn’t explain the behaviour of the cat, who is screaming like a banshee as she bolts around in circles.
Don’t mind her, she’s on heat,’’ Oman says dismissively. He seems to think their behaviour is normal but I am not convinced.
We are on a personal tour of the most haunted house in Hollywood. At least, that’s what its owner Oman tells us as he leads us down into the icy bowels of his three-storey mansion in Benedict Canyon. It’s been called the Mt Everest of haunted houses,’’ he says proudly. I’ve had psychics here who were too terrified to come down these stairs. Does it feel strange to you?’’
I’m more perturbed by the ugly stains on the carpet than the sudden and very obvious drop in temperature. But the persistent screeching of the EMF meter is a little unsettling. According to paranormal pundits, an electromagnetic or trifield meter, which measures fluctuations in magnetic, microwave and radioactive waves, sets off when there is an unexpected source of energy, such as a ghost. And Oman’s little hand-held device just won’t shut up, whatever direction he turns it.
Oman has just produced a low-budget horror movie, HouseattheEndoftheDrive . Several television programs have been filmed here and this home is also the highlight of the Haunted Hollywood tour, run by his good mate, Brian. And the reason? It’s just down the road from the mansion where the Manson family ran amok in August 1969, slaughtering five people, including Sharon Tate, the pregnant girlfriend of Roman Polanski.
According to Oman, strange things have been happening here since he started building the house six years ago. He has had a nocturnal visit from a spectre he claims is Hollywood hairdresser to the stars Jay Sebring, one of the Manson murder victims. Others have sensed a pregnant woman is following them around the house, wailing about her butchered baby.
But why this house? The eerie mansion where the tragedy took place is five doors up. Oman speculates that negative energy from the incident has permeated the street, with his house becoming the epicentre of activity. And while he finds life here a little disturbing, it’s certainly good business to share his experiences with the world.
Our group of six climbs back into the Haunted Hollywood cadillac. It’s the coolest beast on the roads, and tour leader Brian uses it to great effect to try to pick up chicks at the traffic lights. Come and join my tour, it’s the best in Hollywood,’’ he shouts. It’s certainly one of the strangest, with visits to Marilyn Monroe’s grave at Westwood Memorial cemetery, a poke around the back door of the allegedly haunted Comedy Store and a driveby tour of Hollywood’s most scandalous moments. It’s fun and cheesy, with Brian’s laidback tongue-in-cheek bravado setting the not-so-serious tone of the night.
But I have more spooks to contend with; tonight I’m sleeping on the Queen Mary, the ocean liner permanently docked at Long Beach. During her 70-year history, this grand vessel, converted into a luxury anchored hotel in 1993, was the site of 49 deaths, and is considered one of the most haunted places in the US. Management happily trades on this reputation, holding several tours, including, for the dedicated ghost hunter, a paranormal investigation held on the first and third Friday nights of each month.
And so it is at midnight that I join a group of dedicated ghost boffins in search of the phantoms of the Queen Mary. This is the polar opposite of Brian’s Haunted Hollywood tour; these guys are deadly serious and will not tolerate any tomfoolery.
Pat Wheelock, team leader, is somewhat sceptical of things that go bump in the night. An electronics engineer, his mission is to scientifically prove the existence of ghosts, to compile data, to explore every possibility with an open mind.
After 20 years of ghost hunting Wheelock has not achieved his goal but says he’ll continue to let his curiosity take over.
Our group of seven is briefed on what to expect over the next three hours, then the tools of the trade are handed out. We are armed with cameras, and advised to snap indiscriminately: you never know what you may capture on film. I am also handed an infrared non-contact thermometer, the theory being that because an entity absorbs energy, the temperature drops in its immediate presence, thereby creating a cold spot. Wheelock is wielding an EMF meter much like the one used by Oman and we are advised that the tour will be recorded, the resulting audio file painstakingly scrutinised for any anomalies.
The management of the Queen Mary has pretty much given Pat’s Beyond Investigation team carte blanche to go anywhere on the ship they see fit, and our tour, accompanied by a beefy security guard, tracks through dinghy storage areas, into the engine rooms and the bowels of the ship below the water line.
But first we head to the most famously haunted location onboard, the first-class swimming pool. This gorgeous marble art deco-style space has been drained of water for 30 years, but there are frequent reports of the sounds of splashing; wet footprints mysteriously appear and women in vintage bathing suits wander around the upper balcony. Although no drownings have been documented in the ship’s history, the location has been described as the vortex for all other paranormal activity on board.
Unfortunately, our group is not met with the whispering echoes of the past but the doofdoof-doof of an amplifier reverberating through the walls. There’s a dance party going on in one of the adjoining ballrooms and our security guard is called away to intervene in a fight that’s broken out. No self-respecting ghost would make an appearance under such chaotic conditions so we retreat to the other end of the ship.
In the lower storage areas, our torches punch holes through the endless blackness, dimly illuminating vestiges of the Queen Mary’s past, including dusty art deco-style furniture, old lifebuoys and children’s toys. Descending an iron ladder, we pick our way across the curved wooden hull; here we are below water, in the bow of the ship that was damaged during a collision with the British cruiser Curacoa in 1942, an accident resulting in the loss of 338 lives. Switching off our torches, we sit in silence for about 15 minutes, while Wheelock summons the spirits of darkness, asking them to reveal their presence. His sidekick repeats the incitement in German, in case any foreign-speaking entities are lingering. (Queen Mary carried 5000 German prisoners of war during World War II.) Inexplicably, my camera batteries die, the electronic whirl of the camera shutting down shattering the silence.
Our exploration continues along silent corridors, into allegedly haunted cabins and into the metal confines of the engine room where John Henry, an 18-year-old crew member, was violently crushed by a door during a routine drill in 1966. His spirit, dressed in blue coveralls, is said to wander the length of Shaft Alley, disappearing into Door 13 where he met his grisly fate.
Through locked doors and up rickety metal steps, we finally return to the ballroom, where the black-clad stragglers from the dance party are packing up equipment. At about 3.30am, thermometers returned, EMFs switched off and audio recordings complete, I pad down the floral hallway of A Deck to my stateroom. In the distance, a dim light flickers and a shadow flits across the hallway. A nocturnal wanderer or another secret of the Queen Mary? It’s one I’ll leave to a less exhausted ghostbuster. Checklist The Haunted Hollywood Tour departs Mann’s Chinese Theatre nightly; adults, $US38 ($43), children, $US30. More: www.starlinetours.com. Queen Mary’s Paranormal Ship Walk Tour lasts about two hours; $US50 a person, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays from 8pm. The Queen Mary Paranormal Investigation is held every first and third Friday at midnight; $US75 a person. More: www.queenmary.com. Susan Kurosawa’s DepartureLounge column returns next week. DEALS OF THE WEEK Cruising prices in Australia and Fiji slashed; big savings on Kimberley touring; free car hire in California; pay nothing for air travel with European river cruises. These and other money-saving offers are featured in Travel&Indulgence’s holiday deals, updated daily, which can be found via our upgraded and direct link.