.Santa Cruz’s Rich History of Ghosts

Maryanne Porter was just a child when she saw her first ghost in her home in Aptos. It came almost nightly, she says, a terrifying dark figure that her parents chalked up to a vivid imagination. The figure did not return after they moved to a new home, but she continues to have strange, unexplainable encounters. Except now she seeks them out, instead of hiding under the covers.

Porter is the founder of the Santa Cruz Ghost Hunters, a local group that explores paranormal activity in Santa Cruz County. The group started in 2010, when she and a friend expressed a shared desire to find out if there was more to the afterlife and ghost stories. “We wanted to find out if it was real or if it was all BS,” says Porter, her voice lively and engaging. “The first time we experienced electronic voice phenomena, we were hooked.”

In the early days, she and her co-founder would conduct hunts in the Boulder Creek Cemetery, which at the time had a reputation for being a popular site for Satanic rituals and witchcraft. They’d often find candles and pagan symbols. More than once, she saw what she describes as a “shadow person.”

They were also able to record voices, or electronic voice phenomen, EVP. One recording was clear enough to determine that the voice was a Native American dialect, she says.

“I had it analyzed by a person who spoke a Native American language, and they were able to confirm that it sounded like a Native American tongue, but they were unable to determine which one it was. We got other voices as well,” says Porter. “It was all pretty freaky.”

secure document shredding

In Porter’s new book Haunted Santa Cruz, California, she vividly retells the darker aspects of Santa Cruz history, and shares recorded experiences, including some of her own, at popular local haunted sites like the Brookdale Lodge and Sunshine Villa. When restoration of the Brookdale Lodge is complete, she plans to host paranormal tours and lead “mini-ghost hunts” in collaboration with the current owner.

“It’s not my mission to convince people that ghosts are real,” she says. “But if there’s a chance that this isn’t all black and white, that there’s something more, and people have had experiences in their life that they question, then maybe we should reach out and think about it a little bit more.”


Curse of Santa Cruz

I’m definitely thinking about it as I enter New Bohemia Brewing Company dressed as a skeleton late one October afternoon. My friends are waiting at the bar with pints of Oktoberfest lager, also in Halloween costumes. One couple is dressed as a hot dog and a pint of beer. “No outside food or drink!” the bartender jokes with them as I sidle up to the bar.

ghostly orb in front of Tuttle Mansion in Watsonville
GHOST HUNTED The photo of an orb or other anomaly was taken after an SCGH investigation at the Tuttle Mansion in Watsonville. Members of the team take at least three in sequence in order to help rule out environmental causes. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MARYANNE PORTER

Halloween is still a few weeks away but we’re kicking off the season by going on a Boo Cruz, the seasonal spinoff of the Brew Cruz craft beer tours of Santa Cruz County. In lieu of visiting local breweries, we’ll stop at different sites rumored to be haunted or where tragic or mysterious events have occurred.

Our ride pulls up in front of the brewery, and more than one set of eyes turns to look. The door of the forest green wood-panelled 1989 Thomas International school bus swings open and Brew Cruz owner Annie Pautsch, dressed as Ms. Frizzle from the children’s TV show The Magic School Bus, steps down. She beams at the wigged heads and painted faces of my party as she enters. “Is everyone ready?” she asks.

The inside has been decorated with spider webs and bat-shaped lights, and the plush seating is covered with “blood” splattered blankets. We settle in and crack open a few beers. Oh yeah, did I mention that you can drink on the tour?

Betty Jane, as the bus is familiarly known, roars to life with Ms. Frizzle at the wheel, and this magic school bus is off to the first stop: Opal Cliffs overlooking Capitola-by-the-Sea.

Since Brew Cruz’s inception in 2014, Pautsch knew that she wanted to utilize the bus for different types of tours, while continuing to promote craft beer at the core. A lover of corn mazes, pumpkin carving and haunted houses, she couldn’t get the idea of a haunted tour of Santa Cruz out of her head. Inspired by the Banjo Billy historical tours in Boulder, Pautsch headed to the downtown Santa Cruz Public Library last fall to find information about haunted sites in Santa Cruz. “I’d heard stories that Santa Cruz used to be called the ‘Murder Capital of the World,’ but I wanted to make sure that there were enough stops for a tour that I could reach with a bus,” she remembers. She found more than enough material. “I had no idea,” she says.

Pautsch discovered that underneath the surface of this sunny beach town lies a dark history, beginning with the founding of the Spanish Mission here in the 1790s. After being converted to Christianity and moved to the Mission, the native population suffered severe abuse at the hands of the missionaries. The most vindictive was said to be Father Quintana, who enjoyed using a metal-tipped whip to punish the Indians under his care, including children.

On the night of October 12, 1812, a group of Ohlone took matters into their own hands. Under the cover of darkness, they lured Father Quintana from his bed. Once he was out of earshot of anyone who might have come to his aid, they strangled him from behind with a rope and crushed his genitals to ensure that he would not father any demons in the spirit world. Then they returned him to his bed.

Afterward, a local legend claims that the natives who performed the murder went to the banks of the San Lorenzo river to purify themselves. As they bathed their hands and faces in the flowing waters, they asked the Great Spirit to curse this land and its non-native dwellers as a penance for all of the pain and suffering bestowed on their people. As long as the San Lorenzo River made its way to the sea, so should the Curse of Santa Cruz afflict generations to come.


Odd Jobs

Porter’s Ghost Hunters have explored many of the sites said to have become haunted in the hundreds of years since the Ohlone supposedly cursed this place—like the Cremer House in Felton, the Rispin Mansion, Mount Madonna, and many private residences. Residents reach out to them to see if they can confirm strange happenings in their homes, and perhaps lay troubled spirits to rest. Since 2010, the Ghost Hunters have expanded from two people to eight, all of whom have experienced paranormal activity of some kind, including a police officer and a woman who works at Evergreen Cemetery.

cover Haunted Santa Cruz, CA
‘Haunted Santa Cruz, California’, by Santa Cruz Ghost Hunters founder Maryanne Porter. Available at local and online retailers.

Lest skeptics think these enthusiasts are jumping at the chance to chase down anything that goes bump in the night, Porter describes the extensive vetting process callers undergo before the Ghost Hunters commit to an investigation. First, they interview the client by phone or online to assure their credibility. Then, they’ll bring their sensitive equipment in during a “day walk” in order to determine if there’s any kind of electromagnetic field that’s contributing to the experience. “We try and rule out the obvious. The house could be shorting out and the lights could be flickering. People don’t understand that that’s just their house, not paranormal,” says Porter.

If there’s still credible evidence, they’ll delve into the history of the site. Finally, they’ll do a night investigation—when it’s believed that spiritual activity is strongest.

“We’re very particular on the places we investigate,” she says.

When I ask her if she has a favorite haunted site, she doesn’t hesitate: the Tuttle Mansion in Watsonville, which she and her team have investigated at least 30 times. On multiple occasions, the Ghost Hunters have recorded voices and had all of their meters light up at the same time, Porters says. A psychic once claimed to be touched by a spirit, and they have video and photographic evidence of what they says are orbs, or balls or streaks of light caught on film that may reflect the energy of a deceased person. Of course, such abstractions can also be caused by dust or scratches on a lens, but she says her team takes multiple photographs to try and rule this out.

I tell her that if I had encountered anything like what she says she has experienced, I would run for the hills. A bright, friendly laugh comes through the telephone. “Maybe because I’m into odd things, I have a tolerance. It doesn’t strike immediate fear. It’s not like how you see on the TV shows where people freak out. To me, it is what it is,” she says.


Supernatural Experiment

I also went on the inaugural Boo Cruz in 2015, where Pautsch, dressed as Sandra Bullock’s character from the movie Speed, began by driving through UCSC. She stopped briefly at the base of campus where historic workers’ cabins, barns and other outbuildings from the Cowell Lime Works still stand, sunbleached and overlooked. She turned in her seat, and told us the tragic tale of Henry Cowell’s daughter Sarah, who was thrown from her buggy and killed in the late 1800s. Sarah’s spirit supposedly lingers in the Haunted Meadow, as it’s now called, along with the spirits of many who worked at her father’s lime kilns.

“Limestone has a high electro-magnetic charge,” she explained. “Many people believe that rocks like that can actually hold onto information from traumatic events in the form of energy, which can cause a residual haunting.” The Santa Cruz Mountains, she notes, are riddled with limestone.

Before we left the university, we stopped at a lookout spot on the east side of campus. From this vantage point, lights beamed steadily from the city below as twilight faded to a deep purple over Monterey Bay. The passengers fell quiet as Pautsch recounted tales of the grisly serial murders that occurred in Santa Cruz in the early 1970s, some of them involving UCSC co-eds, earning it the infamous nickname of Murder Capital of the World. As her story drew to an end, a passenger spoke up to share her own paranormal experience. We began passing around a glowing hatchet Halloween prop, lighting our faces campfire-style as we shared our own stories of unexplained phenomena we had witnessed or felt until we were all pleasantly shaken and a little bit thrilled.

“It was all an experiment,” says Pautsch on that first tour. “I didn’t know if the passengers would be interested and engaged or if they just wanted to drink. Luckily, it was a bit of both. There was a heightened excitement. It was pure magic.”

Other stops included Evergreen Cemetery, the historic Santa Cruz Mission, the Boardwalk, the Water Street Bridge, and two homes on Beach Hill—all of which are supposedly haunted by tragic events or the disrupted spirits of Ohlone Native Americans—and that was just the Westside Tour. This year, we explore the Eastside.

The cold autumn light fades to an opal blue as we look out over Capitola and Pautsch tells us about the seabirds that suddenly fell from the sky over this sleepy seaside town in the middle of the last century. The end-of-days scenario inspired director Alfred Hitchcock, who had a residence in the Santa Cruz Mountains, to immortalize the odd happenings in his thriller The Birds.

That grisly scene wasn’t the only piece of Santa Cruz history to inspire Hitchcock. The California Gothic-style Hotel McCray’s eerie facade was the muse for the Bates Motel in his iconic 1960 horror film Psycho. Built in 1883 and perched on Beach Hill overlooking downtown Santa Cruz and the Boardwalk, it was discovered in 1908 that the hotel was built on Native American burial grounds when a plumber struck the skeletal remains of a skull with his pick. This violation of sacred soil is what many believe to be the cause of all sorts of inexplicable supernatural activity over the course of the hotel’s history.

Later, the hotel became a bordello, a rooming house, and the home to notorious serial killer Herbert William Mullin, who killed 13 people during a murderous rampage in the early 1970s. Today, the structure has been beautifully remodeled into an assisted-living facility for the elderly known as Sunshine Villa, and has been recognized as a historical landmark.


Mondo Santa Cruz

After visiting the site of the old Capitola Theater—now a parking lot—where guests enjoyed their time so much some of them refused to leave even after they’d passed on, and the hill above Soquel High School, where two teenage lovers still look out over their alma mater, we stop on a residential street in the Soquel hills. Pautsch turns down “Monster Mash” and waits until we’re quiet.

One of the most tragic crimes ever committed in this area was the shocking murder of Dr. Viktor Ohta—a prominent and wealthy Santa Cruz opthamologist—and his family, in their home in October 1970 by John Linley Frazier, a deranged fanatic. Besides murmurs of horror and grief, the passengers are silent as Pautsch tells the sad story in a hushed voice.

Later, Pautsch tells me that she strives to be as sensitive as possible when visiting sites where tragic events have happened in the living memory of the community, particularly in the case of the doctor and his family. “I try to be as respectful as I can. I make a point to mention the memorial his staff erected at his old office on Water Street. I’m sharing the story, not mocking it,” she explains. “It was horrific and awful, but it did happen.”

She hopes that in addition to having a good time, the passengers gain a deeper understanding of the history of the area. “Despite how you feel about hauntings and ghosts, the history is real. These stories open the door to the architects and founders of our towns,” she says.

Our last stop of the night is the Rispin Mansion on Wharf Road. We file out of the bus and huddle close to the chainlink fence that surrounds the perimeter of the property. The air is quiet and cold. Vacant for nearly half a century, the massive four-story 22-room Riviera-style palace is entirely boarded up and obscured by heavy growth.

The mansion’s 95-year history is plagued with mysterious happenings. Built by the reclusive Henry Allen Rispin in 1921 and abandoned in 1929, it was later occupied by the Poor Clares, who established it as a convent until 1959. After the nuns left, it was inhabited by squatters, one of whom tragically died after falling through the floor. The poor victim supposedly called for help for days before finally succumbing to dehydration. His harrowing cries are said to still be heard throughout the building.

The mansion was purchased by the city in 1985, but attempts to renovate it have all been indefinitely delayed or abandoned due to a series of fires and other unexplained events. In the last few years, the city has renewed its interest in turning the site into a park, although they have yet to break ground. It remains a subject of fascination for local thrill seekers and believers in the paranormal.

Apparitions seen inside its walls include the dark figure of a nun. Others reportedly feel an ominous spirit that viciously protects the house. Some have heard barking dogs from the SWAT team trainings that took place there for a short time in ’90s.

As I peer through the fence, the cruise at an end, I almost want to see a shadow staring back. As I turn, I imagine one comes to the window just as I look away.


  1. I was also a lucky participant on the inaugural Boo Cruz a year ago. I am so thrilled that Annie has decided to offer this hauntingly fun experience from year to year. It is a must do event for the ghost buster in all of us!


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