A Mendocino Hotel Ghost Story*
"Most of the spirits you encounter are confused—they don’t know they’re dead. They don’t process the way we do," says Dee Disparti in a Texas drawl, settling into a captain’s chair in a dark corner of the historic Mendocino Hotel’s dining room. On both walls behind her are beautiful antique mirrors of various shapes and sizes, which guests have enjoyed as they dined for 128 years now.
Except, of course, when apparitions have appeared in the mirrors and scared the bejesus out of them. And not just in the mirror. Since before World War I, frightened guests have reported seeing ghosts bellied up to the antique bar, gazing out the windows of this creaky hotel—chosen, by no chance at all, as the headquarters for the 2006 California Ghost Hunters Conference.
None of this ruffles Disparti, who is a medium and here to try to make contact with the resident spirits—something that has been tried unsuccessfully by various TV shows, paranormalcy being all the rage on the small screen. "Most people who call themselves psychic don’t know a hill from beans," she sniffs.
Two staff members—restaurant hostess Dorothy Peer-Green and bartender Monica Jurczynski, both of whom have worked here for decades—have already stoked the zeal of the two dozen ghost hunters gathered for the conference, filling their eager ears with their own vivid experiences. The elderly Peer-Green has seen the apparition of a woman several times when working the night shift. Jurczynski has never seen anything, but says she’s definitely sensed a presence. "Sometimes I’ll be carrying a heavy tray into the kitchen at the end of the night, when I’m the only one here," she says, smiling, "and the swinging door will just open itself in front of me. So it’s a helpful ghost."
Jurczynski is in attendance at the conference’s opening-night seance, led by Disparti. She instructs the group how to connect hands on top of the table and advises everyone to speak up if we get any strange sensations: coldness, chills, the feeling we’re being touched. They have allowed an impartial, if curious, journalist into their midst. Asked if I was "up to it," I assured them it takes a lot to scare me.
I close my eyes as we begin a period of silence meant to bring the spirits closer. And within moments, an electrical surge starts at the base of my neck and courses wildly down my back and up into my hair, which is suddenly standing on end. I open my eyes and look around and wonder if I should speak up. But I don’t, even though I almost lose my breath at the sensation.
The seance continues with Disparti speaking to two spirits she detects in the room—a woman dressed like a Gibson girl, and a young man with a handlebar mustache. She entreats them to give us a sign of their presence, but almost an hour goes by with little evidence of the activity, short of a mysterious cold breeze that hits the group—something that might be explained by a draft through the old hotel’s timbers. But suddenly, there is a rap under the table, like knuckles on wood. And another, and then another. Since all our hands are on the table, who is knocking? We exchange excited glances.
When it’s over, I tell Jason Lindo, a ghost hunter of many years, of the sensations I felt.
"You clearly were detecting a spirit," he tells me. "Are you sensitive to ghosts? Can you feel it when they’re near?" I tell him I don’t think so, and I’d like to keep it that way. I enjoy walking past graveyards without wondering what’s going on inside.
My cramped and creaky hotel room seems a little eerie when I make it upstairs. I sleep with a light on.
The seminar part of the conference begins the next sunny morning with an address by Gloria Young, the jovial, down-to-earth director of Ghost Trackers, a Santa Clara nonprofit dedicated to the investigation of paranormal phenomena in Northern California. "I usually start these conferences with a monologue: Three ghosts walk into a bar ..." she quips.
Young talks about the origins of her organization, noting that it began 15 years ago, "in a cemetery with flashlights." She also discusses the origins of ghost hunting; the earliest recorded evidence of it was in 1909, but there are also indications that it was done in the late 1800s.
"What we’re all about is the learning, the education. Hopefully, one day we’ll all be on the same page. If we can show people that this is not a ’Yikes, dude—run’ kind of thing, then we will have done our job."
The group of 25 or so attendees listens attentively to each lecture in the daylong conference, which is held in a small house that doubles as a conference room behind the hotel.
One might have expected more people here, given the avid interest in ghosts in the media right now: TV shows include the popular reality show "Ghost Hunters" on Sci-Fi Channel, the dramatic "Medium," as well as "Most Haunted," "Ghost Whisperer" and others. Then again, it’s one thing to see ghosts on TV from the safety of your couch, quite another to want to commune with them.
Contrary to what you might expect of those obsessed with the spirit world, everyone here looks like someone you know. (The only evidence of out-there tendencies is a T-shirt worn by a couple that says, on the front, "Got Ghosts?" And on the back: "We Hear Dead People.") Everyone has day jobs; everyone has their reasons for being here. Sharon and Anne Leong, sisters from San Francisco, make a hobby of checking out paranormal phenomena. Disparti’s family is also here: her husband, Russ, a well-known photographer of spirits, and their 19-year-old daughter, Sarah, a budding medium herself. Susan Haley of Richmond is a creator of downloadable mystery games; she is here with her husband, photographer Bill Zemanek, because she is also a sensitive and trying to learn more about using her gift. During breaks she will shyly confess that this "gift" seemed very much like a curse at first, but she is learning to adapt to it.
Lindo, one of the core team that make up the Ghost Trackers organization, lives in Sacramento with his partner of many years, Michael Maslowski. He is a social worker by day, a ghost hunter by night. Raised in Hawaii, Lindo says, "I don’t think you can be raised there and not believe in ghosts. I thought everyone did until I moved to the mainland."
A scholar of comparative religions, Lindo delivers a fascinating lecture on other American subcultures that "deeply, deeply believe in ghosts." American Indians, Latinos (with their Day of the Dead), Chinese, Filipinos and especially the Hmong, from Laos, who have a large population in the Central Valley, and whose funerals are "a ghost hunter’s dream. They are open to all and welcoming."
Lindo talks about what he considers his mandate. "I do what I call soul rescue. The sensitive has to bond with the spirit and reassure them. At that point, I take my ghost hunter hat off and put my social worker hat on."
In other words, the goal of Ghost Trackers is less about the gee whiz of encountering a spirit than it is about liberating those who might be trapped and need directions to move on.
The conference also includes lectures on using high-tech ghost hunting equipment, setting up a haunted site with recording devices to capture EVP, or electronic voice phenomena, and taking photographs of spirits. Ghosts, it seems, when captured on film often appear as brightly-lit orbs or streaks of light. In his lecture, Russ Disparti also includes how easy it is to get a false positive and shows the group ways of weeding out the 99 images out of 100 that are illegitimate. But, oh, that one where something can’t be explained? Those images are pored over by the group, with ooohs and aaahs aplenty.
A hands-on demonstration of how to use dowsing wands by Dee Disparti is the most fun of the afternoon. The wands, a copper variation of the Y-shaped dowsing stick used for centuries to find water, were the inspiration for wizard’s wands in fantasy books. She has brought enough for almost everyone to try and has hidden about 20 quarters in the house and surrounding garden. She instructs us in how to hold the wands, which are shaped like the letter L: They’re to be held on the short end, with the long end outstretched and parallel to the ground. "Tell the wands to point you toward the quarters," she instructs.
Feeling foolish, I give it a try. The wands slowly pan to the right and point at a windowsill. I follow in the direction and voila—one quarter. I ask again and the bars swing to the left. I follow slowly until they point straight ahead. At a desk phone? I lift up the phone: there’s a quarter underneath. I feel another rush of energy and excitement. Lindo winks, as if to say he told me so—that I do have the touch.
"We’ll be using these tonight!" says Disparti. "I hope you’re ready for it!"
As the sun gets close to setting, the group disperses to find dinner. Now that we have our bag of tools and skills, we will reconnoiter in the lobby at dusk, ready to embark on an honest-to-god ghost hunt
Mendocino—The ocean is breaking thunderously against the cliffs just a hundred or so yards from the historic Mendocino Hotel, and a misty fog is starting to appear on the horizon, swallowing the setting sun. A cold wind begins to blow as the sky darkens. The scene is set for ghost hunting.
This will be the setting for the culmination of the 2006 California Ghost Hunters Conference, held April 28-29. It’s a chance to use both technology and spiritual gifts to try to coax sleeping ghosts into shaking hands with the living. Where better to start than a graveyard?
A dozen or so cars caravan to the outskirts of town, to an ancient cemetery mostly overgrown with weeds. A sliver of moon hovers high overhead, and the horizon is orange and blue as we tumble out of our cars and start walking quietly through the tombstones. As was recommended in a seminar earlier in the day, respect is paramount when trying to contact the dead. You don’t demand an interaction, you request it. Not like those guys in the very popular "Ghost Hunters" TV show, it was noted, who can be downright rude.
Dee Disparti, a medium who flew in from Houston for the conference, is seen doing a little prayer. Christianity and ghost hunting are not necessarily at odds; before Disparti led a seance the night before, she asked Jesus to "bathe us in white light and protect us."
Gloria Young, conference organizer and director of Ghost Trackers, a Santa Clara nonprofit dedicated to the investigation of paranormal phenomena in Northern California, notes quietly that some religions most definitely take umbrage with their beliefs. "A friend who is a Southern Baptist is totally freaked out by what we do. They see it as very black-and-white—you’re either in heaven or in hell."
She shakes her head. "Why do people not want to believe in ghosts? I guess people fear what they don’t understand."
And it takes a lot to scare me, but I suspect this evening will put me to the test. I feel reassured in the company of Jason Lindo, a social worker by day and "sensitive" (someone who can communicate with the dead) by night, so I follow him around amid the tombstones.
Using dowsing wands to detect paranormal energy, Lindo is led to the grave of a man whose name is James Gordon. Soon Disparti is also there, drawn by the same "strong energy." According to his tombstone, Gordon died in 1881 at age 36, leaving behind a "loving wife."
"Gordon, are you here?" asks Lindo. He turns to the small group assembled and notes, "Whenever you see a tombstone with this symbol—a woman and man’s hand together—it means the other one was still alive when he died."
"Gordon, are you trying to find your wife?"
The dowsing wands cross quickly, indicating a yes. The group scouts for a grave that might bear his wife’s name, but none is found.
"I’m sorry, but she’s not here!" he says matter-of-factly. "Can you leave here?"
The wands open wide: No.
"Gordon, listen to me," says Disparti firmly. "Your wife has died. You are dead. Look for the light. There will be all the people you care about in the light, including your wife."
I feel a rush of both shivers and emotion; a lump rises inexplicably in my throat. There is silence, and both communicators agree that Gordon’s energy has dissipated.
There are several such encounters in the graveyard, some more dramatic than others. But the group seems to be saving energy for the piece de resistance: a visit to the ultra-haunted Lodge at Noyo River in Fort Bragg.
Atop the bluff above Noyo Harbor, this inn was built in the 1860s, and, like The Mendocino Hotel, has been the site of perhaps hundreds of ghost sightings in its century-plus of welcoming guests. It is said to be haunted by four ghosts, three women and one man. Two of the spirits are the so-called Lady in Red, a honeymooner who died in a car accident near the hotel, as well the spirit of a pining woman, known as the Lady in White. Innkeepers and guests report frequent sightings, ghostly voices and laughing, and lights that turn on and off by themselves.
It’s almost 11 p.m. when our party arrives at the lodge, where innkeepers have put out hot drinks and cookies for us. We break into small groups, each with a communicator. We hit Room 5 first, having read accounts of sightings there, and immediately sense something in the darkness.
"Are you the Lady in Red?" asks our female sensitive, using dowsing wands.
"Are you the Lady in White?" she asks.
A few braver souls move close to a spot that seems colder than the rest of the room. But, impatient after fruitless attempts at getting the spirit to communicate, I tiptoe out and join Lindo’s group in a different part of the house. Soon, though, it’s his turn in the now-empty Room 5. Lindo enters with Disparti’s 19-year-old daughter, Sarah, who is taking photos with a digital camera, as are most ghost hunters this evening. We close the door and turn out the lights. There is a heavy silence.
"I’m feeling nauseous," says Lindo, a sign that there is a powerful presence in the room. "Are you the Lady in Red?" he asks, pointing his dousing wands.
"Are you the Lady in White?"
The hair stands up on the back of my neck. He had not been told by the previous group that they’d gotten the same reading. Maybe she is really here.
Through a series of yes-no questions, Lindo ascertains that she likes this room because she can see the harbor and can watch for her lover, a fisherman.
"Is your lover dead?" he asks. The wands, for the first time, don’t move at all.
"Did your lover go out to sea and not come back?" he repeats, and the wands answer yes.
"You see?" he whispers to the group. "She waits because she doesn’t know he’s dead."
Lindo tenderly suggests to the spirit that if she wants to leave this house and join her lover, she can. He turns to us and smiles. "Sometimes spirits stay because they just like it where they are!"
After the lights come on, Sarah Disparti looks at what her camera captured and is wildly excited about a few images of brightly colored lights in the darkness. The group quickly hooks up the computer they travel with, and when the images are downloaded and displayed, there is disappointment in the first few.
"What do you think this is?" asks Young to the excited teen.
"A ghost?" she asks eagerly.
"No, honey—it’s a reflection of your flash."
But at the last image—bursts of light in purple, pink and white—there is a resounding "ahhh!" Even the pragmatic Young is impressed. This is the mother lode for ghost hunters.
Dee Disparti hugs her daughter. "My little medium," she smiles.
Tired, I wander into one of the suites downstairs alone. It is dark, like all the rooms. Five steps into the room, I stop short. The electrical sensation I felt last night at the seance is back. I peer into the darkness and think I might see a shadow. I almost can’t breathe and want to run. But I stay, determined to do this ghost hunter thing bravely. In a flash, what I thought I saw is no longer there, even though the prickly feeling persists. I back out of the room, one step at a time, and find Lindo.
When I describe to him what I just experienced, he grins. "My dear, that room was off the charts in terms of activity. You didn’t know? Yes, that might have been the busiest of them all."
He winks. "Are you sure you don’t want to do this full time? You clearly have the gift."
I tell him thanks but no thanks. I just want to get back to my normal life and be able to walk by the local graveyard without wondering who might want to say hello. At the same time, how much does it cost to buy a pair of dowsing wands?
* Copyrighted. Reproduced with permission of the San Francisco Chronicle