At the Glen Tavern Inn in Santa Paula, death is unavoidable. You are reminded of it everywhere. In the hallways, old movie posters adorned with the images of long deceased matinee idols line the walls, a nod to the city’s filmmaking past. In the early part of the 20th century, the Citrus Capital of the World was a major destination for directors and producers, a sort of sister city to Hollywood. The hotel was built in 1911 partly to accommodate the stars and crews who would move in to town for months at a time. Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford stayed here. All have since checked out — of the inn and this mortal coil. One, however, remains.
That’s the rumor, anyway.
His name is Gaston Méliès, the older, less famous brother of pioneering French filmmaker Georges. Méliès was involved, one way or another, in the production of dozens of motion pictures beginning in 1903. As a director, he shot more than 20 films in the area, including a one-reeler called The Ghost of Sulphur Mountain. A fan of booze, poker and ladies of the evening, it is suggested Méliès probably spent a lot of time at the Glen Tavern Inn, patronizing its third floor brothel. In 1912, two days before the sinking of the Titanic, some of his actors got into a brawl with the innkeeper, sparking a local tabloid scandal. Méliès returned to France soon afterward and spent his remaining years sailing the world with his wife. He died in 1915.
In February, however, Heather Woodward claims she met Gaston Méliès, right back here at one of his favorite old haunts. A Ventura native and self-described “clairvoyant,” Woodward came to the hotel to investigate alleged paranormal activity happening in the building since the late 1980s. Guests and employees have reported a number of strange occurrences: doors coming unlocked on their own; detached shadows passing from room to room; mysterious strangling sensations in the middle of the night. Just last year, after ownership of the inn changed hands, a fire broke out on the first floor. It originated from rags discovered in a closet, but according to Woodward, the cause has not yet been adequately explained.
When she walked into Room 219 for the first time, Woodward says she was overwhelmed by the feeling of an otherworldly presence. She received a “psychic impression” of a man with light features, an olive complexion and a mustache, wearing a top hat and a black suit and smoking a cigar. She also saw visions of ships, one being the Titanic. Consulting with Richard Senate, Ventura County’s foremost authority on haunted places, Woodward learned of Méliès, his hard partying lifestyle, the fight in 1912 and his love for sailing. Later, she found a picture of Méliès online. It looked exactly like the person she had seen in the room.
It is midnight, July 22, and Woodward is back in Room 219, along with about 20 other people, hoping to once again rouse the spirit of the 164-year-old filmmaker. This is the first stop of an all-night investigation of the Glen Tavern Inn, the final event of the two-day South Coast Paranormal Convention, a gathering of ghost hunters, psychics and other explorers of the supernatural Woodward helped organize. The room is laid out like any other modest hotel room: two nightstands, a wooden dresser, grey silk curtains, a small television, paintings of flowers and a bridge. A large, clunky oscilloscope is set up next to the bed, a pair of K2 electromagnetic field detectors on top. The theory is that whenever a spirit passes in front of the device, the machine can detect its energy, and its light meter will spike. Thus, investigators can communicate with a ghost by asking yes-or-no questions and giving it instructions: flash once for no, twice for yes.
Around the room is a sampling of those who paid upward of $125 for a weekend of lectures, workshops and séances. It’s a multiethnic bunch of varying ages and genders, some clutching digital cameras and video recorders. Members of the Pasadena Paranormal Research Society man the machines, while a guy named Dave Davee sits in a corner, scribbling absent-mindedly in a notebook — “automatic writing,” it’s called. Supposedly, spirits write through him. The stuff he is penning now is incomprehensible, but Woodward swears he can write down what she is going to say before she says it.
Woodward herself is positioned on the bed, her sister Sarah reclining next to her. She tells the audience that, for the benefit of accuracy, every slight noise has to be accounted for; if someone coughs or makes the floor creak or if their stomach growls, the perpetrator must state their name for the tape recorders, lest the sound be confused for an EVP, or electronic voice phenomena. After a debriefing on the history of the hotel, she decides it’s time to begin. “Let’s get this show on the road,” she says.
Lights out. The green glow of the K2s illuminates the room. Woodward begins asking questions: Is somebody here? Are you a male? Are you mad with us being here? No response. Méliès is apparently a tough interview.
A few minutes of sitting still and quiet in the dark have the ears of some anxious observers working overtime. One man insists he is hearing a faint, repetitive knocking, as if someone were rapping their knuckles against the dresser. Others are claiming to hear it, too, but it is so soft and distant it could literally be anything. A child’s voice is heard outside the window. “There are kids out at midnight?” Woodward asks, in a tone suggesting the source may not be a flesh-and-blood human. Alas, there is a quinceañera going on next door, someone explains.
Suddenly, one of the meters jumps. Contact with the other side — or the frequency from a cell phone ringing in another room. Either one is a possibility. To confirm, Schultz pleads with the being to do it again. “C’mon. Please. If you don’t, we’ll think it was something else.” He is practically begging. Nothing.
Then, the doorknob jiggles. Someone is trying to get inside. Who is it? Or what is it?
“It’s my wife,” Schultz says, dashing everyone’s hopes. “She is making her presence known.”
From skeptic to empath
Rosemary Moffat never used to believe in ghosts. At 17, she didn’t believe in much of anything, she says. Then her great Aunt Marjory died. Days after she passed away, Moffat was lying in bed, covered by linens previously owned by her dearly departed relative. There, five feet away, was Marjory, in living detail; Moffat can even remember the curlers in her hair. As quick as she appeared, she faded into thin air. Moffat smacked herself in the face a few times. From then on, anything was possible.
“Most people have an experience, and they try to push it away to the back of their minds,” says Moffat, now a member of the Real Deal, the fledgling group of local paranormal researchers coordinating the conference. “I wanted to pursue it.”
Moffat’s story is the same as that of the majority of people at the conference. Few were born into families of ghost hunters. Most were skeptics until they saw or heard or felt something that could not be explained through earthly logic. Rather than ignore it or pass it off as the mind playing tricks, they have chosen to investigate — to prove, possibly, that they’re not crazy. Of course, to outsiders, a meeting of metaphysical detectives is crazy in itself. But spirit hunting is a passionate and quite serious subculture. Thanks to the Internet, the individual strands of the supernatural community have come together to form a tight-knit society: Many of those gathered at the Glen Tavern Inn this weekend know each other from past conferences in other parts of the country; at least one flew out from Illinois to be here. And, as the industry has grown, it has produced its own celebrities, including the heads of the Atlantic Paranormal Society, referred to as TAPS, who host the Sci-Fi Channel’s Ghost Hunters; Chris Fleming, co-host of the Biography Channel’s Dead Famous, who will be speaking in Santa Paula on the fusion of the psychic and the technical; and Ventura’s own Richard Senate, who will also be appearing to discuss “house memories” and “retrocognition.”
But the investigation of the Glen Tavern Inn is the weekend’s true highlight. Although it has gone through ups and downs over the decades — a major social scene in the 1920s, it degenerated into a flophouse post-World War II — the hotel looks relatively unchanged from when it was constructed as a companion piece to the train station across the street. With its wood panel interior, antique ceiling lamps and ornately framed mirrors, it seems like the place turn-of-the-century ghosts would feel comfortable spending eternity.
Moffat, who now identifies herself as an “empath” — meaning, she can walk into a building and absorb its history — says she has yet to pick up any vibes from the hotel prior to the investigation.
“But,” she adds, “it looks haunted.”
Like Gaston Méliès, Calvin, as he is known to paranormal researchers, worked in the movie industry. Also like Méliès, he enjoyed sinful behavior — gambling especially. A former actor, Calvin supposedly performed in the popular traveling variety show Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in the late 1800s. When the show ended, he went to Hollywood. He found employment saddling horses on the sets of silent westerns. Eventually, he found his way to Santa Paula, and to the Glen Tavern Inn. According to legend, one night Calvin was cleaning up at a card game in a room on the hotel’s third floor, where most disreputable activity allegedly took place. Another player accused him of cheating, and in the ensuing gunfight, Calvin was shot in the head and killed, his body dumped in a crawlspace.
In recent years, an apparition described by Woodward in her book The Ghosts of the Glen Tavern Inn as “wearing a white shirt, string tie, long hair and a beard” has been seen in different parts of the hotel, in the Ladies Powder Room on the first floor and in the kitchen, where, during recent remodeling, a cowboy hat pierced by what appeared to be a bullet hole was found inside a wall. Mostly, he has been spotted in and around Room 307 — perhaps the place where he met his demise.
No substantiating documents have been found to prove Calvin ever existed. But in the world of ghost hunting, myth and anecdotes are good enough for an investigation. And so, just past 1 a.m., Woodward and a group of conference attendees are again sitting in the dark in Room 307, each brandishing K2s, hoping to pick up on some spooky energy.
“This is a weird room,” Woodward says. More than one person is rumored to have been murdered here. In her book, Woodward writes about a blonde prostitute who was decapitated for unknown reasons, her corpse deposited via a dumbwaiter used to smuggle liquor upstairs during Prohibition. (Rin Tin Tin also stayed in 307 during the filming of The Night Cry in 1926, although he apparently survived unscathed.) Guests have recounted hearing scratching sounds emanating from the closet and knocking on the door, as well as seeing impressions on the bed spread.
Unfortunately, the only sound heard here this evening is the hum of the mini-fridge. The lights on the K2s do leap at odd moments, but the spikes seem too erratic to be conclusive.
At one point, though, one of the women in the room complains about a creeping sense of unease — like someone is staring over her shoulder. Her name is Maricela Diaz. She came to the conference at the behest of her brother, but she is no stranger to the paranormal; once, she had her house in Lompoc exorcised to remove a hostile spirit. She didn’t want to come here, because she knew something like this would happen. She says her hands are getting clammy. Another woman snaps three photos of her. The last two are clear, but the first is blurry. It looks as if Diaz is bathed in white mist.
“You know what I saw behind you?” Woodward announces. “A noose.”
Woodward instructs Diaz to tell the ghost — or whatever it is — to give her “personal space.” She does, but the feeling does not alleviate. She moves to another part of the room. She says it feels like her hands are being pulled back toward the closet. The discomfort is too much; she has to leave the room.
The rest of the group remains in 307 for a few more minutes. No one else is similarly possessed. Sensing the crowd is a bit freaked by the experience, Woodward decides to move on. She thanks the spirit for its attempt at contact, and corrals everyone out of the room.
They are not alone
It is now 2 a.m., and the lobby of the Glen Tavern Inn is filled with weary ghost hunters. Although the investigation was scheduled to go “all night,” it appears the two days worth of séances, demonology workshops, movie screenings and lectures on shadow people and telepathy has burned the group out early. Some are comparing notes, scanning their digital voice recorders for EVPs. Others are nodding off, breaking for their rooms or discussing plans to find a gas station that sells microwave burritos.
There does not appear to have been any groundbreaking, earth-shattering, vortex-of-the-universe-opening discoveries made. And that is fine. No one is presumptuous enough to expect to uncover such things in the course of a single weekend; most acknowledge they never will. But the underlying point of this conference is not necessarily to produce indisputable evidence of life after death: It is about the exploration, and the community of individuals willing to delve into the unknown. Perhaps there is nothing out there beyond what the eye can see, but in the physical world, they know, for a fact, that they are not alone.