The Billiwhack monster of Aliso Canyon. La Llorona. The Lady in White on Hightway 126. These are some of our county’s most prevalent ghost stories, told and retold around campfires, at pajama parties, on blogs and in books and even in the pages of this publication. At first glance, Evie Ybarra’s book of local legends, Ghosts of Ventura County’s Heritage Valley, seems to follow in these very familiar footsteps — and indeed, to those steeped in local lore and myth, there won’t be many surprises here. What makes Ybarra’s book different, however, is that she’s not merely relating “what legend says,” but the first-hand accounts of these tales, and providing substantial research to bolster the storytelling.
“I talked to people about their experiences,” Ybarra says. “These are stories people actually believed, or believed really happened to them. Others are stories people told me, firsthand, of what they’d seen. And they were incredible; I had to share these stories.”
Ghost stories have always fascinated the author, historian and educator. “When I was 4, my mother told me my first ghost story — and I was hooked!” Ybarra recalls. She’s now retired, but the Ventura resident taught in Ventura County schools for decades, at every level (elementary, middle and high school) and in various regions, notably at Emilie Ritchen Elementary and Norman R. Brekke Elementary in Oxnard and Fillmore’s San Cayetano Elementary. Every fall, her creative writing lessons would involve ghost stories. “They brought in stories their moms and dads knew,” she recalled, noting that these weren’t merely fictional or embellished accounts, but experiences being passed down from generation to generation — and repeated as memory and history, not merely as thrilling tales to spook impressionable youngsters. “Many of these stories are well-told without the smoke and mirrors,” Ybarra notes. “People are speaking from the heart.” That, in her opinion, makes them more authentic.
For example, the tale of the teenage boys who encountered La Llorona, the “Weeping Woman,” at Sespe Creek, is full of very specific details that localize and personalize the story. What Ybarra herself says of it gives one pause as well. “Lots of people were at that party, and talked to me,” she says — and there was no conflict among the many individual accounts. The encounter three horseback riders might have had with the Billiwhack Monster resulted in an actual death. Ybarra mentions by name many of the people she interviewed, but other contributors are kept anonymous at their request. Maintaining their privacy is important to Ybarra. “People have to know that they are sharing these stories with someone they can trust.”
In an interesting twist, some stories involve more than one spooky experience. The young woman who died after meeting the Billiwhack Monster returns to haunt her Santa Paula neighborhood. Boys who encounter the Lady in White along Highway 126 see her after leaving a party held at the haunted Glen Tavern Inn. Rancho Camulos is said to be haunted as well, and the fact that it was once owned by August Rübel, the one-time proprietor of the Billiwhack Dairy (and home of its monster), is an eerie coincidence. Spirits from the St. Francis Dam disaster pop up in the same spots as unsolved murders, unexplained disappearances and mysterious glowing orbs. Where one ghost story arises, it would seem, others are sure to follow.
Aside from the spooky tales, one of this book’s greatest pleasures is the impressive amount of history it contains. Extensive research into Heritage Valley’s past, its major players and events, goes into every chapter. Ybarra interviewed people who knew characters such as August Rübel and various victims, and scoured local libraries, museums, newspapers and court records to document the reality, and provide a background and framework for the uncanny. The research library at the Museum of Ventura County and the John Nichols Gallery were especially helpful, and John Nichols himself wrote the foreword.
Ghosts of Ventura County’s Heritage Valley has some surprises for the casual reader of local lore, like Lake Piru’s Lady of the Lake and the shadow people of Bardsdale. These stories are told in a matter-of-fact manner, without embellishment, judgment or persuasion. Ybarra feels that’s as it should be: She’s sharing what she’s heard from others, and isn’t trying to convince anyone of anything. “It’s open-ended. People can take from it what they want.”
But the best thing to take from this book is its ability to chill, thrill and mystify. Why not suspend disbelief for a while, and just enjoy a scary tale on a dark night?
Evie Ybarra will sign books at the Agriculture Museum, 926 Railroad Ave., Santa Paula, on Sunday, Oct. 30, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call 525-3100 or visit www.venturamuseum.org. Ghosts of Ventura County’s Heritage Valley is available from Arcadia Publishing and Amazon. For more information, go to www.arcadiapublishing.com.