October is, for me, a month filled with nostalgia. My mom and I would plot out our Halloween costumes while my pops dusted off the VHS collection of campy, film-noir slasher flicks. It was a celebration that seemed to last weeks, leading up to that infamous “night of the living high-fructose corn syrup,” and kicked off the holiday season.
Yet these warm and fuzzy customs are but a few of the associations surrounding All Hallow’s Eve. Some are of a more macabre, supernatural or paranormal nature. And for individuals who seek communication with another realm, there are several hotspots in Ventura County that are advantageous to such endeavors.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Ornate theaters are part of the cultural fabric of America, weaving together the earliest forms of entertainment to create a tapestry that depicts the history and creativity of our country. The Majestic Ventura Theater in Downtown Ventura was, and continues to be, one such champion of the arts. Its inception dates back to 1928, and the grandiose theater played host to a plethora of talent. Some of these performers enjoyed themselves so immensely that they decided to stay . . . forever.
During its heyday, the Majestic was frequented by countless visitors. Routine maintenance was necessary to keep the establishment up to par, and the person to whom this responsibility frequently fell was a man named Chester. He was a skilled handyman, capable of making any and all repairs, and one of his recurring tasks was the upkeep of the lavish chandelier that, to this day, hangs from the 30-foot ceiling above what is now the soundboard. One day, Chester set up the enormous ladder to climb toward the ceiling. As he was working, he lost his balance and slipped off the ladder, tragically tumbling to his death. Though void of his physical form, Chester still feels his work is left undone. My tour guide, Stefan Brigati, himself a paranormal investigator, elaborates on the lingering spirit of Chester as we embark on our adventure.
“A lot of the activity that comes from him [Chester] affects the maintenance staff, the ones trying to do their jobs. The vacuum cord has been pulled out of the wall. Cleaning the restroom only to go back in and find it’s dirty again, and that there’s foot steps on the floor,” Brigati said. “Where he fell, our sound guys have been affected. We even had a show where our head sound guy came outside saying that while he was doing the engineering, he was suddenly being lifted off the ground. Then it proceeded to happen so much that he was casual about it.”
Another common apparition floating about the Majestic is that of a young girl, Annabelle. She was supposedly attending a prom at the theater, and happened to be on the stage when a colored glass pane serving as a prop came falling down, beheading her. She is frequently seen dancing across the stage or in the upstairs lobby, often in front of a particular mirror. Annabelle is said to have a sweet and airy demeanor, and sometimes assists staff by keeping a watchful eye on the theater.
“She is actually one of the friendliest spirits we have at the Majestic; she’s even been known to help out with security,” claimed Brigati. “A long time ago, when we took over the theater, we had some staff staying upstairs during renovations. So one night they go to bed and turn off the lights. Well, that’s when some kids [tried] to break in the back door. One of the workers suddenly gets woken up by a woman’s voice, and then runs downstairs to chase the kids away. The next morning he called [manager] Loanne [Wullaert] and was asking where she went after waking him up. She told him that she’d been home all night . . . It was Annabelle.”
There are numerous accounts of spirits frequenting the Majestic’s nooks and crannies. From a thin and shadowy figure in the men’s bathroom on the balcony to men in zoot suits smoking cigarettes in the side wall stairway, the theater entertains many permeant occupants. During my tour, the old projector room seemed to run colder than any other area, which Brigati explained was due to the “mad projector.”
“One night after a show, we were hanging out with a guy who was a big nonbeliever in the paranormal, and so we asked if he’d be OK with being locked in the projector room for 15 minutes,” Brigati recalled. “And he was saying, ‘I’m not afraid, I’ll go do it now.’ So he goes in there and we head down to the stage. . . . Not even five minutes later, he’s got his head out of the projector hole, yelling, ‘What’s going on? Who just touched me?’ So we went up to get him and he immediately left the theater and never came back.”
Brigati and I proceeded to the balcony, where we found four aisle chairs with the seats inexplicably folded down. In addition, the aisle lights at the base of each seat were flickering on and off. It was an encounter that I felt could be explained by paranormal forces. They seem to be easy to find at the Majestic Theater, waiting eternally for the next performance.
Long before the infamous O.J. Simpson murder case dominated the airwaves, a previous “trial of the century” took place in Downtown Ventura . . . and its “star” seems to still pine for the spotlight, many years after shuffling off this mortal coil.
Elizabeth Ann “Ma” Duncan was a dangerous character. She was also the final woman to be executed in the state of California. Born around 1904, her early days were marked by a nomadic existence. She was supposedly married and divorced several times, in may have run a brothel at one point. Impulsive and reactive by nature, she built a reputation as a wicked woman, and one who should not be crossed.
None knew this better than Olga Duncan, Ma’s onetime caregiver who became the wife of Ma’s son, Frank. According to the rumor mill, Ma had an uncomfortably close relationship with Frank (inviting comparison to a certain fictional motel owner). Wishing to retain her son’s affection exclusively for herself, she plotted against Frank and Olga’s union from the onset. She made transparent threats and even hired a man to imitate Frank for the purpose of annulling the marriage. It was a true example of a monster-in-law, and it eventually came to a frightful crescendo.
Ma hired a pair of local thugs to murder Olga, along with her unborn child. When authorities found Olga’s body along the Casitas Pass, they determined that she had been beaten, strangled and possibly buried alive. (Dirt was found in her lungs.) When the hired hitmen were later identified and apprehended, they promptly flipped on Ma. She was incarcerated for a time at the Ventura City Hall jail before being sent to San Quentin State Prison, where she would eventually be executed in the gas chamber.
Richard Senate is a paranormal investigator and all-around historical authority on Ventura. He has spent many studious hours at local haunted spots and serves as a spirit tour guide for those brave enough to follow along. One of his ghost tours includes Ventura City Hall, with its hallways haunted by the eternally restless Ma.
“She [Ma] was considered evil. I talked to old timers who were at the trial, and it was like the O.J. Simpson trial. The whole nation was following it. And the courtroom was packed with reporters from all the major papers, even London and New Zealand,” Senate said. “Every day there was a new salacious event happening, and it was creating headline, whether it was the rumors of her having an incestuous relationship with her son or talking about crazy things, like killing people and boiling their bodies in acid. She was cuckoo.”
Many people have since reported seeing her image in various locations.
Ma’s apparition, however, is not the only one circulating the former halls of justice.
There are rumors of a judge who still oversees his courtroom, albeit from an alternate plane. As the story goes, the elderly judge was presiding over a trial and a recess was requested. It would be the last time he would leave the bench: He was found dead of a heart attack in his chambers. Some claim that he wanders the halls, still in his robe and potentially looking to bring villains to justice.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Driving past the sleepy town of Santa Paula, one can imagine this settlement to be nothing other than a pit stop between the coast and Los Angeles, a tiny appendage stemming from a road used by truckers and travelers avoiding the dreaded 405. But rewind the clock more than a century and this small town tells a much different story, that of affluence and high society. Once considered one of the wealthiest towns in California per capita, Santa Paula was a major hub of the agriculture and oil industries, and home to the Union Oil Company. Several magnate-status families ran the roost, and often entertained East Coast blue-blood visitors who arrived after a weary cross-country steam train journey. These influential families decided Santa Paula was in need of luxurious lodging, and thus was the Glen Tavern Inn conceptualized and constructed.
Designed by famed architect firm Burns and Hunt and within walking distance of the train depot, the opulent Glen Tavern Inn swiftly became a backdrop for Gatsby-esque soirées. As the landscape of industrial America began to shift, some prominent families relocated, and the social and economic atmosphere of Santa Paula (like much of the U.S.) began to morph toward more hedonistic appetites during Prohibition.
As America became dry, the Glen Tavern Inn was happy to indulge customers looking to sate their lust for newly taboo vices. The third floor was rumored to be a covert speakeasy and brothel, where the Inn played host to a multitude of surly characters, from gamblers to prostitutes and even Hollywood stars escaping Tinseltown for the weekend. The “proprietor” of this veiled club was said to be a violent individual who took it upon himself to play judge, jury and executioner when it came to matters related to the establishment.
One storied occurrence involved a slick-handed gambler named Calvin (or Wilbur) who found himself on the wrong end of a pistol after a heated exchange over perceived cheating. According to legend, he was shot dead through his cowboy hat, and Calvin has since been seen and heard on many occasions by both guests and staff.
His murder took place in the infamous room 307, which is said to host the most paranormal activity. This may also be due to the gruesome murder of a woman who, according to reports, was either a prostitute or mistress. Her body was found beheaded in the closet, quite possibly for overhearing some words that she shouldn’t have. Few concrete details are known of this heinous act, but the victim’s restless soul apparently remains to this day, perhaps looking for retribution. Many guests (including the Majestic’s Brigati during an anniversary getaway) have had encounters or reported difficulty sleeping or a general sense of anxiety when occupying the room. Staff members have even refused to enter it alone.
Employee Delfina Johnson has personally had a spine-tingling encounter, and lived to tell the tale: “There was no one staying on the third floor, and I was cleaning room 305, and I see somebody pass behind me. But I didn’t pay it much attention because I thought it was just a guest. So I keep cleaning and bring a pile of laundry to the door when I see a lady walk down the hall toward room 307. She was a tall girl, with long blonde hair and an old dress, like from the 1930s. But she didn’t have any shoes, and she was moving like she was maybe drunk. So I called downstairs and asked if anyone had checked in to the third floor, and they said no. So I go back in to the room to get the rest of the laundry, when I see the lady walk by the doorway again. This time she seemed to float and move really slow. I dropped all of the laundry and my supplies and ran downstairs.”
Manager Dustin Aremburg has endured his own unexplainable occurrence. One day he was assisting some guests with a holiday photo shoot. Opting for the fireplace as a backdrop, Aremburg raised the guest’s camera and instantly noticed a curious sight in the view screen.
“I took a picture of a mother and daughter sitting over by the lobby fireplace, and in both the pictures you can see this orb that’s very intricate,” he said. “And you see it close to the ladies in the first picture, then in the second picture it moved higher up, which I thought was strange. So then we went over by the Christmas tree and as I’m focusing the digital camera, I realize that, in the screen, there’s this mist that’s all around them, which wasn’t visible except when the camera was pointed at the ladies. Then I took a picture and there was nothing there at all.”
There have been several reports of guests attempting to enter a room, only to find that it has been locked from the inside.
“We’ve had people on the third floor, in room 301, where the door was dead-bolted from the inside and the master set of keys didn’t open it,” Aremburg explained. “So they [maintenance staff] had to actually use a ladder and go through the the window. This was happening more often about 10 years ago, when the new owners bought the place and began renovation. There was a lot of activity then.”
I even have my own unsettling Glen Tavern Inn story. When I first moved to Ventura County, I paid a visit to the California Oil Museum. Afterward, I randomly passed by the Glen Tavern Inn, and was immediately drawn to its English Tudor architecture. I entered the ornately designed lobby and asked the man at the front desk if I could explore a bit. He obliged and I started my tour. On the third floor I immediately felt unsettled, as it was lit by a single red exit sign at the end of the horror-movie-like hallway — the kind that seems to warp and expand. I was very uncomfortable. I returned to the lobby and mentioned my experience to the employee. That was when I first learned about the dark history of the hotel.
The Inn is by far the most responsive supernatural environment I’ve experienced — and I have been in many a haunted hotel or graveyard. It has become a regular stop for paranormal investigators, celebrity and hobbyists alike, and it’s a decent first-date spot for those seeking an adventure that’s out of the ordinary or, should I say, to die for.