Feel a chill this Halloween? It’s not just the cold snap. People like to tell stories about San Diego’s haunted history this time of year, and there’s enough truth behind them to make anyone shiver.
Whether her ghost is still with us or not, a young woman named Kate Morgan did die mysteriously and tragically at the Hotel Del Coronado. There’s indeed a playground sitting on top of dead bodies in Mission Hills. And the supposed spirits of Whaley House — including one spotted by Regis Philbin — include the spectral remains of a man who was actually hanged, swinging “back and forth like a pendulum,” where the building now stands.
On the fictional front, we’re home to spooky urban legends too, like South Bay’s Proctor Valley Monster. And Hollywood has turned our fair county into a hotspot for horror-film explorations of everything from renegade vegetables to hidden horror in the suburbs. (Looking at you, Rancho Peñasquitos!)
Here are a few tales from San Diego’s spooky side:
That’s the Spirit
The Whaley House, one of the most famous “haunted” houses in the country, is said to be inhabited by the ghosts of those who died there, often at the end of a rope. Multiple visitors have reported seeing spirits, and the Old Town historic home is pleased to promote its spooky side on its website and Twitter feed.
But there’s something peculiar going on at the Whaley House. Very peculiar.
Last year, a production company released “The Haunting of Whaley House,” a straight-to-video horror movie featuring the malicious ghosts of Thomas Whaley, an early settler of modern San Diego, and “Yankee Jim,” who was hanged in 1852 at the house site. (He “kept his feet in the wagon as long as possible, but was finally pulled off,” a local newspaper reported. “He swung back and forth like a pendulum until he strangled to death.”)
As CityBeat noted in a revealing story last year, “the filmmakers took great liberties with the Whaley legacy.” Yankee Jim, for example, has powers to melt people’s skin. “None of this is mentioned in the official Whaley House brochure,” CityBeat notes wryly.
Here’s the peculiar part: The Save Our Heritage Organisation, which runs the Whaley House, distanced itself from the movie. “The information available on the film depicts the Whaley House as a location of significant paranormal activity, which results in the exposure of visitors to unimaginable horrors and physical violence,” a SOHO official told CityBeat. “Clearly this is not consistent with the image that SOHO strives to promote.”
Wait a minute. The house does promote itself as being haunted. But there there’s no “significant paranormal activity or “unimaginable horrors”?
Sounds like exactly what the ghosts would like us to think.
A Haunting Story in Coronado
The “Beautiful Stranger,” the newspaper called her. Kate Morgan was her name (although she was calling herself Lottie A. Bernard), and she came to her end on a stormy night in 1892 at the Hotel del Coronado, shot in the head by a person unknown. Legend has it that her spirit still strolls the halls of the grand hotel.
“She might have been a grifter known for conning men with her husband in railway cars. Maybe she was pregnant and fell into despair after giving herself an abortion. Perhaps she did herself in; she’d bought a handgun across the bay just the other day,” I wrote about the case. “The authorities thought it was suicide. But they came to a decision quickly, and future generations of authors and crime buffs wondered if they missed a murder.”
South Bay Does the Monster Mash
If you grew up in the South Bay anytime in the last 50 years, there’s a good chance someone told you a story about the Proctor Valley Monster around the campfire at fifth-grade camp.
The tale usually goes something like this: A young couple drives out to a remote lover’s lane out by the town of Bonita (now part of Chula Vista). The boy goes off for help when the car won’t start. He doesn’t return, and the girl waits in a panic.
U-T San Diego picks up the story: “When sheriff’s deputies helped her from the car the next day, she saw that the scratching on the roof had been her boyfriend’s fingernails – his arms dangling from a body torn and bloody and hanging upside down from a tree, the victim of a bestial attack.”
Some versions of the story describe the “monster” as a Bigfoot-type character. But the details differ.
A Graveyard Smash
It’s not an urban legend: Bodies are indeed buried below Mission Hills Park, also known as Pioneer Park, a grassy plot of land with a playground next to Grant Elementary School. Lots of bodies, in fact: about 800.
As we’ve explained in a couple history flashback stories (here and here), the park land was a Catholic cemetery from the 1870s through the 20th century but fell into disrepair. The city, as is allowed by state law, turned the cemetery into a park.
Most of the headstones went away, creating a headache for the city when workers dumped them at another cemetery. Some still remain at the park as a memorial, however. The bodies weren’t interred, and they’re still there.
Attack of the Killer Horror Movies
Maybe there’s something attractive about the play of light and shadow on camera here. More likely we’re just a cheap and convenient place to film stuff. Whatever the case, La Mesa writer David Moye, a senior reporter and weird news specialist at the Huffington Post, has discovered that several horror and monster movies with San Diego connections.
“I was surprised so many horror films have been made here,” he said. “I’d thought the scariest thing in the city was the housing prices.” (Zing!)
The list includes 1969’s “The Blood of Dracula’s Castle,” which features John Carradine and a scene with go-go girls at SeaWorld, and 1977’s “The Crater Lake Monster,” about a giant dinosaur attacking people in Oregon. It was actually filmed at Palomar Mountain. “The guy who did the special effects also did the talking Mrs. Butterworth commercials, which are scarier than the monster,” Moye said.
There’s more, according to Moye: The “Jaws” ripoff “Tentacles” (1977) includes a scene at La Jolla’s Children’s Pool, 1988’s “Slaughterhouse” was filmed and set in Lakeside, and 1972’s serial killer thriller “Wicked Wicked” was set at the Hotel Del Coronado.
The most notable scary local movie from a blockbuster perspective is “Paranormal Activity,” which was filmed in Rancho Peñasquitos and chronicles a suburban family’s encounters with the supernatural. “The film, which seems to celebrate the suburbs’ cookie-cutter condo architecture, cost literally thousands of dollars but has made $200 million globally and started a franchise,” Moye said.
And then there’s the most notorious San Diego movie of all in any genre, 1978’s “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.”
“It has its charms, but it’s too good to be bad, and not bad enough to be good,” Moye said.
Now that’s scary.