A guide to the South Bay's most famous ghosts and haunted spots.
Halloween is the holiday when we become obsessed with the things that scare us. We watch more scary movies. We purchase scary costumes. We visit haunted houses. We put Donald Trump on the national ticket. Basically, we buy all the way in. But what truly frightens us isn’t a foul-mouthed Leprechaun, an anemic girl with a grudge or yet another Mike Myers movie—although a new Austin Powers or Shrek would be terrifying! It’s the mysterious places that never go out of season. Old hotels, shady restaurants and even a few hiking trails top the list of South Bay’s most notorious haunts. We tracked down the stories behind the region’s biggest urban legends. Most of these spots are open to the public, but enter at your own risk.
The Great Earthquake of 1906, and the ensuing fires, decimated San Francisco. But the temblor also rocked the South Bay. The old Agnews State Hospital—originally knowns as “The Great Asylum for the Insane”—collapsed in the quake and more than 100 patients died in the catastrophe. Today, the rebuilt treatment building sits at the center of the historic Sun Microsystems-Agnews complex in Santa Clara. It is recognized by the National Park Service for its architecture and history of pioneering modern mental health practices. Others recognize it as a hotbed for paranormal activity. Also, Green Day recorded their “Basket Case” video here.
One of the better and more demanding hiking trails in the South Bay, China Hole is a beautiful trail with a dark past. Many of its hikers try and stay as far away as possible from the creek. The story goes that a woman’s ex-lover drowned her here in the 1800s. Her angry spirit reportedly still haunts the creek, taking cheating men who visit the creek along with her.
Claudia’s Garden at Gilroy Gardens
Gilroy Gardens is a fun spot for families, with its beautiful gardens, Ferris wheel and restaurants that sell the town’s eponymous garlic fries. (Take a hike, McDonald’s.) But late at night, the amusement park can be scarier than one might think. Late-night crews have reported seeing the small carousel in Claudia’s Garden turn on and off by itself, and in a more recent report loud drumming was heard coming from one of the stages after the park was closed.
Coyote Creek Trail
Coyote Creek is a widely known hiking trail. It’s beautiful but deadly. In 1909, a woman and her child fell victim to what many believed was a mountain lion. Years later, hikers of the trail have felt an uncomfortable presence, almost as if the ghosts of the deceased were trying to tell them something.
Del Mar High School
Before the school opened, a boy was reportedly murdered by his best friend on the grounds where the athletics field stands today. Legend has it that every night at 3:15am, screams can be heard coming from the field and sometimes a figure can be seen running up and down the bleachers.
While many South Bay suburbs can feel desolate after dark, there is only one true ghost town in the region. Founded in 1876 as an outpost along the South Pacific Coast Railroad, the town’s original inhabitants manned the two drawbridges at either end of Station Island. Over the ensuing century the railway stop—located between Alviso and Fremont—drew many settlers, but the soggy marshland underneath the once-bustling town has swallowed up the 90 buildings that once stood there. Visitors are not allowed to see Drawbridge these days, though adventure seekers often trespass. The best way to get a legal view is from the Altamont Commuter Express, the Capitol Corridor and the Coast Starlight trains that pass nearby.
Overlooking the South Bay, high up in the foothills along Mt. Hamilton Road, the Grandview Restaurant treats patrons to good food, tasty libations, live music and an epic vista of Silicon Valley. It’s also rumored that one guest returns more frequently than any other—the ghost of a young girl, gazing out at the hazy yellow glow of San Jose. People have tried to approach her in the past, but she vanishes before they can get close enough to grab her. Also, lights have been known to flicker erratically and turn on all by themselves.
No, we’re not talking about the amusement park’s annual Halloween Haunt, in which costumed staffers chase and ambush paid visitors. The ghosts who haunt Great America in Santa Clara trace back to the tragic deaths of people killed on the rides and the man who froze to death in the Roast Beef Shop’s walk-in freezer. A man’s ghost has reportedly flickered into view on security cameras by the Big Arcade and Drop Zone. Throughout the park, visitors have also reported inexplicable cold spots, taps on the shoulder and whispers of disembodied voices.
This dark myth is a golden oldie. The eerie Hicks Road in San Jose passes through a wild area of the county, thus making it a prime backdrop for a pervasive urban legend. It is said that albinos, or sometimes witches or recluses, angrily chase trespassers who wander (or deliberately joyride) through their territory.
Depending on your point of view, Joaquin Murrieta was either a heroic Robin Hood-like figure or a ruthless bandit. Though facts are hard to come by, Murietta was a Mexican national drawn to Northern California during the Gold Rush. Legend has it that he was driven from his lucrative claim by white men who raped his wife. After that, he became an outlaw, specializing in doling out vigilante justice. The Legend of Zorro may have been influenced by the tales surrounding Murrieta’s life and maybe—just maybe—his cabeza remains buried in a glass jar somewhere in the foothills between San Jose and Fremont. Happy head-hunting!
Lexington and Alma
Once important rail stops for loggers in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the towns of Lexington and Alma boasted stage stops, saloons, hotels and general stores. The remains of the once-bustling way station have long since been submerged beneath a murky reservoir. The underwater ghost towns just off of Highway 17 by Los Gatos were largely abandoned and demolished to make way for the James J. Lenihan dam built in 1950. When the water level falls low enough, remnants can be seen of roads and occasionally the specters of long-dead denizens.
It’s become almost a rite of passage for Milpitas high school kids to seek out the ghost of murder victim Marcy Conrad, who was killed by her boyfriend on Marsh Road. Unlike the back stories of most urban legends, this murder was real and well-documented. The area of Marsh Road where the ghost is said to roam has long been closed off by law enforcement, so leave the Mystery Machine at home.
Folks from all over the country are familiar with this quirky tourist trap in the Santa Cruz Mountains, thanks to its iconic bumper stickers. Tour guides are happy to explain how gravitational and magnetic anomalies are at play. While inside the the wonky cabin—which is tilted at a severe angle at the top of a steep hill—balls appear to roll uphill. Standing outside the structure, people seem to grow and shrink before your very eyes. Scientists at Berkeley have explained these phenomena away as optical illusions, but people remain convinced that something supernatural is afoot among the towering redwoods. Yeah, believe what you want.
Old Gilroy Hotel
Back before it was used as a city building, the Gilroy Hotel was a safe haven for travelers going back and forth to the Bay Area. It housed families and lonesome strangers, some more sinister than others. According to a report, two ghosts, a little girl and an older woman haunt the building. One night a man came in and killed them during their stay, leaving their souls trapped in the old hotel forever. Some say that they have seen the little girl looking out the window, while another patron reportedly had his neck touched by a passing spirit.
Before it became an elite private academy, Menlo Park’s Peninsula School housed happy newlyweds James and Carmelita Coleman. The much-older Mr. Coleman built the gleaming white mansion in 1880 as a gift for his new bride. But their honeymoon bliss was cut short by a stray bullet that fatally struck the newly minted Mrs. Coleman on a trip to San Francisco. Her bereaved husband sold the mansion and never returned. But his young bride’s spirit stayed in the house he made for her.
Quimby Road Jogger
Never drive along Quimby Road at midnight. Why, you ask? You may just run into one of San Jose’s most notorious ghost figures, the Quimby Road Jogger. Some have driven to Quimby Road just so they could get a good look at the ghost-runner. Don’t try and run alongside him though—he’s known to disappear into the hills once spotted.
German immigrant Henry Rengstorff, an early settler of what would later become the town of Mountain View, built the “R House” in 1867. The 16-room mansion, with its elaborate furnishings and widow’s walk garden, remained in the family until 1959. But subsequent occupants never settled for long, claiming to be chased away by the supernatural presence of a mournful young woman. When the house later fell into disrepair, her lonely apparition scared away squatters. Since the Rengstorff House became a museum, its resident spirit has grown more tolerant of visitors. Guests say they sometimes hear her weep or see her colorless face peer from the window of an upstairs bedroom.
Santa Clara University Mansion
The Santa Clara, SCU’s student paper, has confirmed that the university sits on the site of several Native American burial grounds. However, that still doesn’t explain the ghosts of Jesuit monks that are rumored to wander near the bell tower of the mission after dark.
Santa Teresa County Park
There are several versions of the campfire story that involves the small pond in Santa Teresa Springs, but they all end the same way—a girl named Dottie is pulled under the water by a giant hand. Sometimes there is a sub-plot involving Dottie being angry at her parents and somehow mustering up the physical strength to hang them from the rafters in the nearby barn.
Now a popular hiking destination, Mount Madonna’s Sprig Trail is also popular with undead spirits. Henry Miller, one of the most prosperous cattle farmers of the Gold Rush era, had a summer home at Mount Madonna County Park that he shared with his daughter, Sarah. At age 8, Sarah Miller tragically died in a horseriding accident. To this day, hikers and campers have seen the little girl roaming around the ruins of her father’s mansion, as well as outside along the trail. She is identified by either the frilly white dress she wears, or is seen with the horse that ultimately killed her. Some campers have awoken in the morning to find small foot and hoof prints around their tent. People leaving the park have also reported seeing Sarah trying to hitch a ride on the side of the road or even sitting in the backseat of their cars.
Toys “R” Us
The spirit that haunts Sunnyvale’s Toys “R” Us lost his leg and his life nearly a century before the store broke ground along East El Camino Real in the 1970s. In one telling, a poor minister named Johnny Johnson was chopping wood while agonizing over unrequited love. The woman he secretly adored had married a wealthy lawyer far above Johnny’s station. In the throes of heartbreak, he swung the axe right onto his leg and slowly died in a puddle of blood and tears. Since Toys “R” Us erected its big-box shop over the scene of poor Johnny’s tragic demise, he’s said to stalk the aisles, flinging merchandise off the shelves and turning faucets on and off.
In the Niles Canyon foothills, a winding two-lane road that connects Fremont to Livermore and Pleasanton is said to be home to the White Witch. Many say she is the ghost of a teen who was killed in a car accident on the way to prom. Most tellings follow the archetypal “vanishing hitchhiker” urban legend. A young girl, dressed in all white, will ask solitary drivers for a ride to San Francisco but vanish while being transported across the bay. Others claim to have seen this spectre while walking along the railroad tracks cutting through the canyon.
Winchester Mystery House
When gun magnate William Winchester died in 1881, he left his widow $20 million and the curse of being haunted by the ghosts of all the people killed by his eponymous line of rifles. Sarah Winchester tried to outrun them at a psychic’s behest, moving from New Haven, Conn., to San Jose, where she bought an old farmhouse and turned it into a rambling mansion. The Victorian-style home has 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 47 fireplaces, 40 staircases, 13 bathrooms and nine kitchens—built, it is said, in an effort to protect its owner from the gun-slain spirits. Preservationists recently discovered yet another room, which Sarah sealed after the 1906 earthquake, to trap the ghosts she thought caused the quake. Since her death in 1922, it’s said that Sarah’s ghost haunts the labyrinth house of mystery.
Yoshihiro Uchida Hall
It’s well-known that San Jose State University (SJSU) was used as a processing site for Japanese internees during WWII. Students and staff have long claimed to hear faint human crying and voices coming from this building, named after SJSU alum and judo coach whose parents and siblings were registered in the building before being sent to camps in the Imperial Valley.