By COREY LEVITAN
The entity had a message for those of us occupying Room 508 of the Grande Colonial Hotel on Sunday night. Uttered in a voice like Stephen Hawking’s synthesizer, that message was “RUN.”
Maritza Skandunas, founder of San Diego Ghost Hunters, and her colleague, Peter Gieblewicz, responded by laughing. They said they hear stuff like this all the time. “Lots of spirits enjoy playing pranks,” Skandunas said.
My response to the message was different, and involved nearly having to purchase new boxers. This is the room I volunteered to sleep in afterward as part of this story.
According to the Grande Colonial “ghost log” — the hotel promotes its otherworldly appeal — the non-living occupant of Room 508 revealed herself in November 2005 to a nurse sleeping there as a “strange, soft glow” that seemed like a sweet, harmless 24-year-old woman with brown hair and a light lace dress named Abigail Trent. (Supposedly, before filing this incredibly specific ghost report, the nurse didn’t believe in the paranormal.)
But no sweet, harmless Abigail identified herself to us. The spirit here was named Ann. Or at least that’s what the voice told us. It also gave us the names Abe and Brent. Skandunas asked how many were gathered around us? The answer was 11. (I should have booked a bigger room.)
The device is called a Ghost Box Ovilus. It assigns a couple thousand words to environmental readings. Thus, sentences can be constructed by electromagnetic-field fluctuations. “It’s always slow at first, as the spirits learn to use it,” Skandunas said. “But once they figure it out, they can get really chatty.”
There were mentions of “prohibition” and “purgatory.” “Israel” came up more than any other word, about five times (making me wonder if it sensed I was Jewish). Then Gieblewicz announced he saw shadows outside in the hall and asked if an entity wanted to be let in. (“Correct,” the Ovilus replied, so he opened the front door.)
But the most impressive evidence of the supernatural, to me anyway, came two minutes after I opened a curtain to peer outside. “Curtain,” the Ovilus said. Skandunas explained: “They don’t like light.”
Reports of paranormal phenomena are frequent and consistent at the Grande Colonial. Opened by A.B. Harlan and George Bane as The Colonial Apartments and Hotel at 910 Prospect St. on Feb. 1, 1913, the La Jolla Cove landmark became an eventual favorite of celebrities including Groucho Marx, Charleston Heston and Gregory Peck (whose dad ran the onsite pharmacy). The conference room that served as the original building’s lobby once stood in as a World War II barracks. And many people died here over the years, according to receptionist Jesse O’Brien.
“Last week, there was a woman who left in the middle of the night because she freaked out,” O’Brien told us. “She said she had a pitcher of water and nothing was in it, and when she woke up in the middle of the night, the pitcher was full.”
When I mentioned this assignment for La Jolla Light to Skandunas, she jumped at the chance to participate. She and Gieblewicz brought along their tools — which also included the Wonderbox (an Ovilus competitor), a talking teddy bear, EMF readers and divining rods.
“I’ve felt spirits since I was four years old,” said Skandunas, a North Park native. “They were all around my bed. They would grab my ankles and pull me out of bed sometimes. I’d scream to high heaven and my mom would run in.”
Skandunas, a devout Catholic, started San Diego Ghost Hunters in 2003. She claims the scariest thing she ever encountered was at the William Heath Davis House, where she used to work as a historian before retiring.
“I saw a man sitting between the doors,” she said. “I could see his head and body and his legs went out and were crossed. And every time I took pictures, he wouldn’t show up. Then all of a sudden, he was laying flat on the ground and he turned into a cricket. And he started scurrying real fast towards me. So I screamed and he went right through me.”
Skandunas is a sweet lady who seems to believe what she says, and there are plenty of facts that science can’t explain about the universe that seem even creepier than Stephen King stories — such as entangled particles and what existed before the Big Bang. But that doesn’t automatically render Stephen King stories all true. When faced with a choice, I will throw in with science every time.
“Upstairs,” the Ovilus said. Drats, I was afraid of this. Right outside Room 508, there is a long stairway ascending into pitch blackness. On the way into the room, Gieblewicz glanced at it and said even he was scared of what he felt up there (and he doesn’t look like he would be scared of anything).
“I feel some heavy activity here,” Gieblewicz said as we climbed the stairs (and by “we,” I mean them, with me trailing far behind). A landing speckled with old chairs, and a view of the roof, slowly revealed itself. That’s when a little girl screamed — quite clearly — and I descended — quite quickly.
It’s entirely possible that Skandunas and Gieblewicz are full of it — that their parlor tricks come pre-programmed with creepy words and that more relevant responses can be typed in, without a journalist noticing, in a dark room. It’s possible that the girl’s scream came from one of the occupied rooms and that all the hot and cold spots we simultaneously felt in the hallway — oh, did I forget to mention those? — were just hot and cold spots.
At least that’s all the stuff I told myself as I tried falling asleep after Gieblewicz and Skandunas concluded their investigation and headed home, declaring the Grande Colonial definitely haunted but not nearly as much as the William Heath Davis Home or the Whaley House Museum.
Around 1 a.m., unable to sleep due to the newly acquired significance of every unexplained old-hotel creek, I scrolled through the photos I took earlier. This did not help me sleep. The one of the doorway, when Gieblewicz invited the spirit in, featured a white orb I hadn’t seen while taking the photo. At that point, I switched every single light in the room on, as bright as it would go — since I hear they hate light — and cuddled like a frightened toddler with my king-size down pillow.
Whether or not you believe in the paranormal is an issue entirely separate from trying to sleep in the same room where people have spent two hours saying things like: “There’s a little girl here, hiding in the bathroom. Come out, little girl!”
At 2 a.m., the main light in the room switched off. Entirely on its own. Reconciliation was now instantly required between my scientific worldview and the OMG! definitive supernatural evidence unfolding before me. This was no longer just entangled-particle creepiness. This was Abigail about to hop into bed with me, all brown hair and lace, for some alone time now that those annoying others went home.
Before surrendering to this world in which the monsters I feared in my closet as a 10-year-old were probably all there, however, it occurred to me to summon the courage to walk across my haunted hotel room to investigate the light switch.
It was on a timer.