Searching For Ghosts in San Diego

Want to play paranormal games in real life? These haunted hotels can help.

Photography by Bill Wiatrik October 6, 2017

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The Grande Colonial Hotel in its earlier days.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

I had just checked in to the Grande Colonial La Jolla and everything seemed as normal as it could be. As I turned toward the elevator, the man at the desk stopped me. “You don’t want to forget this,” he said as he passed a small attaché case across the counter. “It’s your ghost hunter kit. It comes with the ‘special rooms.’” I’d played a ghost hunter in a small film called Project Aether in 2011, but didn’t imagine I’d actually be doing it for real.

The hotel set me up with one of their most haunted rooms. There are several spots throughout the property where guests have reported strange sightings and noises but the front desk assured me that the resident ghost in room 510 was good-tempered and quite harmless. To date, I’ve never seen any disembodied spirits, even though I’ve stayed in my share of creepy places. I even spent the night on the Queen Mary near room B-340 that’s had so many reports of paranormal experiences, no guests are allowed to sleep there. Was my experience about to change?

Ghost hunter shows seem, to me, to revolve around a lot of buildup and not much action. I’ve often wondered why so many people watch those shows in spite of the lack of of a payoff. The truth is, Americans love ghost stories. Our culture has a fascination with haunted things and many hotels with a “history” have embraced their demons and use it in their marketing rather than pretending the paranormal element doesn’t exist.

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The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado

Take, for instance, The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, which plays The Shining on one of their channels 24 hours a day. Why? It was the hotel Stephen King stayed at one night in 1973 as an only guest. His experiences inspired him to write the bestselling book that later became the classic Stanley Kubrick-directed thriller. The Stanley Hotel even served as the filming location for the 1997 TV miniseries. Every room in the hotel has had reports of noises, ghostly images or things moving by themselves; it’s the poster child of haunted hotels.

The Grande Colonial La Jolla has plenty of its own stories. The reception desk has gotten many ghostly calls from rooms that don’t have guests staying in them. Patrons have reported seeing otherworldly figures in their rooms, have heard doors slamming, and have experienced lights and TVs turning on and off on their own. Groucho Marx was a frequent guest of the hotel and liked to play practical jokes. Maybe he’s still playing them today.

I opened the door of my hotel room and what I saw was shocking: brown carpet with green furniture. Actually, the room looked fantastic—particularly for a hotel that had been built over 100 years ago. The truth was that I was more curious about the contents of the case the reception had given me than I was about the toiletries in the bathroom or unpacking my suitcase. I wanted to see what toys lie hidden inside. When I opened the case, I realized these weren’t cheap playthings at all. The kit was legit. I didn’t know how to use everything in the case, but the motion detector and the recorder seemed pretty obvious. I put the batteries in the motion detector and it immediately scared the bejeezus out me as it let out a deafening sonic blast. It was a little too sensitive to set up without waking up the entire hotel, so I opted not to use it.

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A trusty ghost hunting kit from the Grande Colonial Hotel La Jolla.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

I soon realized that the devices in the case required reading instructions or finding a professional ghost hunter to show me how to use them. Sure, I’d played one onscreen, but had I done any research on my role? No. I had downloaded a phone app that looked like it actually did something and waved my phone around on camera. As I pulled out the real EMF detector, the needle jumped around like a possessed VU meter. Did that mean there were ghosts? Who knows? Did I mention I’m not good at reading instructions? I gave up after half an hour of trying to insert batteries and trying to operate the other goodies in the box. It didn’t help that I had recently imbibed two Manhattans. Note to self: don’t drink and ghost-hunt. The weird noises you hear could be you.

For those who like the idea of having supernatural experiences, what better way to keep yourself busy than being able to use professional equipment in a place that is famous for its paranormal activity? I have never visited a hotel who took their hauntings seriously enough to provide you with DIY tools. What a great idea!

The hotel is in a prime spot, less than a five-minute walk to La Jolla cove. You can almost hear the sea lions at the hotel. Or is it the ghosts of sea lions? When you're staying in a haunted hotel, you’re not really even sure if you’re seeing and hearing things or making them up to fit your preconceived ideas.

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The Horton Grand Hotel

Image: Bill Wiatrak

I hated to leave my beautiful getaway in La Jolla without meeting the ghost that frequented my room, but I wanted to pack in as many experiences as possible in my two-day trip and I had a reservation at the Horton Grand Hotel in the Gaslamp District of San Diego. This area, which covers 16-and-a-half blocks, is a collection of Victorian buildings that date back to 1867; today, it a busy mix of bars, restaurants and trendy clubs. The Horton Hotel is actually two buildings (a hotel and brothel) that were taken apart brick-by-brick and lovingly reconstructed in the 1970s, after barely being saved from city demolition by local historians. Apparently, the ghosts stuck around through all the hubbub and this beautiful hotel has become a staple on any ghost tour in the area.

Roger Whitaker was a gambler in the mid-1800s who checked into the Horton Hotel and never checked out. After being shot once, he hid in the armoire in his room. He was discovered, killed and many believe that his room, 309, is the most haunted room in the hotel. Beds shake, lights flicker and the armoire opens and closes itself reportedly. Other spirits including a former brothel owner and various people dressed in Victorian clothing have been spotted standing on the staircase.

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The Salt and Whiskey Bar 

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Of course I wanted to stay in room 309, but some other wannabe ghost hunter grabbed it before I could. The front desk was busy, and there was neither ghost-hunting kit nor chit-chat about the history of the place. I walked over to the area that I knew would be full of spirits: the bar. The spirits included whiskey, gin and vodka. The room is a beautiful piece of mahogany history that looks like a movie set. The bar's name is Salt and Whiskey and no one would be that surprised to see Jack Nicholson dressed in a tux talking to an invisible bartender at this place. It’s perfect for such things.

My second stop was at room 309. I listened outside the door, tried not to look creepy, and wandered around the sitting area to see if I might catch a supernatural moment, but no floating mists or Scooby Doo incidents happened. I dropped my stuff in my room and wandered around downtown for a couple of hours. When I returned to my hotel, I scanned the rooms for any kind of weirdness and turned the lights off. Everything was very quiet and then I heard a series of thuds. One sounded like it was in the room. Was it? It was quite loud and there was no explanation for it, except that maybe Roger decided to visit for a minute. My room was right above his. Maybe it was somebody dropping something at 1 a.m. Sure, that could be it.

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Whaley House, one of America’s most haunted houses, in San Diego.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

There are many lists on the most haunted hotels in America, but whether you see or hear something comes down to an individual  experience. I’m still searching for that “can’t be anything but a ghost” experience, but have yet to find it. The Hotel Del Coronado is also famous for its ghosts, which have supposedly been running around since 1888, while San Diego also has the Whaley House—considered to be one of the most haunted homes in America.

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