I’m sitting in a low-lit room to the right of the reception at the Queen Anne Hotel. The time is just past 7pm on a Friday night. Red curtains drape the windows and touch the floor. There are about twenty of us gathered around tables, and we’re waiting for Jim Fassbinder to tell us everything he knows about ghosts and ghost hunts in San Francisco.
Mr. Fassbinder is dressed for the part. He wears a black top hat and a red vest complemented with a long overcoat that goes all the way to his black boots. His long hair falls past his ears. A lantern rests next to him on the table and he waits for the last of the group to take their seats. Jim has been leading ghost hunts through Pacific Heights for the past 17 years. “The Queen Anne Hotel was built in 1891,” he tells us. “I’m trying desperately to look 100 years old.”
I signed up for the tour because I’m not sure I believe in hauntings, but it’s almost Halloween and I figure “what the hell.” Living in a city like San Francisco, a city that boasts the newest technology, I don’t think I’m alone in desperately wanting to believe that there’s still some old magic buried underneath all of these new condos and coffee shops. Maybe the ghosts of a historic San Francisco are still alive, and maybe a ghost hunt is just what I need to shake things up before Halloween.
As Jim prepares us for the hunt, he promises that “These ghosts will not follow you home. They will not possess you. In the Western United States, ghosts are territorial. We have the haunted house, the haunted hotel, the haunted this, the haunted that. These ghosts are so territorial, they won’t even go across the street to get snacks.”
The Queen Anne has an old-timey opulence to it. There are antique couches in the parlor and multiple fireplaces. There’s a chair near the clock by the staircase with wolves heads carved in the arms, bat wings carved in the sides, and tiger claws in the feet. “It was once a priest’s chair,” Jim tell us.
The regal Victorian building began as a boarding school, Miss Mary Lake’s School for Girls. Over the next few decades it became a secret society, the Cosmos Gentleman’s Club, and after that, the Episcopal Dioceses’ Girls Friendly Society Lodge. The building was vacant for fifty years until 1980 when it was renovated and reopened in 1995 as the Queen Anne Hotel.
“You’ll get a little history lesson before meeting each ghost, because the story is necessary to understanding them,” Jim says. “A ghost is defined as a paranormal manifestation caused by someone dead. A ghost can be a disembodied voice. A ghost can be a psychic scent like flowers when there are no flowers present. A ghost can be something as subtle as that feeling you get when someone you can’t see is watching you. I would love it if something strange happened to you tonight.”
Mr. Fassbinder wraps up his introductory speech by telling us “This hotel is haunted by the friendliest ghost I’ve ever encountered in all of my research, Miss Mary Lake, who has been haunting the Queen Anne for over a century.” He tells us that it helps to get the ghost’s attention by referencing them by name. “Miss Mary Lake is waiting for us in room 410.”
We head up the stairs and enter Mary Lake’s old room. It’s tastefully decorated with large windows that open onto Post Street. Jim recounts many different ways that the ghost of Mary Lake has appeared to hotel guests. People have reported a comfortable female presence next to them as they slept. Another guest woke up on the floor of his room with all the bedding neatly tucked in around him. Other guests have claimed to see a female apparition in mirrors. Others have reported cold spots—differences in temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit with no scientific explanation.
As I stand near the wall, listening to Jim talk about Mary Lake, my legs do feel a little cold. Maybe it’s just the breeze from the open windows, or maybe…
Jim emphasizes that all dealings with Mary Lake by hotel guests have been positive. “She’s a friendly ghost,” he says. “She wants the hotel guests to be comfortable.”
Over the next few hours, we wander through Pacific Heights and Jim shows us the sights of other hauntings. We learn about the old Mansions Hotel (2220 Sacramento St) The Atherton Mansion (1990 California St), and Mammy Pleasant Park (1661 Octavia St). There’s a startling amount of history relating to these places, and if you’re interested, I recommend taking the tour.
As the day comes to a close, I pull Jim aside and ask him where I can find the most haunted houses in San Francisco outside of Pacific Heights. He looks me dead in the eye and says: “Montandon Mansion on Lombard. It had a famous haunting back in the 60s. You should also check out Dennis William Hauck’s The Haunted Places Directory.” I thank Mr. Fassbinder for his time and I go home and dream about my own ghost hunt.
I wake up the next day with the sun and plan my trek according to recommendations from Hauck’s book. I narrowed it down to the places with the scariest histories that I didn’t know existed. That’s why you won’t see Alcatraz or Whittier Mansion on my list. Those places are probably haunted but I wanted to search for some lesser known ghosts. Here are the places I visited and you should too…if you dare.
If I’ve learned anything about ghosts, many of them flock to places with history. And Ross Alley, in Chinatown, is apparently the oldest alley in San Francisco. Known for prostitution and gambling, today it’s most prominent attraction is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, founded in 1962.
In the alley, tourists gather in little enclaves outside the factory, nestled next to shouting tour guides. I pop my head inside and notice that they sell X-rated cookies at $5 for a large bag. As far as I can tell, that’s the closest I can get to a seedier past.
I walk across the street to 818 Washington St., home of the Imperial Palace restaurant. Formerly named The Golden Dragon, the restaurant was the scene of a violent gang attack in 1977 that killed five and wounded eleven people. The grisly murders were a result of a longstanding feud between two rival Chinese gangs, Wah Ching and the Joe Boys. Due to the violence, the San Francisco Police Department created the Asian Gang Task Force. Over the years, psychics have picked up on dark energy surrounding the restaurant.
I don’t stay for lunch.
Montandon Mansion, 1000 Lombard Street
Pat Montandon was a socialite and TV host in the 1960s, who, like myself, never gave much credence to the paranormal. She was named one of the top hostesses in the country by Esquire Magazine, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize three consecutive years in the 1980s, and received a UN Peace Messenger Award in 1987. The haunting of her home was so bizarre that she wrote a novel titled The Intruders. I’m halfway through it, and I’ll hand it to Ms. Montandon—she knows how to tell a chilling ghost story.
In it she describes her beautiful home:
“My front door opened into a living room, white walled and bright, although it faced north. Large windows on that side framed a view across San Francisco Bay, overlooking Fisherman’s Wharf and the Bay Bridge. A long couch, following the line of the windows, let me sit and watch the passing sea traffic, and the yachts dancing in the sunlight, or mysteriously wreathed in the fog which stole across the Bay; its soft veil descended at almost predictable intervals in the summer months, and with disconcerting and erratic suddenness throughout the rest of the year…
…Nowadays I can look down on those canyons of buildings, to where the house still stands, on the crooked street, and questions cross my mind. How can a house change a person’s life? Or was it the people I knew? Or again, some inexplicable forces or powers that escape our knowledge?”
According to her novel, Pat invited a tarot card reader to one of her legendary parties. He imagined himself slighted when she was too slow to return with a drink she had promised him. He glared at her and said, “I lay a curse upon you and this house. I do not forget, and I do not forgive. Remember that!” He promptly left, and shortly thereafter a string of disasters began—including the suicides of two of Pat’s close friends and a biting chill despite a well-functioning heating system.
On June 20, 1969 a fire in the master bedroom claimed the life of Mary Louise Ward, Pat’s closest friend and secretary, who was sleeping in Pat’s bed while she was away. Firemen had difficulty entering the house because the front door was chained and barred from the inside. The bedroom door was also locked from the inside. The investigation was eventually dropped and the cause of her death still remains a mystery. An exorcism was performed to ward off the evil spirits that had settled into the home but Pat could no longer bear to live there. The house is a private residence but you can walk right past it on that famous winding street that’s usually crammed with tourists. It’s difficult to reconcile such a dark past with all the beautiful flowers and that incredible view of the bridge.
San Francisco Art Institute Bell Tower
SFAI, which opened in 1871, is the oldest art school west of The Mississippi. The haunted tower, and the rest of SFAI was built in 1926. Students began reporting strange occurrences nearly as soon as they began attending on Jan. 15, 1927.
Head Librarian Lauren Macdonald has been faculty for two years. She dresses professionally, wears stylish glasses, and has an appreciation for details. She leads me up the stairs of the tower and tells me: “One of our film faculty hates coming in here for archives.”
“Tell me about the ghost,” I say.
“It’s supposedly a woman. She’s here but then goes into the library. She likes men in the library but she tends to bother and distract women who are working in the library alone. There’s an urban legend that the school was built on a cemetery, but no one’s been able to find actual proof that this was a cemetery plot. How can you judge between urban legend and factual evidence when there’s no paper trail to back it up?”
I have no idea. Last week I wasn’t sure I believed in ghosts and now I talk about their existence with certainty.
“I try not to come up here alone,” she adds. As we ascend the narrow staircase to the three separate rooms, I feel noticeably colder.
Bakewell and Brown were the architects for the tower. They also designed City Hall and Coit Tower. Yet Lauren tells me that, “In any research on the design, there’s no reference on why they chose to build a tower…the only original design for the library is the reading room. I don’t know what the idea was behind the tower.”
When we’re finished with the tour, Lauren is kind enough to produce a beige folder simply titled, “ghost file.” That’s right, there’s a folder with dated articles and letters related to the haunting. I sit down in the library and I read through many of the reports.
According to a San Francisco Chronicle article published on October 31, 1968:
“The legend of a ghost in the tower of the old building started in the 1940s when students used to live there. The ghost turned on lights, started up machinery, created the sound of footsteps going upstairs (never down) but was always considered a friendly spirit.”
Later on, when the tower was under construction again, the ghost reappeared and was reported to be more malevolent. The construction crew blamed the ghost for a motorcycle accident.
I learn as much as I can about the history of SFAI before I depart. I learn that in 1968, Annie Leibovitz began shooting for Rolling Stone while she was still a student. I also learn that the general public is welcome to visit the campus, including the famed Diego Rivera Mural. You can see the haunted bell tower from the street, but it’s not open to the public.
As I leave the SFAI tower, I feel something move through me. I have no explanation for what it is—it’s like a shift in energy or the feeling that something is in the room with me. In that moment, Mr. Fassbinder’s voice returns to my head and comforts me:
“I have come to believe that a ghost is an energy form created by extreme emotions somehow stuck in time. When you think about it, the most common reported ghost encounter is a visit from a loved one or a friend or relative who has passed away. Love is an extreme emotion. But there other people who believe that ghosts can be caused from someone dying a violent death. That’s why battlefields are notoriously haunted. Or secrets like an unsolved murder. Or the deceased has some unfinished business here on earth. Ghosts have been haunting this neighborhood reliably for centuries.”
Add my name to the list of believers. San Francisco is haunted.