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Publication Date: Friday, October 31, 2003

A haunting experience A haunting experience (October 31, 2003)

The living dead take up residence in several local homes

by Sue Dremann

When the Deitsch family bought their 96-year-old Professorville home in Palo Alto, it came with an unwanted houseguest -- Ken.

Long after the Deitsch family went to bed, he roamed the quiet house -- his footsteps creaking down the stairs. Restless, he'd go into the bathrooms and flush the toilets repeatedly. Sometimes, he'd even go down into the kitchen and turn the mixer on, leaving it to whir away in the night. Clearly, Ken needed to get a life.

Any houseguest that weird would surely be asked to leave, but Irene and Marshall Deitsch didn't really have a choice -- Ken was a ghost.

"My sons named him," Irene said. "At first, it scared us, but then we laughed about him a lot. He lived in the laundry room."

The Deitsch home doesn't look haunted. In the neat, manicured yard, hummingbirds flit peacefully among the flowers. The large, shingled home is one of the best cared-for on the block, but beginning in 1973 -- the year the Deitsches moved into their home -- Ken engaged in his harmless hijinks, giving new meaning to the expression "things that go bump in the night."

The Deitsches aren't alone. Many local homeowners share their experience -- local Feng Shui master Linda Lenore, who has cleared spirits from three dozen Palo Alto homes over the last five to seven years, said famous haunted houses surround the area, from Mountain View to Menlo Park.

Tales of the dead may spook homeowners -- in fact, by law, a seller must disclose if there has been a death in a home within the past three years -- but far from driving families away, most come to view the resident spirits with a sense of uneasy bemusement, after the initial shock has worn off.

Ken roamed the Deitsch home for 17 years. At times, the family talked to him, asking him to leave.

"He wasn't invasive. He just let us know he was there," Irene said. After extensive remodeling, he disappeared. "He didn't have his old haunts anymore."

Sometimes, though, he still gets Irene wondering.

"Six or seven years ago, my adult niece was fixing her hair in a bathroom. When she came out, she asked if there was a ghost in the house. We had never discussed the ghost with her. She said she felt as though someone was watching her. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end," Deitsch said.

Why do ghosts haunt? Sometimes because of an abrupt end to life, such as a murder or accident (a residual haunting), where the emotional energy of the event lingers.

Or there's an intelligent haunting, where an aspect of the human personality returns with its own agenda, said Mark Boccuzzi, a paranormal investigator.

Ghosts may be about the past, but "they are a spirit of something living," Linda Lenore said. She doesn't like to use the term "haunting."

"Haunting a space implies it's in the building or land scaring people, but it may be there to watch over the land. The spirit may feel a duty to make sure the property's not harmed or destroyed.

"Some have unfinished business, or a job to do -- they believe they are sent to guide a person. They may remain because they were called back by a loved one," she said.

Contrary to the popular belief that only old, decrepit homes are candidates for haunting, sometimes the most innocuous dwellings can house the scariest ghosts.

The ghost in Sarah's Midtown Palo Alto home slithered down the wall of her daughter's bedroom. It stood at her son's desk, flipping through his schoolbooks. The experience disturbed her children.

"Our daughter is in her 20s and still sleeps with a light on," said Sarah, who requested her name be changed for this story "so the neighbors won't think we're nuts."

The hauntings began 30 years ago, occurring several years apart, Sarah said.

"When my mother was dying, she said the bedroom door opened. She saw a white apparition. It just stood there. She didn't feel frightened," Sarah said.

One night, exhausted from caring for her ailing mother, Sarah lay down to sleep. The ghost began violently shaking her pillow. "I didn't see anything. In my mind, I said, 'I don't have time for this. GO AWAY.' It's been four years. It hasn't come back yet. I have no idea if I should have the house exorcised," she said.

Not everyone wants their ghosts to leave.

"We're pretty excited about our ghost story. It's kind of fun," said Ginny Kaminski, program coordinator for Shoreline in Mountain View, referring to the well-known ghost at Rengstorff house.

Built in 1887 by Henry Rengstorff, a founder of Mountain View, stories of haunting began to surface in the 1960s. The ghost of one of the Christines -- the names of Rengstorff's wife and daughter -- is said to haunt the house.

Tenants and passers-by heard sounds of crying late at night. Lights flashed on and off. After the Victorian mansion fell into disrepair in the 1960s, a young woman with long hair was frequently spotted looking out of an upstairs window, according to Antoinette May's book, "Haunted Houses of California."

Coleman Mansion, another former residence, is now the site of Peninsula School in Menlo Park. Glowing a creamy yellow in the early evening sunlight, the Greek-style Victorian with a wrap-around porch faintly echoes with the imaginary sound of children chasing each other around the colonnaded porch.

Set back from the road, the grandiose former residence is enshrouded by mature trees and shrubbery.

Built in 1880 by San Mateo County assemblyman James Coleman, the mansion is said to be haunted by the ghost of his wife, Carmelita. Killed after a gun discharged in their hotel room in San Francisco, she never lived in the residence. After her death, James Coleman was said to never have abandoned the house.

Carmelita Coleman has been a very public ghost. Eyewitness reports of encounters with the apparition have circulated in books and the press for decades. A sťance was said to have taken place with medium Macelle Brown, who made contact with the spirits, according to "Haunted Houses of California."

Many years ago, teacher Jerry Hearn was making the evening rounds with the property's caretaker, when they heard noises coming from the house.

Thinking they'd catch some kids in the building, Hearn and the caretaker took flashlights and entered through two main entrances, expecting to meet up and corral the young intruders.

"When we got to the attic, we shone the flashlights on each other. We saw nothing, but we sensed somebody was there. We thought, oohhhh. ... The noise sounded like low voices talking. We thought it was Carmelita," he said. "When something like that happens, the hair stands up ... it's a very odd feeling."

Hearn recalled when an eighth-grade teacher, the late Joe Starr took a class of students into the house at night as a treat.

"They saw a wispy apparition-light-kind-of-thing 25 years ago," he said.

Not everyone appreciates Carmelita's presence -- or believes in it.

"I talked to other people at Peninsula School, said school director Katy Dalgleish. "No one believes in the ghost. They're just stories kids trade. We don't want the publicity. It's just something that would scare the children. This is a school. If you have any respect for us, you won't write about it."

But Hearn, who has been teaching at the school since 1969, sees it another way.

"Kids don't see them (ghosts) as evil or scary until we lay that on them. They experience them as friendly. The fear comes out of our Western denial of anything you can't touch or see."

It's even a tradition on graduation night to take the kids into the attic, where they write messages about what they want to leave for the future, he said.

Speaking of the wonderful experiences teachers and students have had over the years at Peninsula, he said, "I have a sense of the big building imbued with a lot of spirits from over the years."

Sometimes an entire neighborhood can be haunted. Ninety-nine percent of the time multiple spirits occur where there was a burial or ritual ground, Lenore said.

"Take California history back to the missionaries and the Indians. Lots of people were killed."

On Emerson Street in Palo Alto, a number of homes are said to be haunted.

"Emerson Street is not far from El Camino Real -- the Highway of the King (Royal Highway), and people probably lived near it," she said.

On a sunny autumn morning, dappled light streamed through a mix of mature magnolia and oak trees lining the street. Older homes in a mix of styles are largely landscaped with mature plantings.

It's almost Halloween, and white napkin ghosts "haunt" a cobweb-and-jack 'o lantern-adorned house. One can find all manner of ghosts and goblins decorating homes on Emerson Street, but nothing seemed particularly out of sorts.

But former Palo Alto/Stanford Heritage (PAST) president Karen Holman had an unsettling experience there for six years. After moving into her new home, every evening around dusk, she noticed the pronounced smell of cigarette smoke emanating from a bedroom, even though no one was there. It was the one room in the house where she felt most ill at ease.

Before moving there in 1986, Holman never thought one way or the other about ghosts, but the presence in her home was unmistakable.

"It was an uneasy feeling. In the beginning, I even turned the radio on to a rock 'n roll station. I left it on 24 hours a day. I had this feeling like the house needed some vibes," she said.

Her husband was not at all unnerved by the 24-hour music; he felt the uneasy presence too, she said.

The haunting took on a slightly more concrete form when the family dog became spooked by it.

"Every night, the dog had a ritual of checking out each room before we went to bed. When he went into that one bedroom, he would start barking like crazy. He would come running, and his hair would stand up," she said.

Holman and her husband came to live with the unsettling presence, but after restoring the home, like the Deitsches, she found their ghost had disappeared. They didn't talk about the ghost, but after a few years, one neighbor spoke up about strange happenings, and then a number of neighbors began talking about their haunted houses, she said.

One home sits behind a weathered picket fence in an unkempt yard. On the fence gate, the house numbers drop down, pivoted on one nail in haphazard fashion.

The home looks as though it's been unoccupied for some time. A large oak tree with deeply corrugated bark and splayed branches dominates the front yard. On a spooky night under a full moon, it could be the neighborhood poster child for haunted dwellings.


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