Santa Paula, CA: At this haunted historic inn, spirits abound

* New posts go up every Thursday, so come back next week for another day of exploration, or a roundup of my favorite spots and fashion trends!

** COVID-19 notes: masks were on the whole time (save for the moment we took a few photos when absolutely no one was around) and social distancing practiced.

There are skeptics, and there are believers. I’m somewhere in between. I don’t really believe in ghosts, but that doesn’t mean I don’t experience stomach tremors when things go bump in the night. I’ll scoff and raise a brow at those floating orbs people call spirits in photographs, but I won’t hesitate to excuse myself from paranormal movie nights. And if I’m forced, by sheer social pressure, to watch said movie, I will, for sure, sleep with one eye open that night.

When I was 20, I was selected to go on a writing retreat to Bisbee, Arizona, along with the director of our poetry center and four other stellar writers from my university. It was my first out-of-state trip in the United States (I’d only been in the country for two years at that point), so I was a little nervous. Adding to that anxiety was that we were staying at a hotel that was known to be haunted — once occupied by former residents with tough, troubling tales. (And piled on top of that was the fact that at the end of our retreat, we’d have to read our poems to an audience — which, to me, is still scarier than any ghost story.)

The hotel upped the paranormal factor even more by decorating the halls with creepy framed photographs of close-lipped children with hollow, vacant eyes and portraits of their parents in white, ghost-like robes. So, when asked which room I wanted, I said: “I’ll take the least haunted. The fewer recorded visitors, the better. Please, and thank you.” So, they hooked me up with the nicest, least threatening ghosts who only tickled my fears with simple, inoffensive dangers like — gasp — turning my TV in the middle of the night and sometimes making me doubt if I’d really turned my hair curler off. 

Over a few days, however, my anxiety slackened (or maybe I just succumbed to my paranoia. I honestly can’t remember). I got used to the hotel’s quirks and possibly its mischievous, otherworldly guests. I wandered through the city, marveling at the Victorian-era houses hugging the cliffs, chit-chatted with artists and eccentric residents, and spent mornings walking around town and writing in its little cafes. It was a good time. A really good time for a writer. 

Though I ended up eventually enjoying my stay at the Bisbee Grand Hotel, I still thought, “Never again. Not a ghost of a chance!” And whenever I reminisced about my trip to Bisbee years later, I recalled everything but the haunted hotel. That is, until this year, when I started researching haunted hotels in the area to visit during Halloween week here in California. After looking at several different properties, I found one that was peculiar and under-the-radar enough not to draw too big of a crowd. (Like, say, the famously haunted Hollywood Roosevelt).

I’m thinking of the Bisbee Grand Hotel as we drive through the charming downtown Santa Paula and park along the street in front of the Glen Tavern Inn. From the outside, the half-timbered building wears its wood frame quaintly. Its steeply pitched roof and prominent front gable make it a beautiful example of Tudor-craftsman architecture, and a quietly tucked-in Italian restaurant gives a cozy nod to Europe.

Back in 1911, as Santa Paula was earning a reputation as a booming oil town, the Glen Tavern Inn was built just across the train depot to provide those interested in the area’s oil and citrus industries a place to stay. Designed by famed architects Burns and Hunt, the inn was also meant to be a place where the crème de la crème of society could gather and mingle. During the prohibition, the third floor of the inn (which offered pretty good views of incoming law enforcement) was turned into a speakeasy, brothel and gambling parlor. 

In the 1930s, the town of Santa Paula attracted a new crowd — the Hollywood industry. The city’s rugged, hilly landscape made it a perfect backdrop to many Western films. And of course, the actors, directors and other professionals who shot there also stayed there. The Glen Tavern Inn played host to many film industry luminaries like John Wayne, Carol Lombard, Harry Houdini and Steve McQueen. But aside from its glitzy, Hollywood past, the inn is known for something else — it’s also said to be haunted. And that’s mainly why we’re here.

As we make our way inside, the first thing I do is walk up to the hotel’s manager behind the front desk. We’re not guests, I tell him, but we’ve heard a lot about the hotel, and we’d love to be able to look around — if possible. My confidence is bolstered by the fact that the inn is seemingly enjoying a particularly quiet afternoon with barely any other guest in sight. (I generally don’t want to cause a disturbance or be around too many people indoors.) The manager gives me the green light, and we set off to explore the lobby.

It’s easy to see what drew the Hollywood crowds to hunker down here. Even now, years later, it still retains a certain quaint-but-lavish charm. The lobby is well-preserved, set off by dark wood paneling and furnished with antique wing chairs, ornate china cabinetry and a seating area near a fireplace, where you can sequester yourself with a book. It all feels as though you’ve stepped into a movie set from a bygone era. (I’d be remiss not to mention that The Glen Tavern is the only national historic landmark in Ventura County where you can stay overnight.) We walk down the first-floor corridor, ogling the old movie posters lining the walls and sneaking peeks into open hotel room doors before meeting eyes with the housekeeping team turning down the bed linens. Once we’ve soaked up everything we could on the ground floor, Anton turns to me and says: “Let’s go see room 307.”

I feel a chill cross my back, as I climb the floral carpeted staircase to the third floor. I feel another one as I cross a sitting area and make a left into the hotel’s corridor. The hallway is dim. The dark, burgundy walls are illuminated by tired daylight shining through the window of what seems like a little reading nook. (It’s the perfect weather outside for something like this — gray, damp, dreary.) Under my foot, the floor sinks and creaks with every step I take, breaking the silence. Squeak, croak, pop.

We walk the length of the hallway, looking right and left, counting rooms. At the very end of the corridor, we see it — 307 in golden brass numbers, against a dark, walnut-colored door. I feel my pulse quicken. Is it excitement? Is it fear? Curiosity? I’m not so sure what’s making the hair on the back of my neck stand up like hen scruff. Maybe it’s because this is one of the most coveted rooms in the hotel, and one that a lot of hotel guests come here for (they usually have to put in a special request to stay there).

Since the reopening of the inn in 2007 (after sustaining a major fire and undergoing preservation efforts), guests have reported seeing strange things — an impalpable presence in the air, a stranger’s spirit at their bedside, something moving to and fro the dark abyss. Others were even able to put a silhouette to the ghost. One of said ghosts seems to be that of an unidentified woman, who, back when the hotel operated as a brothel, was a “lady of the night.” According to local lore, she was supposedly murdered and beheaded, and her body was found stuffed in a closet a few days later. There’s also Calvin, a gambling cowboy, who was caught cheating and shot in the head. Of course, there are stories of other ghosts, too. 

I’m not sure how much of that I really believe, but there’s one thing I know for certain — it’s fun to let these things catch at your imagination sometimes, especially during spooky season. It’s safe to say Halloween isn’t the same this year — not even close. One of the most exciting aspects of the holiday is not the act of dressing up itself, but of mingling with friends and acquaintances with equally wacky outfits. It’s the music and the spirit of the crowd. Although many of us won’t be experiencing that kind of Halloween, holding on to traditions — and even more importantly, the act of looking forward to them — is what keeps us sane during this pandemic. 

The other case I’ll make is this: in these strange times, there’s also some relief that comes from distracting yourself with something even stranger — the supernatural. There’s a reason why ghost stories were so common in the Victorian era, and why they kept making appearance after appearance in fiction books. According to the NY Times, “Britons in the Victorian era were obsessed with ghost stories because they reflected uncertain times — the Industrial Revolution, a move to urban living and technological advances like the telegraph, a supernatural-seeming invention.” People found themselves moving from villages into new homes in cities, accepting new methods of communication over long distances and navigating so many other unprecedented shifts. 

Maybe that’s why I was drawn to the Glen Tavern Inn and room 307 this year. Maybe that’s why I downloaded The Shining on my Kindle and made a list of Halloween movies to watch. (I generally aim for the spooky, not scary.) I think about these things as I make my way down the stairs. On our way out of the hotel, we stop to thank the inn’s manager for being so welcoming and allowing us to roam around the property. “You should stay with us next time,” he says. I smile and nod, but in my head, I immediately think, “Not a ghost of a chance! ” But apparently, that just means, “Maybe, one day, I will.”

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As an Los Angeles-based journalist and fashion writer, Mari Alexander highlights local and global talents through runway reviews, designer interviews, and trend reports.

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