My mother didn’t believe in ghosts until she stayed at the Bella Maggiore Inn. Now, she doesn’t even want to talk about what happened to her in the upstairs sitting room. I’ve never seen my mother so shaken, so upset, and so pale. This was not a pleasant encounter with a benign spirit–this was something terrifying and unforgettable.
The Bella Maggiore Inn in Ventura, CA was once a “flop house” and a brothel. This, of course, was during the 1930s and 1940s. Now, it’s a charming Italianate-style inn with the best breakfast I’ve had in a long, long time. I decided to spend one night of my Spring Break here in the hope I could convince someone to join me and perhaps find some evidence of a haunting. A woman named Sylvia, who had worked here as a prostitute decades ago, hung herself in room 17 (some say room 15, where my parents stayed) over a romantic entanglement. Elsewhere I have read that she was murdered and her killer was never brought to justice. After so long, with the distortions of a story passed down in the great oral tradition of ghost tales, it’s very difficult to know what actually happened. I invited investigators to join me, as well as my parents. To my surprise and delight, not only did my parents join me but so did the two founders of the Southern California Society for Paranormal Research and one additional investigator.
The sitting room on the second floor has what can only be described as a creepy ambiance; you feel as if you are surrounded by something or watched by someone as soon as you walk in. My mother sat in one chair, my father on the love seat next to her, and I on the chair next to him. It was quiet and deserted; we had come back from dinner and were looking for a place to chat. My mother called my sister on her cell phone. They were talking about my nephew and all the new things he has learned how to do, when I noticed my mother’s face change. She seemed both surprised and upset. “Is that you? Do you hear that? Is Connor OK?” she asked, appearing more and more shaken as she spoke. My sister was clearly asking her what she was talking about, my mother was trying to explain, but there was a communication gap. She held the phone away from her, frowned, tried to continue the conversation, but finally couldn’t. She hung up, and I saw that she was shaking. “Someone was screaming on the phone, a woman . . . it was horrible. She screamed over and over again. It wasn’t interference from the cell phone. I’ve never heard anything like this. It was like someone was murdering her. It was horrible.” She repeated those lines again and again, unable to understand what she had heard, and what it might mean. During her phone call, before I knew what was happening, I felt a chill run up my left side, as if someone were standing there and congealing the atmosphere. The lights flickered and everything felt darker. Even my father was glancing around as if someone had entered the room.
Later, after my mother had calmed down, she crawled into bed early and didn’t want to talk about it anymore. My father looked up a few stories about Sylvia, but she didn’t want to hear them, and I decided that it was time to head to my own room. If someone had hanged herself in the place I supposed to sleep, I wanted to at least run some audio. I found that the EMF meter was behaving strangely in the hallway, but I didn’t feel much in the room itself. I was getting
lonely when Frank and Louis showed up and rescued me from the rather gloomy hotel and took me to dessert at the Busy Bee. Before that, they set up their equipment in my room hoping to catch something. I hoped that they would, and I hoped that they wouldn’t. I was tired, and it was going to be a long night. Kimberly from SCSPR joined us later, and the discussion was lively. I had shaken off the strangeness of the Bella Maggiore, but it was not to last.
We returned to my room and listened to the audio. There was a constant, low-level conversation in the background. It was silent in the hallway, and there was no one in the rooms on either side of me. The male voices were obviously engaged in a significant discussion, yet there was no way to decipher the words. It sounded so far away, decades away, from another place and time. Every now and then one of the male voices would say something I could almost understand, but after straining to hear them for so long, we finally gave up.
We gathered our equipment and headed towards the sitting room where my mother had experienced such horror over the cell phone. We walked in and said hello, as is polite when there are spirits waiting for you. We all heard a response; when we played back the audio, the “Hello” was as clear as day. Our second greeting was also returned, and we captured that as well. A few minutes into the EVP session, Louis asks if anyone has anything to say. We heard no response at the time, but when he played back the audio a male voice said: “He still loves you.” Three EVPs within minutes of each other is quite rare. Although we investigated the rest of the hotel that night, nothing was as active as that room. We are still reviewing evidence from that night, so it’s possible that we captured more fragments of those lost lives.
“He still loves you.” I don’t know what that means. I don’t think I am going to ever know, since that is the nature of paranormal investigations. You can’t figure out the specifics of the story, only experience the vague and tantalizing after-effects of the lingering spirits. Of course, I ask myself what it is that we found. It occurs to me that sometimes, as “ghost hunters,” we find ourselves at intersections of the tragic and the lost. I suppose that most of the voices are all “residual,” meaning that the imprints of those lives and deaths are embedded like a recording in the very walls of the hotel. The responses we received upon entering the sitting room, however, point to an intelligent entity who could and did respond to visitors.
I don’t like what this implies about life after death. But then again, I know nothing more about the specifics of the afterlife than I did before I started this journey, with the huge exception that SOMETHING survives of us. I have more questions than answers, and some better theories, but I want to know who screamed in terror over my mother’s cell phone, who greeted us as we walked in, and who was carrying on the distant conversations in Room 17. I want to know all this, yet I will never know.
And not knowing will compel me back, to the place, to the time, to the desire to learn more. Someone might decide to tell me something substantive, because they want their story told . . . I can do that, but only if–for the dead–communication with the living weren’t so much like “standing behind a sheet of frosted glass which blurs sight and deadens sound, [attempting to dictate] feebly to a reluctant and somewhat obtuse secretary” (Wilson 1987: 176). That was the message of the late Frederic Myers, one of the pioneers of the Society for Psychical Research in the late 1800s. In this case, us ghost hunters are the reluctant and somewhat obtuse secretaries, trying desperately to interpret the messages.
But we will never quit trying. The mystery is too great, and the need to know too imperious; and of course, we are happy to cast our lot with the world’s greatest enigma. This is why I close with Louis smiling. At the end of the night, the truth is–we are alive. We can eat apple pie and hot fudge sundaes and review our evidence and write our blog posts. I hope the afterlife permits such pleasures . . . but for some, I know it does not.
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