If you ask empirical science, ghosts don’t exist in South Florida. No shadowy figures lurk inside that lighthouse. Forget about floating orbs in the cemetery.
Unless, naturally, it’s Halloween and you’re up for haunted hijinks. Before and after the Oct. 31 holiday, so-called “paranormal investigators” (think the gadget-wielding “Ghost Adventures” crew on Travel Channel) will be staging ghost hunts at several locations across South Florida.
Five of South Florida’s most historic landmarks from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale to Homestead are embracing the paranormal by throwing public ghost tours, haunted happy hours and full-blown investigations in October and November. The destinations – Stranahan House, Yesteryear Village, Coral Castle, Deering Estate and Old Davie School – are elegant museums year-round. But their histories are colored by grisly suicides and Indian burial grounds, courting as many skeptics as believers in the paranormal, especially around Halloween season.
Historic Stranahan House Museum
History: Surrounded today by high-rise buildings and the Cheesecake Factory, the Stranahan House was built in 1901 when Broward County was “a bleak Southern frontier.” The oldest house in Fort Lauderdale, built by Frank and Ivy Stranahan, first served as a trading post that lured Seminoles down the New River to do business. Battling depression and bad health, Frank committed suicide in 1929, drowning in the New River in front of the home. Over the years, it transformed into a post office, boarding house and a restaurant.
Haunted heritage: “As you can imagine with something so old and with a lot of history, there have been a few deaths of its residents in the house and on the grounds,” says Merry Wajda, Stranahan’s guest services and gift shop manager. “We don’t believe anyone negatively haunts the house, but the spirits of those who lived and died here still remain.” Visitors may detect a scent of roses, Ivy’s favorite perfume, in the master bedroom. Her brother, Albert, lived there at one time and Wajda said women have felt someone stroking their hair in his room. After Ivy’s watch went missing from a bedside table, the staff searched without luck. A few months later, Wajda implored Ivy to help her find the watch. “Of course I didn’t expect an answer, but I suddenly felt a strong urge to look under the bedside table,” she said. And there it was.
Ghost adventures: Spirits of Stranahan House Halloween Tours (no ghost-hunting equipment allowed), 7 p.m. Oct. 25, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. $25. Registration required.
Old Davie School Historical Museum
History: When Davie was nothing more than swamp and vegetable farms, the Davie School — Broward’s first permanent schoolhouse — welcomed 90 students when it opened in 1918. When not in school, students worked on their families’ nearby potato, pepper and avocado farms. The historic school taught children until 1978, and the Broward County School Board donated the five-acre site to the town of Davie in 1983. Now a museum, the Old Davie School stood alone until 2004, when two vacant pioneer homes, the Walsh-Osterhoudt House (built 1914; Betty Osterhoudt was a schoolteacher) and Viele House (built 1912; Helen and Harry Viele owned Viele Groves) were relocated next to the school. “The houses were raised on stilts because there was always a chance of Everglades flooding,” says Kim Weismantle, the school’s education director. “It’s a snapshot of daily life in the 1920s and 1930s.”
Haunted heritage: “Every now and then you hear the bumping noises and you wonder who it is,” says Weismantle, who remains agnostic about the existence of the school’s ghosts. Still, reports have ranged from disembodied Native American voices speaking near a canoe in the schoolhouse to hand-print impressions on a bed inside the Walsh-Osterhoudt home. David Pierce Rodriguez, whose Miami-based P.R.I.S.M. Paranormal Group has investigated many South Florida landmarks, says the Walsh-Osterhoudt house is the property’s most haunted. “I was in the bedroom capturing [electronic voice phenomena] on the recorder and checked the closet, and something touched my arm,” Rodriguez says. “Later, in the upstairs bathroom, I called out, ‘Is something here with me?’ and this woman’s voice, crystal-clear, says, ‘I’m here.’” He believes the voice belongs to Katherine Walsh or Betty Osterhoudt, two of its owners.
Yesteryear Village at the South Florida Fairgrounds
History: Sitting on nine acres, Yesteryear Village is a history park that’s home to original and replicated buildings and artifacts from 1895 to 1945, including items that were relocated from their original Palm Beach County sites to be saved from demolition. The two-story Riddle House, a former funeral parlor, is perhaps the park’s most famous structure since Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” featured it in a 2008 episode.
Haunted heritage: Yesteryear Village manager Connie Christman says staff, guests and volunteers have felt temperature changes and their hair being pulled, heard strange noises and seen objects being moved. Eric Vanderlaan, an investigator with ghost-hunting group War Party Paranormal, says he believes tragic events here makes the place conducive to spirit activity. Rumored entities include a Confederate soldier who was shot and killed in the Pineapple Processing Plant. At the Riddle House, an accused thief named Joseph hanged himself in the attic while a little boy, Andrew, fell from a window to his death. Investigators say they have captured evidence such as electronic voice phenomena, or EVPs, on digital voice recorders. “We believe these spirits still remain because they are not ready to cross over,” Vanderlaan said.
History: The story behind Coral Castle is, at best, an example of a jilted lover’s extreme overreaction, and at worst, an elaborate stalker move. When Latvian immigrant Edward Leedskalnin was 26 in 1913, he fell in love with Agnes Scuffs, a girl 10 years his junior. Agnes ― whom he affectionately called his “Sweet Sixteen” — broke it off the night before the wedding, apparently because of the age difference. Leedskalnin moved to Florida City in 1920 and spent the next 28 years quarrying rock and chiseling out his masterpiece: Coral Castle, an 1,100-ton monument to his unrequited love. Working secretly by night for years under lamplight, he carved a throne room and telescope, a fountain and sundial, furniture and walls — a Herculean feat for a 5-foot-tall, 100-pound man. In 1936, Ed somehow moved the castle to Homestead — remarkable still because he never revealed his mysterious techniques, says tour guide Ken Bourke. “He gave castle tours during the daytime and told anyone who asked, ‘I think I’ve learned the secrets of the pyramids,’ ” Bourke says of Ed, who died in 1951. “I think Ed built the castle on his own, at night, and he knew the laws of physics and weights and balances and electromagnetic energy.” Coral Castle, which has inspired conspiracy theories and pop-culture tributes, became a museum in the 1980s.
Haunted heritage: Homestead’s enduringly weird landmark, made with ropes and pulleys but no modern machinery, remains an engineering marvel, although visitors report Ed apparently haunts his castle, says Laura Maye, Coral Castle’s general manager. Maye, who has “experienced a few things,” believes Ed lingers inside his bedroom in Coral Castle’s tower. “We were listening to a paranormal team’s [infrared camera] and heard a voice ask, ‘Where is my bicycle?’”Maye recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. Not too many people know Ed’s bicycle disappeared shortly after his death. That convinced me it was Ed.”
History: Charles Deering, a wealthy Chicago industrialist, built his winter estate on a 420-acre park in southwestern Miami-Dade County, on the same land where the ancient Tequesta Indians buried their dead. Although Deering lived in the three-story Mediterranean Revival Stone House (finished in 1922) and died there in his bedroom in 1927, the property includes the older two-story Richmond Cottage (built 1896), a former inn and one of Miami-Dade’s oldest structures. Archaeological remains — including a human skull — discovered on the land suggest humans occupied the area 10,000 years ago, says Tamara McDonald, who helps operate Deering’s ghost tours. “We have over 20 archaeology sites that have been gridded and excavated,” McDonald says. “There are 12 to 15 Native American women and children in one of the burial mounds.”
Haunted heritage: While no one’s lived at Deering Estate since the 1980s, the century-old property is apparently a hive of paranormal activity, especially from its namesake owner. Visitors and staffers who run the estate’s seasonal ghost tours say they’ve spotted the spirit of Deering in his wheelchair on the second-floor walkway connecting his Stone House bedroom to Richmond Cottage. One staffer said, while developing film in a darkroom, that he saw the apparition of a child standing behind him, possibly from one of the town of Cutler’s 19th century pioneer families. “I was standing in Charles’ study with an [infrared camera],” says McDonald, adding that she spotted a figure. “It was literally touching me on the shoulder the entire time, and I didn’t feel any of it.”
Ghost adventures: Deering Estate will host Historic Ghost Tours from 8 to 10 p.m. Oct. 24, Nov. 12 and Nov. 20; $35
More paranormal activities:
SUP Ghost Tour, 7-9:30 p.m. Oct. 25, Island Water Sports, 1985 NE Second St., Deerfield Beach; $10 bring your own board, $30 with paddleboard rental; 954-427-4929, IslandWaterSports.com
Ghost Investigations at the Old Davie School, hosted by War Party Paranormal, 7-10 p.m. Nov. 22, Old Davie School Historical Museum, 6650 Griffin Road, Davie; $35-$40; 954-797-1044, OldDavieSchool.org.
Ghost-hunting equipment 101
Going ghost-busting? Here are the gadgets you’ll need to get started.
- Digital voice recorder, which lets you conduct Q-and-As with possible spirits and listen back for electronic voice phenomena.
- Flashlight with a red lens that won’t compromise vision in the dark.
- Digital cameras (video and still).
- Ghosts are thought to disturb magnetic fields, so a sudden fluctuation in an electromagnetic field detector (or EMF) could mean one is in your presence. It can also be used to debunk reported activity, since appliances and electronics emit EMF.
- Infrared thermometer to take temperatures with a laser. A sudden cold spot may indicate a spirit trying to manifest itself.
- Ghost box, a gadget that rapidly scans radio frequencies and provides white noise so ghosts can “speak” through the device.
- A simple pen and notebook (or take notes on smartphone).