There I was, sitting alone in a darkened hotel room, hoping that something terrifying would jump out of a corner. Was that a shadow of a tree branch in the window, I asked myself, or a ghost? 

As I walked the courtyard of the historic building, I peered into every corner, really getting myself into a spooky mindset to fit not just the Halloween season but the perfectly old setting of Santa Barbara. I wasn’t just trying to find something spooky. I wanted to be scared down to my bones. The dark was immense, with shadows lurking at every turn. Then I looked up and saw what I swear to you looked exactly like a glowing face in a tree.

I have a habit of seeking out creepy vacations. That same day, I had risked my life — ok, not really — by going on a tarantula walk just up the Central Coast in Gaviota. Maybe it’s because I had just held a live, wild tarantula and survived that I was feeling extra bold. 

I went to the 150-year-old Upham Hotel looking for ghosts. If I didn’t get to see anything creepy, I was hoping to get at least a few spine tingles out of sleeping alone in one of California’s oldest continuously operating hotels. I had chosen the Upham not just for its age, but because a friend who lives in Santa Barbara heard some interesting stories from a former employee about things she’d seen and experienced but couldn’t explain. 

It wasn’t my first time sleeping alone in a haunted hotel room, either. I’ve done it on the Queen Mary in Long Beach — that was absolutely terrifying — and in a very haunted hotel in New Hampshire where something unseen moved the furniture while I stood still and watched it happen. That was, by far, one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced. 

But, to my disappointment (but very much not to the disappointment of the hotel) I didn’t find anything creepy at the Upham, aside from what turned out to be a spooky not-really-a-face face in the tree, just a knot lit with a spotlight from underneath. I even asked the night staff if they had ever seen anything paranormal in the building. “We don’t have any ghosts,” the front desk clerk said, exasperated. “We’ve never had any ghosts, and we are not haunted.”

A creepy face or a tree? Yes and yes.

A creepy face or a tree? Yes and yes.

Julie Tremaine

But, he added, “you’re not the first person to ask me that. I don’t know why people are always asking.”

Aha. Maybe there was something there after all, and I just wasn’t fortunate enough to experience it. 

I wasn’t surprised by the clerk’s reaction. Some hotels, like the Queen Mary, when it was operational, lean into their haunted history and go as far as to put Ouija boards in the “haunted” rooms, which they then happily upcharge for. Others do the opposite. 

Earlier in the week, I emailed a hotel asking about rumors that it was haunted, and I got not one but two emails back: one saying the place didn’t want to be associated with any kind of haunted reputation. It was followed quickly by a second email demanding that I not include that place in any kind of story about hauntings in Santa Barbara. (I won’t say which hotel here, but I will definitely tell you all the spooky stories I heard from the hotel’s restaurant staff over drinks sometime.)

That wasn’t the only creepy tale I heard during my visit. I might not have found a ghost in Santa Barbara this time, but I definitely found a lot of ghost stories. Talking to a friend in an Uber about the puzzling reaction at the Upham — I felt like maybe that clerk was protesting a little too much — the driver interrupted us as we passed by one of the large, historic buildings along Santa Barbara’s Presidio to tell us about his own brush with the unexplained. 

“See that building there?” he asked. “That’s City Hall. I used to be the night janitor who locked up every night.” Though not a believer in ghosts “by any means,” he said — as people usually do when they’re about to deliver a really juicy ghost story — he once saw someone in old-fashioned clothes walking up and down an unused set of stairs, over and over. The floor the person kept walking back and forth to, the driver explained, wasn’t even in use. He couldn’t explain why someone would be in the building at that hour, let alone in an abandoned spot, especially dressed like that. “It was really weird,” he said.

The courtyard of the Upham Hotel.

The courtyard of the Upham Hotel.

Julie Tremaine

But being kind of a weirdo, especially one who wants to be as creeped out as possible all October long, I wanted more ghosts. So I sought out Julie Ann Brown, owner of Santa Barbara Ghost Tours, who is a business professor by day and a raconteur of fascinating haunted history at night.

Brown said she wasn’t surprised I didn’t find a ghost in my hotel, or that I wasn’t having much luck turning up haunted hotels in Santa Barbara. Those tend to be outside the city, in the neighboring communities of Montecito and Goleta, she explained. 

“We have visiting ghosts here,” she said. “They don’t come to stay.” 

Brown has researched hauntings in Santa Barbara extensively, but she actually started her paranormal research when she was a guide on the Queen Mary before they were so para-friendly. “A lot of the ghost stories that you heard on the Queen Mary were mine,” she said. Brown started sprinkling spooky anecdotes into her tour scripts that she thought were “so boring,” got censured several times for spreading scary stories, and then all of a sudden found that her anecdotes were being shared by other guides on the boat.

So, having experienced those phenomena on the Queen Mary myself, when Brown said she had solid information on hauntings in Santa Barbara — much of it pulled from newspaper archives and city records — I believed her. 

“They’re visiting,” Brown said of the majority of ghosts she’s encountered in Santa Barbara. “They’re having a good time. They don’t come to stay.” 

Brown believes the transient nature of the city, being such a popular vacation spot and having been an area sacred to the Chumash tribe that was then colonized by the Spanish, leads to a lot of people coming and going — not just in life, but also in the afterlife. 

The reportedly haunted Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara

The reportedly haunted Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara

Jay Sinclair, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

Once, Brown said, she had a mother book a tour for her and her two daughters who were in town from the East Coast. It quickly became clear that one of the daughters was sensitive to spirits. 

“The psychic sister went, ‘what is this place? I’ve never seen so many ghosts congregating in one place. They’re walking through people walking in the street. They’re dressed like Spanish people, Native Americans, people that died yesterday. They’re all having fun. You know, it’s like they’re on vacation,’” Brown recalled. “I laughed.”

“We’re the happiest city in the United States,” Brown said. “No wonder our ghosts are happy.”

Among the most haunted locations in town: the Lobero Theatre, where in the Victorian era, there were seances every Sunday night for tourists and on Tuesday nights in the basement for locals. It’s a place many people mentioned to me during my explorations in the city. “When you go inside the Lobero, if you’re sensitive in any way,” Brown said, “you can feel a heaviness.” City Hall has a lot of ghost stories, too, she said, including one about the ghost of a woman murdered by her husband there in 1920. 

I wonder if I know someone who’s seen her.

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