by Lindsey Pacela
photography by Casi Martinez
This semester I went looking for the paranormal. Plenty of places have been marked as haunted around the Southern California area, and whilst I didn’t expect to find anything, I went in with an open mind and plenty of curiosity. However, once I stopped looking, I was then able to feel what I think was a paranormal experience. Throughout this story I hope you, dear reader, ask yourself if you believe in ghosts.
The first location that caught my eye was the Spadra Cemetery, located to the east of the 57 Freeway in Pomona, now behind a warehouse where no one would expect to find it. In the 1800s, this location was part of the then fast growing town of Spadra. Settlers from Spadra Bluff, Arkansas migrated here, looking to start a new life. For years, the land was bought and sold between ranchers and town developers. It wasn’t until 1867 that Louis Phillips, a Jewish immigrant from Prussia, allowed Melinda Arnett, a Spadra resident, to be buried on the land when she died. There were plenty of cemeteries in town, but this one was different. All of the others had been strictly limited only for Catholic people, and when the flood of immigrants from different religious backgrounds kept coming, non-Catholics who died were buried at Spadra.
I was lucky enough to be given a tour one late afternoon by Deborah Clifford, president of the Pomona Historical Society. She told me that there were 200 to 205 people buried there, as verified by their genealogical society. The history of those buried at Spadra include tales of cowboys from the Old West who had gotten into saloon fights, one murder suicide, generations of families, and quite a few stillborn babies under unmarked graves. By 1897, the cemetery was incorporated into the town of Pomona, and by 1946, the burials stopped. No one has been buried there since, with the exception of a single special permission to spread ashes a few years ago. From the 1960s to the ‘80s, little to no care took place at the historical site. During this time, many people attempted to rip down or steal the headstones for fun, using pickup trucks and chains to yank the headstones from the ground. Some are still missing, but most are now lying on their backs, cemented into the ground to prevent the vandalism from happening again.
“No one’s tapped me on the shoulder yet,” Clifford says when I asked her whether she had ever experienced any paranormal activity at the site. With so many wild stories, I was surprised that there had been little to no reports of activity. “I like to think they live again when we’re here,” Clifford says. She adds that she does, in fact, believe in ghosts.
Zandra Wagoner, chaplain at the University of La Verne, told me that there is a great mystery in what comes after death, but hoped that there was something beyond just our moments here. From her perspective, “There must be something larger than ourselves; we are part of a massive universe that we can hardly even fathom.”
I asked her about ghosts and whether they existed. “The word ‘ghost’ doesn’t really do a lot for me. It’s an easy way to trivialize a real situation,” she says, but says she thought a location may be able to hold onto materials or energy of the past.
One location that is well known for holding onto the ghosts of its past is the Colorado Street Bridge, formally known as the “Suicide Bridge” of Pasadena. This morbid name has now become part of its identity with more than 150 people dying by suicide by jumping from it since it was built. In 2017, the city of Pasadena decided something had to be done, following a 13-hour attempted suicide that ended in a rescue with the aid of first responders. Immediately afterwards, an emergency purchase order for a 10-foot high fence was made. In 2020, three new design concepts were presented to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee and then installed onto three small sections of the bridge. According to Lisa Derderian, public information officer for the city of Pasadena, the city plans on finishing these updates in the near future as part of its plan to mitigate suicide attempts. The city has appropriated more than $3 million to the project so far.
On a brisk Monday evening in December, my boyfriend and I took a trip to the bridge. While walking up the moss ridden steps, on either side we saw suicide hotline signs—a reminder of the tragedies that took place here. At first, we walked down the bridge, just marveling at its beauty. Tall lamp posts lined the length of it on either side, reminiscent of human figures standing with their arms raised. There were dozens of locks locked onto the bridge, many with hearts and some even more elaborate with engraved initials. Some were tied to the latest gate and others to the original bridge structure. The views were incredible and made it feel like you could see the entire world around you. There were the San Gabriel mountains to the north with a luscious green park below. To the south, there was a deep ravine running beneath the bridge, leading to a lush trail of trees in the distance.
As we finished our walk to the east end of the bridge, I decided that there really was nothing here except the ghosts of history, that is, until we began to walk back. We had reached around the halfway point of the bridge when suddenly I felt a piercing chill run up my legs and through my chest. Like a cold current in the ocean, it washed over me, and then it was gone as quickly as it had come on.
I didn’t say anything for a few more steps, wondering if that had merely been a figment of my imagination. I told my boyfriend, and he insisted we walk back to look over the edge, he was convinced that maybe we had found something. It was then, when I pointed to the exact spot I felt it, that he glanced around and spotted on the original bridge railing, faded but very obvious writing, “I jumped from here.” Suddenly, this didn’t feel like a playful ghost hunt anymore. This felt very real, very fast. My throat became dry and tears welled up in my eyes.
Away from the bridge, my logical mind took over. Now, I don’t know whether what I felt had merely been a breeze going across the bridge. Or maybe, just perhaps, it had actually been someone’s energy remnants, someone who had jumped off the side. What I do know is that it deeply affected me and made me re-evaluate my beliefs in the paranormal.
Matthew Sazma, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of La Verne, explains that humans are natural goal seekers, and since death fills us with an existential dread, it is a common human desire to be able to explain it. According to Sazma, there is perception, and there is cognition. Modern theories say we are all actually all experiencing a version of a hallucination, similar to dreaming. It’s our prefrontal cortex though, that brings logic to it all. For example, people with schizophrenia have mental representations that just differ from most. It’s all a spectrum. Explaining what we see also varies by culture too, where some may call it speaking to their ancestors and others see a ghost.
I asked Sazma whether he believes in ghosts, and he says that he wouldn’t be surprised if there were something there. “We just don’t always have accurate terminology to explain it.”
My next stop was the Old Los Angeles Zoo, formerly known as the Griffith Park Zoo. It was founded in 1912, closed in 1965, and eventually moved only a few miles away, to what we know now as the modern Los Angeles Zoo. This historical landmark soon became known for being one of the strangest and possibly most haunted parks in Los Angeles. The drive in seemed normal enough: a park rangers office, rolling hills of green grass, and even a merry go round at one intersection turn. Going a little farther, we reached a beautiful picnicking area with a winding path to the left and large wooden steps that lead to the base of the hill. There, dozens of cages were laid out with many left open. Local birds with exotic cries and loud crickets chirping brought life to the old zoo again. There was an old sign that explained the location’s past and asked visitors to be respectful of the structures.
At one time, this place would have been filled with lions, grizzly bears, monkeys, reptiles, birds and more. As I walked in and around some of the graffiti covered cages, it became very clear that no living thing should ever have had to live in these conditions. There were dozens of anchors built into the structures, some still with chains left lying on the ground that had presumably once restrained the larger animals.
Many of these cells were small and enclosed with layer upon layer of metal caging and barbed wire. Even the largest ones would have seemed tiny compared to some of the smallest Los Angeles apartments. It’s no wonder that people say this place is haunted by the spirits of animals who had died long ago from the poor conditions.
I was determined to find something though, and so I continued my search farther up the hill. It was getting dark now, and most of the children playing and people walking their dogs in the park below had left. The eeriness had begun to set in, with only the bird cries to fill the silence and the large moon to light my path. I found more cages higher up, some with their doors creaking in the breeze that rushed down the hillside.
Then I heard a roar coming from one of the cages. It was deep and strained. There was no way I had been imagining this—it was loud and clear. And then I saw it, the wind was rushing down the hill and had been blowing through this narrow tunnel-like series of cages. The elaborate barbed wire ceilings and concrete barriers had created the perfect set up for the wind to create these animal-like noises.
While this park had definitely been old and strange, I wasn’t able to find anything that I would have classified as being haunted. It was almost a relief that I didn’t find anything there, for who knows what could have happened then.
Some places we like to make haunted, like the Spadra Cemetery or the Old Los Angeles Zoo. We want to wonder about the supernatural. It’s only natural for us. During these adventures, I found myself wondering more than ever before whether there really were things we couldn’t see—paranormal things. Maybe the energy of those who have passed are still connected to this physical world, and we can see through the barrier at times. Or maybe we just like to divulge these perceptions so that we can pretend that we understand this world more tangibly. However, every individual person is her own decision maker when answering these questions. So, I ask again, dear reader, do you believe in ghosts?