It started out as one of those glorious early fall evenings--bright, blue, crisp enough for a sweater, full of signs of a benign autumn.
But as the little clutch of visitors approached the stand of pepper trees near the new mission church in San Juan Capistrano, a couple of them noticed that things were suddenly beginning to look more than a little . . . eerie.
Low clouds and gray fog had begun to form around the nearby hills to the south, a full moon had risen through the mist and, over the wall in the mission grounds, the shadows were deepening and thickening, plunging the adobe ruins into the sort of creepy murk that Pamela Hallan-Gibson was ready to exploit.
So, as the visitors gathered in the gloom, Hallan-Gibson, dressed in funereal black, stepped forward and began to tell the stories of the devil dog, the headless soldier and the faceless monk.
The group had set out in search of the most elusive of San Juan Capistrano’s residents: its large population of ghosts. Sponsored by the Orange County Library Assn., the 12-block Ghost Walk (as the library called it) took the spook seekers past scenes of some of the city’s most unnatural events and most unusual sightings.
And Hallan-Gibson, a historian, a fourth-generation resident of the city and the author of the locally published book “Ghosts and Legends of San Juan Capistrano,” was the tour guide.
“I have never seen a ghost,” she told the group. “But I often tell people that there are more ghosts per capita in San Juan than in any other city in Orange County.”
Many of the city’s residents won’t argue, particularly the ones who are familiar with the mission or who live in what is perhaps the spookiest neighborhood in Orange County: the area across the tracks from the train station along Los Rios Street.
Although there are other legendary hauntings scattered throughout San Juan, the mission and the Rios Adobe on Los Rios Street probably have been the sites of more--and, supposedly, more vivid--spectral sightings than any other locations in the city.
And, on the night of Hallan-Gibson’s first Ghost Walk (the Orange County Library sponsored the walks in September and earlier this month), the mission was the first stop.
According to Hallan-Gibson, no walls surrounded the mission until the 1920s, and anyone could wander through the colonnades, around the ruins and past the mounds that were the unmarked graves of Indians at any time of the day or night. The moonlight and the wind in the trees could play eerie visual tricks, she said, throwing shadows in unlikely places.
Still, she said, many overnight visitors to the mission claim to have seen, in the shadows of the north corridor of the inner courtyard, the apparition of a hooded monk. He is always seen hurrying away, his back always turned to the witness.
“I’ve talked to at least three or four people who have told me they’ve seen him,” Hallan-Gibson said. “And you don’t dare look into the hood because he has no face.”
Another mission specter goes the monk one better. Hallan-Gibson said there have been several sightings of the ghost of a headless Spanish soldier, supposedly one of the men who used to be attached to the mission as part of a military garrison. Years after the last garrison was disbanded, she said, “people claimed they could hear the boot steps of soldiers still walking around the mission.”
The headless soldier/faceless monk stories, Hallan-Gibson said, may have first appeared after one of the mission’s priests was summoned to give last rites to the corpse of a man found in the nearby hills. The corpse’s head was missing and was never located, and this may have given rise to some uneasy speculation.
One of the mission’s ghosts was never even human. At the first Ghost Walk stop near the pepper trees by the new mission church, Hallan-Gibson related the story of the apparition of an animal that has come to be known as the devil dog. Usually appearing near the pepper trees (although ghostly black dogs figure in other spirit legends elsewhere in San Juan), the dog is large, black and is said to breathe smoke or fire, Hallan-Gibson said.
That was enough to fire the imagination of one of the Ghost Walkers, Renee Koontz of Laguna Niguel.
“I think we’re gonna see something tonight,” she said excitedly, waving a flashlight topped with a translucent plastic skull.
“We ought to have onions,” said her friend, Teri Garza of Anaheim. “Don’t we need onions?”
Asked if she meant garlic, she yelped: “That’s it! Garlic!”
Although mission ghost stories offer no vampires to ward off with garlic, one story has a kind of literary parallel--in this case, Romeo and Juliet. In 1812, Hallan-Gibson said, a young Indian girl named Magdalena fell in love with a young man named Teofilo. Because of their youth, they were forbidden to see each other, but they continued to meet in secret. They were discovered, and Magdalena was made to carry what was known as the penitent’s candle during a Mass in the Great Stone Church of the mission on Dec. 8, 1812.
During the Mass, a massive earthquake struck, and the roof, bell tower and sections of the church’s walls collapsed, killing 39 people. Magdalena was among the dead.
“On nights of the full moon, people have said they can see the outline of her face in the top window of the church, and she’s still holding the candle,” Hallan-Gibson said.
The mission ghosts are elusive, however. Father Paul Martin, the mission’s pastor, said that during his 23 years at the mission, “I’ve never experienced anything personally. But people have told me of different experiences that they had heard of. They’re charming legends, but not too many people have told me they’ve experienced anything of a personal nature.”
Martin said that he was “walking through the Serra Chapel one night, and I heard something that sounded like nails scraping underneath the tiles. I pursued it, and I found out later that it was the transmission of sound from the garage across the street. They were doing something over there that had that same kind of sound.”
Hallan-Gibson acknowledges that she too has never seen any of the mission’s otherworldly residents. But she added that when she was living across the street from the mission in her grandmother’s house (now occupied by the Chamber of Commerce), “on many occasions I was awakened by the bells ringing in the middle of the night. It wasn’t windy and I knew there was nobody in the mission.”
That fired the imagination of little Garik Garza, toddling along on the Ghost Walk near his mother.
“I see something walking behind me,” he said gleefully, “and it’s not my mom.”
The fog had lowered and the gloom had deepened minutes later, when the Ghost Walk arrived in front of the Rios Adobe on Los Rios Street. Named for the family that has lived in it continuously through successive generations since it was built in 1794, it is a registered California historical landmark, the oldest continuously occupied dwelling in the state. Cheerful and hospitable-looking by day, it takes on a different character at night.
It is near the large, spreading pepper tree next to the driveway of the adobe that one of San Juan Capistrano’s most famous ghosts has frequently been sighted, Hallan-Gibson said. That spot is the favorite haunt of the legendary white lady.
Hallan-Gibson said several generations of San Juan residents have sighted this specter. She is a beautiful, black-haired young woman, is always dressed in a white gown and holds a large dog on a rawhide leash. Sometimes she walks or dances down the street or simply stands near the pepper tree and smiles at those who see her.
One well-known sighting occurred in the late 1930s, Hallan-Gibson said. A young man, a member of an old San Juan family and a high school football player, was walking home from a dance at Capistrano Union High School. He noticed the smiling woman in white and walked past her. But as he looked ahead to the next corner on Los Rios Street, he saw her again. Confused and wondering how she could have gotten ahead of him without his knowing, he passed her again and continued on. And once again she appeared ahead of him, farther down the street.
The young man broke into a run and sprinted into his nearby house.
“He was very frightened,” Hallan-Gibson said, “but he didn’t want to tell his father that he’d seen a ghost. His father looked at him and then went to the window and lifted the curtain and looked out. Then he looked at his son and said: ‘It’s all right, son. She won’t bother you.’ ”
The other ghosts that are said to visit the Rios Adobe are considered equally harmless, although their presence can be disconcerting, said Stephen Rios, the current head of the household. He is an attorney and maintains a law office in the adobe.
On one night when he was a child, Rios said, he and his father Dan were alone in one room when they heard heavy footsteps tramping along the floor outside the closed door. After a thorough search, they found no one in the house.
There is also speculation that ghostly footsteps that have been heard running up to the front door of the adobe are those of the famous early California bandit Joaquin Murietta.
The purported ghosts at and around the adobe--Rios, a believer in the sightings, calls such occurrences “spirit activity"--are considered generally harmless, possibly the spirits of Rios antecedents returning briefly to check on the ancestral home.
One ghost, however, is universally feared by the believers in spirits in San Juan: a weeping, moaning spirit known as La Llorona. This sinister ghost (the name means Weeping Woman) is heard and not seen, most often near or along the banks of Trabuco Creek.
According to legend, the specter once was a woman, possibly a prostitute, who drowned her children one by one in the rising waters of the creek during a flood and, as a penance, was doomed to walk the banks of the creek forever after her death. Other accounts say she didn’t drown the children, but killed them, cut them up and fed them to her pigs.
In any case, Hallan-Gibson writes in her book, “La Llorona is a fearful ghost, one that old-timers leave alone. No one goes out looking for La Llorona. Those who believe in her stay in their houses behind locked doors when they think she is out. . . . Some old-timers feel she might take one of their children, hoping (her) penance would end.”
This ghost legend is not particular to San Juan Capistrano. Many Mexican villages have versions of the story, “perhaps to use as a moral lesson to young women of the community, or as a means of keeping children indoors after dark,” Hallan-Gibson writes. “Yet there are people (in San Juan) today who swear they have heard her and will not be talked out of it.”
Hallan-Gibson, however, says she believes that the La Llorona story “immigrated with the people who came up from Mexico,” although she acknowledges that the ghost “is probably the most menacing of any. You don’t hear it too often anymore except for old-timers, who swear they heard this wailing and crying.
“I think most people like the ghost stories,” she said, “but they don’t take them too seriously--except for the old-timers, who tend to be a little more cautious and probably find some of them a little more believable. If they haven’t seen anything themselves, they may say that they have personally known someone who has had some kind of experience that can’t be explained.
“I think they live easily with it, though, because none of the tales that have come down over the decades are particularly menacing. Most of them are at worst poltergeist type of things, and at best they’re thought of in some cases as a protective presence, like with the Rios Adobe ghost.”
Still, Hallan-Gibson said, if something really is out there, she doesn’t want anything to do with it.
“I don’t want to (see a ghost), thank you,” she said, laughing. “I’d rather take other people’s word for it.”
Which was exactly the case for the members of the walk that evening because the only places the ghosts manifested themselves were in her stories.