Outside their Echo Park recording space last month, five members of the L.A. goth-psych band Death Valley Girls climb into their tour van and head off for what will be, they hope, one of the more upsetting nights of their lives.
“I brought you an extra crucifix,” singer Bonnie Bloomgarden says to a Times reporter as she hops in the backseat. “You’re going to have such a bad time. There’s so much negative energy in there.”
“There” refers to the Oman House, a private home at the top of Benedict Canyon that’s just a few yards from the Cielo Drive site where members of the Manson Family murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others.
The house is a frequent star on paranormal-research shows such as “Ghost Hunters” due to all the adjacent malevolent energy (plus some rumored hauntings all its own). The owners host seances for guests, and the house is rigged floor-to ceiling with video equipment and gadgets for capturing spectral presences.
Naturally, it’s one of Death Valley Girls’ favorite spots for hanging out.
A few weeks before the release of the band’s new album “Darkness Rains,” they’re looking to commune with some old spirits in much the same way their record does. The album, the band’s third, is a modern update on the brief flash in the 1970s where heavy rock was being stripped down into punk. It’s made them a favorite on the L.A. psych-rock scene set around the Desert Daze festival, where the band plays this month.
Iggy Pop is perhaps their biggest fan and stars in the group’s video for “Disaster (Is What We’re After),” where he eats a hamburger, riffing on Andy Warhol’s famous video piece. Bloomgarden and guitarist Larry Schemel (core members of a revolving troupe, which now includes Alana Amram, Laura Harris, Laura Kelsey and Kimi Recor) pair the bare-knuckle riffs of MC5 with Black Sabbath’s doom and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ nervous wails.
But on this night, they’re looking for a more immediate encounter with the eerie.
Schemel parks the van down the street from the private drive that leads up to the Oman House. It’s unnervingly quiet on the block, which ascends the same unlit path where Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel “creepy crawled” on the way to committing the first of their murders.
“The last time we were here was almost too much,” Bloomgarden says. A dear friend of the band believed he got in touch with the spirit of someone close to them and was left in near hysterics by the end of the seance. “I don’t know what we did for fun before we got into paranormal research,” she says, and it’s hard to know how much she’s kidding.
They’re greeted at the door by David Oman, the owner of the home and the producer of a micro-budget horror film, “The House At the End of the Drive,” loosely based on his experiences living there. Within minutes, he’s got the monitoring systems on and he’s pointing out weird happenings to the band.
“See that? Wait for it…” he says, pulling up the feed from a camera in an adjacent room. On the looped video, a small action figure from the film “Beetlejuice” spontaneously collapses amid a table of other collectibles. No one else was in the room when it did.
When Oman takes the band upstairs to set the figure upright, he pounds on the cabinet to prove its stability. Nothing else moves. Hmm.
Everyone descends into the darkened basement for the seance. Liliana Willis, a self-described medium for channeling the dead, leads the session. Everyone gathers around a central table, laid out beneath a wall of tonally incongruous college sports memorabilia and a kids’ toy keyboard.
Willis lights candles, flips on a couple of energy-meters and asks if any spirits are up for talking tonight.
“Sharon Tate? Is the spirit of Sharon Tate here tonight?” she asks. “Sometimes she’ll want to speak to us.”
At first, nothing. The band swaps bemused glances as Willis tries to make contact. Tonight might not be the night. Maybe the ghosts know to stay away from sessions with prying journalists.
Then, from clear across the room, the toy keyboard suddenly lights up and plays a tinny, terrifying melody. The band members almost fall out of their chairs.
“What the ... was that?” Bloomgarden asks, panting with shock. “Look, the candles moved, but nothing else did.” Indeed, one of the candles is now almost lateral in its stand. Maybe someone knocked it when they jumped in fright. But maybe not.
A few members quiver and look like they don’t want to go on with the session. But Willis corrals the band for a few more attempts. Schemel asks about contacting a recently deceased friend. Willis incants the friend's name over and over again, trying to reach out across the void.
This time, nothing. The ghosts have given up all the secrets they would tonight.
For all the band’s gothic aesthetics, they’re incredibly earnest about the afterlife. “Darkness Rains” is an album about embracing death, but it’s not sad. It’s almost invigorating about the idea of life beyond understanding.
As they pack up the ghost-hunting kits, Oman takes them upstairs to hang out while he grills hot dogs and smokes a giant bong on the patio.