Curses and High Strangeness at Griffith Park, Los Angeles
For whatever reasons, there seem to be some places in this world that are a magnet for the strange and the unexplained, no matter where they may be. These are places that may seem normal on the outside, but which pulse with an undercurrent of forces beyond our current understanding, indeed perhaps forever beyond our ability to comprehend. One place that seems to certainly hold claim to being one of these mysterious locales is one of the largest parks in the United States, the sprawling Griffith Park of Los Angeles, California. Boasting 4,310 acres of expansive, at times rather rugged land, as well as numerous attractions such as golf courses, the Griffith Observatory, the Greek Amphitheatre, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Museum of the American West, the Travel Town train museum, the iconic Hollywood sign, a carousel, and numerous hiking trails, it is a popular tourist destination for leisure seekers from all over the country and indeed the world. It is also ground zero for a variety of strangeness ranging from curses, to hauntings, to bizarre creatures stalking its wilderness.
Located at the eastern foot of the Santa Monica Mountains and overlooking the now bustling city of Los Angeles, Griffith Park was surrounded by sinister tales even before its creation. The land on which Griffith Park now sits on part of what was once Rancho Los Feliz, which was a 6,647-acre (26.90 km2) land grant given to José Vicente Feliz, the pre-statehood mayor of Los Angeles, in 1795 by Spanish Governor Pedro Fages as a reward for his services. In 1863 the property would be acquired from the Feliz heir Don Antonio Feliz, who was bedridden and dying from smallpox, by a lawyer named Antonio F. Coronel. The deal was controversial in the Feliz family to say the least, since Don Antonio had left most of his land and wealth to Coronel rather than his own family, and they got next to nothing in comparison. Rumors swirled that Coronel had swindled Feliz, with some witnesses to the will signing even claiming that Coronel had used a stick to force the dying Feliz to nod in agreement to his own twisted version of the will. Nevertheless, despite these accusations the legality of the agreement was upheld by the court.
Don Antonio’s then teenaged niece, Dona Petranilla, had been left with absolutely nothing in the deal, and according to the lore she was so absolutely furious by the will decision that she angrily laid a curse upon the land, proclaiming that it would become a place of rampant fires and disease which no one would ever profit from. The alleged curse’s first victims were the lawyer and the judge who had upheld the conditions of the will, with the lawyer dying from a gunshot and the judge from sudden illness. Coronel’s family is also said to have suffered from disease and misfortune for as long as he owned the land, and even after his own death his streak of bad luck continued when his remarried wife squabbled with her new husband over the inheritance, eventually squandering it all away in court and forcing them to sell off the land.
Subsequent owners were befallen by grave misfortune as well. One partial owner by the name of C.V. Howard was shot and killed at a saloon after selling the land’s water rights for a small fortune. Yet another owner by the name of Leon Baldwin started a ranch on the property, but met with disaster from day one, with his cattle dying off from disease and the land being plagued by wildfires and ravenous insects until the destitute rancher was forced to sell everything and was later purportedly killed by bandits. 4,071 acres (16.5 km2) of the land would eventually be sold to a Griffith Jenkins Griffith in 1882, from whom Griffith Park gets its name.
From all appearances the supposed curse was still in full effect at this time, and Griffith would seemingly experience its wrath, facing misfortune after misfortune. In addition to droughts, fires, unruly livestock, and a major storm which came tearing through the Los Angeles basin causing much devastation, the ghosts of Dona Petranilla and Don Antonio Feliz were purportedly frequently seen prowling about the area. Then, to add to the misery, on October 28th, 1891, a man named Frank Burkett allegedly shot Griffith with a shotgun outside of the Old Calvary Cemetery after he foreclosed on a failing ostrich farm Burkett had started on the land, seriously wounding him before shooting himself with a pistol. The only reason Griffith supposedly survived at all was because Burkett had opted to use bird shot, perhaps mistakenly. Whether this was all the result of a curse or not, it was certainly bad luck, and Griffith became so convinced that the land was cursed that he avoided the place, and eventually donated large swaths of the property to the city of Los Angeles.
On December 16, 1896, he donated 3,015 acres (1,220 ha), and this would the beginnings of the Griffith Park we see today, and even this generous gesture was reportedly tainted by the curse. During the ceremony for the handing over of the land to the city, the ghost of Don Antonio Feliz allegedly appeared in the seat reserved for Griffith and somberly proclaimed “I come to invite you to dine with me in hell. In your great honor I have brought an escort of sub-demons,” after which the lights apparently went out and there was a cacophonous crash of cymbals, greatly panicking the guests. It has been speculated that this was all an overdone practical joke, but it certainly ruined the event. 2 years later, in 1898, the same ghost allegedly made another dramatic appearance when it appeared at a party in the park for influential people and chased partygoers around atop a spectral horse while wailing, groaning, and laughing.
The streak of misfortune was not yet over for Griffith. In 1903, Griffith shot and wounded his own wife at the Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica after becoming convinced that she was trying to poison him. The incident saw Griffith imprisoned at San Quentin penitentiary for 2 years. When he was released, he found himself with a tarnished reputation, and even though he tried to donate money for the construction of facilities in the park he was more or less completely ostracized by society from then on, and the city refused his money. Griffith would die alone in 1919 from liver disease, having fallen from grace and devolved from a once respected figure in the city into a pariah. However, he did set up a trust fund for improvements to the park to be used after his death, one last show of good will towards the park bearing his name. This trust fund would eventually be used to help erect the amphitheater and observatory.
The years since Griffith’s death went on to produce more disasters and incidents to build on the scary lore of the “Griffith Park Curse” as well. Most notable are the various serious fires that have blazed through the area, spookily mirroring Dona Petranilla’s specific wishes in her sinister curse. The first was on October 3, 1933, when a major fire broke out at the park that devoured 47 acres (19 ha), killed 29, and injured 150, mostly good-willed people who had been hired to clear brush for a public welfare project, making it the deadliest fire in Los Angeles history. Another blaze tore through the southern area of the park on May 12, 1961, destroying 8 homes and damaging many others. The largest was on May 8, 2007, when a ferocious wildfire ravaged over 817 acres (331 ha) that threatened homes, caused the evacuation of hundreds of people, and destroyed several important areas of the park such as the bird sanctuary, Dante’s View, and the Captain’s Roost. In addition to these serious news breaking blazes, there have been frequent smaller wildfires in the area, which considering the dry brush in the region is perhaps no surprise, but many still think it has something to do with the curse.
The park also experienced its share of woe and misery during World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States went about indiscriminately incarcerating Japanese Americans all over the country, who were labelled as enemy sympathizers, “enemy aliens,” and thrown against their will into internment camps on American soil. At this time, Griffith Park was used as a makeshift holding center for groups of these bedraggled prisoners, serving as a temporary detention camp until they could be moved off to one of the permanent camps. It is estimated that around to 550 Japanese Americans were confined in Griffith Park from 1941 to 1942, and from 1943 the park also served as a POW Processing Center for German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war, further adding to the cloud of misfortune hanging over the area.
Considering this rather tumultuous history mixed with death, misery, misfortune, and talk of curses, is seems only natural that Griffith Park has become the epicenter for all manner of paranormal strangeness and unexplained phenomena. The park is an absolute haven for ghosts, and by far the most frequently seen are those of Dona Petranilla, Don Antonio Feliz, and Griffith himself. Dona’s ghost is most commonly reported as appearing in a flowing white dress and frequently stands at the window of the Paco Feliz Adobe, which is the oldest building in the park and serves as the headquarters for Crystal Springs Rangers. The apparition of Feliz seems to prefer his former ranchland, which he is said to patrol atop his trusty phantom horse, often laughing maniacally, and he seems to be particularly fond of a place called Bee Rock. Griffith’s ghost has been reported from all over the park, often atop his own ghostly steed.
While these may be the most famous of the park’s numerous ghosts, they are not the only ones and certainly seem to have plenty of company. The world-famous Hollywood sign is supposedly haunted by the spirit of actress Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by leaping from the sign in 1932. To this day visitors report seeing a ghostly woman jump from the top of the sign only to vanish before hitting the ground. A sure sign of the presence of this ghost is said to be the distinct smell of gardenia perfume pervading the air, which she is said to have preferred in life. An unidentified ghostly young girl is also seen wandering around the park, looking distraught and allegedly sometimes calling out for help. She is thought to perhaps be the ghost of a girl said to have died in the park of exposure after getting lost on the vast grounds. There is also the spirit of a young man who supposedly lurks about the park’s merry-go-round, often seen climbing the steps before vanishing. Various entities are said to roam about the observatory and a train museum called Travel Town as well.
A less defined entity has sometimes been reported from the now abandoned Griffith Park Zoo, also called the Old Zoo, which was opened in 1912 atop the land on which the old ostrich farm had been. The zoo went through some expansions from its humble beginnings, but never really caught on with the public. It was seen as poorly maintained and ugly, with plain, unadorned cages and filthy conditions, and the zoo was closed in 1966 when the larger and nicer Los Angeles Zoo opened nearby. However, although the animals are long gone the facilities remain as weed choked, crumbling old buildings, litter strewn empty enclosures, discarded, rusted cages, and spooky abandoned caves which once had iron bars. It is an eerie, feral place from another time, made even more so by the shadowy apparition said to haunt it. Often described as simply a hulking figure of black shadow, the demonic apparition is usually said to emanate a decidedly powerful and unfriendly aura of negativity, as well as a crushing sense of foreboding. One witness described her encounter with the mysterious entity thus:
I was looking in the cages, and got a very eerie feeling. I turned to my right and looked farther down the walkway, and standing at the end was a really big, really dark entity. I’m for certain that it was a demon because I felt like it did not want us there, and I know for other reasons. So I then told my little brother to run as fast as you can and get out of here. So we started running and I kept turning around to see where the creature was, and it was getting closer and closer. It felt like I was in a horror movie because as soon as we got out of there back to where the play was, all was calm. I looked back and saw the creature, and another entity that was white and looked like she we in a white dress. I’ve been through some pretty scary/creepy places… But Griffith Park has to be THE scariest.
Adding to all of the strangeness in the park is some sort of hunched over humanoid beast with disproportionately long arms and legs as well as a long neck that is said to stalk the wilderness here. Some witnesses have also claimed that the creature has green skin and red hair, and that it wears white pants and black shoes. The creature is said to amble about following people along the trails at night, and is described as being able to leap great distances and contort its body unnaturally. It is unclear if this beast is supposed to be a ghost, a demon, a werewolf, an alien, an unidentified animal, or what, but it certainly is a creepy tale. Another strange creature said to roam about threatening people is a giant coyote far larger than usual, which has been rumored to be responsible for at least one mysterious disappearance of a young boy.
A famous and notorious tale of an intensely haunted place in Griffith Park is that of the supposedly haunted picnic table. The story goes that on October 31, 1976, 22-year-old musician Rand Garrett and aspiring actress Nancy Jeanson, 20, were enjoying a romantic moment at a picnic table off of Mt. Hollywood Drive when they were tragically struck and killed in a freak accident by a suddenly falling tree. From that moment forward the picnic table has been claimed to have all sorts of bizarreness surrounding it, starting almost immediately. The workers who initially went in to clear the debris from the falling tree allegedly all fell ill and became strangely disoriented while they were there. One of the workers, a man by the name of Morris Carl, described other strange things as well, saying:
What happened was I’d sawed off the crown of the tree when from out of nowhere I got hit with these real strong chills so hard it was as if I was coming down with the fastest flu ever. I tried to shake it off and get back to work, but each time I’d fire up the saw and get near the tree I’d get real cold and hear this weird moaning and crying. So I’d stop the saw and listen and it would go away. But then I’d start her up again and it would come back. Finally I was freezing so bad I had to go to the truck and get my coat. I set down the saw on the picnic table and headed over to the truck, and that’s when I heard it start shaking from behind me. The tree just went crazy! Not just lightly shaking, but bouncing up and down as if someone was picking it up and dropping it. It landed repeatedly on the table with such force as to knock the heavy power saw off the table to the ground. As soon as that happened, the tree stopped moving.
After this, Morris claimed that a disembodied voice then told him forcefully to go away, but that his truck wouldn’t start. As he sat there in a panic something then apparently wrote the words “Next you die,” letter by letter into the condensation on the windshield, with the truck sputtering back to life at that precise same moment. Morris then tore away from the scene and refused to go back. When his supervisor, a Dennis Higgs, didn’t believe the story, Morris allegedly dared him to go see for himself. Higgs then went out to the tree by himself to finish the job, and was reportedly found the next day dead of a heart attack. Spooky details attributed to the story are that Higgs had been dragged across the ground towards the picnic table and had injured hands and broken fingernails from trying to fight off whoever or whatever was pulling him. His chainsaw was apparently twisted and bent into a U-shape and lying next to him.
The supposedly haunted picnic table is still there, along with the unmoved fallen tree, and even though the lore surrounding it is commonly thought to be an urban legend, people still claim to experience strange things there. Among the various weird phenomena alleged to happen at the site include seeing two ghostly figures lurking near the table, red, glowing eyes in the dark, voices that demand visitors to leave them alone, a sudden rancid stench in the air, sudden frigid cold spots even in the middle of summer, sobbing noises, screams, or laughs, and unseen hands pinching, shoving, or scratching. One park ranger claimed to have been viciously attacked by the ghosts in 2002. For their part, officials of the park have generally dismissed this tale as pure urban folklore started by a hoax newspaper article, with Griffith Park’s Chief Ranger Albert Torres once writing off the supernatural element of such stories while at the same time shedding light on other sinister attributes of the park by saying:
It’s a big park, somebody’s got to haunt it, but frankly I’m not afraid of any make-believe demons as much as I am of some of the living and breathing human monsters who come here. Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of the visitors to the park are here to enjoy themselves and its resources. But if you knew even a quarter of the stuff we find within the park’s perimeter you’d never set foot in it again. Animal sacrifices, satanic cults, murders, prostitution… with stuff like that happening on a regular basis it makes a pair of 30-year-old ghosts look like good times.
Considering the colorful and somewhat ominous history of Griffith Park, steeped in violence and misery as it is, its sheer size, and the sprawling, rugged quality of its grounds, it is perhaps inevitable that it would attract to itself legends of curses, ghosts, demons, and monsters. There is a quality to this place that invites such tales, and it is very difficult to tell where facts end and pure urban legend begins. Whatever is going on here and whatever the cause of these phenomena, Griffith Park has certainly earned itself a spot in the pantheon of strange places in this world imbued with an innate quality of being wellsprings of the sinister and the bizarre.