Sprawled out over 3,000 square miles of Eastern California near the border with Nevada, in the United States, is the arid moonscape of Death Valley. With some of the highest land temperatures ever recorded on earth, this is a searing, parched, and forbidding land, a place that is at times seemingly as inhospitable and as some far away lifeless planet, and one well deserving of the name “Death Valley.” It a hostile environment, in a world unto its own, that one would not imagine to be inhabited by anything at all, let alone ghosts, but Death Valley certainly has its share of strange stories of the paranormal.
Many of the tales of ghostly occurrences in Death Valley revolve around certain places lying out in these badlands that have a dark history of death, and one of these is a long abandoned ghost town out in the middle of nowhere. In the early 1900s, this area of California was in the middle of a gold rush, with droves of miners from all over pouring through the unforgiving desert landscape on mad dash towards their dreams of gold and riches beyond their wildest dreams. To cater to these miners there were scattered camps built out in the harsh environment, and some of these evolved into small towns. One of these was the mining camp of Skidoo, which started as a humble hodgepodge of tents and shacks, but which by the height of its prosperity in 1907 had bloomed into a town of 700, complete with its own bank, saloon, general store, school, newspaper, and brothel.
In 1908 there was a deputy in town by the name of Joe Simson, also called “Hooch” due to his notorious and shameless consumption of alcohol. The story goes that he one day got hopelessly drunk and ordered a bank teller named Jim Arnold to hand over $20 for unclear reasons. At some point his gun went off, supposedly because he felt offended by Jim’s attitude, and killed the teller. Joe was soon arrested, but as he sat in jail he was forcefully rounded up by the enraged townsfolk, who had formed a roiling vigilante lynch mob, and hung the criminal up from a telephone pole, where they left his dead body swinging in the wind.
Apparently, after they finally took the body down and buried it a reporter from LA came through and they exhumed the corpse to hang up once again so that he could take a photo. One gruesome addition to the story and further violation of the corpse is that a local doctor wanted to test the body for any signs of syphilis, and rather than simply take a blood sample he had the whole head cut off to test that. Although Joe Simpson is long quite dead, he seems to have never really left Skidoo. It is reported that every year on the anniversary of the shooting a phantom gunshot can be heard to crack out over the dry desert air, followed by the disembodied shouting of a spectral mob, and Joe’s headless ghost is also said to roam about at night, especially near the location of the town’s cemetery. Although like most ghost towns in Death Valley Skidoo has crumbled to dusty abandoned ruins and deserted roads, it still brings in curiosity seekers and paranormal investigators hoping to see some sign of ghostly activity.
By far the most famous of Death Valley’s supposedly haunted hotels is the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, located right out in the sun scorched wasteland at the tiny speck of a town called Death Valley Junction, which was once called Amargosa. The quaint little hotel is notable for its improbable location out in one of the harshest environments on earth, for being featured in the David Lynch film Lost Highway, and also for its alleged intense paranormal activity. The hotel itself was built by the Pacific Borax Mining Company in the 1920s, as a part of the burgeoning mining community there, and there was also established the Death Valley Railroad, which operated from Ryan, California to Death Valley Junction. The settlement of Amargosa began to boom, and became a sort of hub for the other outlying mining communities in the area, spurring the construction of the hotel. Originally called Corkhill Hall, the Spanish Colonial style building was envisioned as a hotel, theater, recreation hall, and office building all rolled into one to serve the steadily growing population.
In 1927 the mining company moved its headquarters, closed the railway line, and left the town to fend for itself, which it did by eking out an existence as a tourist destination. In 1967, an artist, singer, dancer, and actress by the name of Marta Becket and her husband came across the town after going there to seek repairs for a flat tire they had suffered out on the highway during a tour of the country. She soon became rather enamored of the historical architecture of the town, especially its Corkhill Hall, which her and her husband would end up renting and renaming the Amargosa Opera House. Considering that there were few customers to come and see her shows, Becket began painting audiences on the walls, made up of all manner of colorful figures, as well as a sprawling mural on the ceiling, and the theater began to turn into quite the curiosity. Becket has owned and operated the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel ever since.
More than this colorful history the hotel is more famous for being incredibly haunted, indeed often popping up on lists of the most haunted hotels in the country. There are several different apparitions and ghost infested sections of the hotel. One area that seems to experience some of the most intense activity is an area that was once used as miners’ quarters, as well as a hospital and morgue, called “spooky hollow.” Here visitors and staff alike report phantom smells and the presence of the ghostly apparitions of miners, still wearing their old fashioned attire and shambling about in the murk. Another notorious haunt is a building at the rear of the hotel that is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a little girl who drowned in the pool there. In the vicinity of this building can allegedly be heard a disembodied girl’s voice giggling, or conversely crying, and objects are seen to move on their own.
The opera house is also said to be haunted, with Becket saying that she has long had her performances interrupted by the appearance of a spectral cat, and the ghostly apparition of her former partner, Tom Willet is sometimes spotted sitting in one of the theater’s seats. Odd noises and whispering voices when no one is around, as well as shadows dancing on the stage are also common. The hotel’s dining room apparently has spectral dinner parties with laughter and the clinking of glasses from invisible guests, as well as the high pitched voice of a woman talking.
Several of the rooms of the hotel are said to have persistent paranormal activity as well. In Room 9 guests have reported having their arms or feet held down as they sleep, the doors open and close on their own, and the creepy laughter of a child also sometimes materializes here. Room 24 is supposedly inhabited by the ghost of a girl who drowned in the bathtub, and she is known to leave mysterious wet footprints and to cry at night, as well as to turn the shower or faucet on or off. More sinister is room 32, which according to lore was the scene of a murder and in which there dwells a purportedly angry, malevolent presence known for pushing, shoving, and pervading the air with an unbearable sense of dread and foreboding. Other general strangeness reported from around the hotel and its grounds are phantom screams from nowhere, the sound of children’s footsteps running up stairs or down halls, roving cold spots, and even sightings of full entities in period clothing. There is also a phantom hitchhiker said to hand out along the nearby road and unlock vehicle doors to let himself in.
Another supposedly haunted hotel in Death Valley is the Furnace Creek Inn, also built by the borax mining company in its heyday, and which managed to remain open and popular even after the company pulled out of the area. The hotel is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a chef named James Marquez, who worked there from 1959 to 1973. Although he did not actually die at the hotel, his ghost is still said to sometimes show up for work, wandering around the kitchen and dining halls and startling guests and staff.
There are other haunted buildings in Death Valley as well, including a place that has come to be known as Scotty’s Castle. This mansion was built in 1922 as an opulent vacation home for the actor Walter Scott, who lived there with his beloved dog until he passed away in 1954. Both Scott and his dog were buried in the nearby foothills and it seems that they have never really left their dream home. The most widely reported strange phenomena here are the sounds of footsteps when no one is there, as well as the disembodied panting or barking of a dog and the feeling of having a dog brush up against one’s legs.
The spectral figure of Scott is often seen sitting in the fireplace room or standing on the grand staircase, where he will gaze at visitors before vanishing, and there are other reports of other less definable apparitions. It is also said that visitors are plagued by sudden panic attacks or inexplicable despair, as well as an itching, tingling sensation that persists until they leave the premises. Perhaps Scott does not like trespassers? The surrounding property itself is said to be prowled by a “satanic” looking humanoid creature with horns on its head that can be seen stalking about and peering out of the wilderness.
There is another unrelated story told by Scott’s friend Bill Keyes in the Dec. 21, 1907 issue of the The Bullfrog Miner. Keyes claimed that he had been out prospecting for gold near the town of Rhyolite when he stopped at a well-known desert oasis called “Tule Holes” to load up on water and camp out for the night. During the night he reported that he had heard all manner of eerie noises coming from the dark such as moaning and other less identifiable sounds, and he also spotted strange orbs of light bobbing about out in the desert, their light the only illumination out in the pitch black. Strangest of all, he reported that when he had finally gotten to sleep he had awoken to find that he was 500 feet away from his campsite, and that there were marks in the earth that suggested he had been dragged through the desert.
In more modern times there is the report of a bizarre encounter that was posted on Reddit and is really hard to classify. The witness claims that he was out dirt bike riding in the desert during an adventure trip to Death Valley in the summer of 2015 while on leave from being stationed in Africa in the Army. He says that he was trying to challenge himself out there in the hottest place on Earth at the hottest time of the year, and that the temperature at the time was 120 degrees, meaning that he had not seen anyone else out there all day. On this day he had been heading towards a place called Ubehebe Crater, and had only seen one car pass going the other way, and when evening came he stopped halfway between there and RaceTrack Playa to camp for the night.
He described the area as being very remote, only accessible through a small, unmaintained gravel road and dotted with desert scrub. During the night, the silence was allegedly broken by the unmistakable sound of children’s laughter and talking, which was startling as this had been the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere out in one of the most hazardous environments on earth. The witness estimated that they were perhaps 50 yards away, and he decided to call out to them. When he did, the laughter and talking briefly stopped before starting again. Now sure that what he was hearing was children playing around, the witness got his flashlight and headed out to investigate. He soon found what he was looking for in the form of two small children who were described as “walking, kind of wandering, looking lost, sounding lost.” Thinking that these children were perhaps in trouble, he called out to them again, and describes what happened next thus:
They stopped. They looked in my direction, but they were looking past me. In my direction, but not at me. Like they heard me but I wasn’t even there. I was illuminating them with a very bright flashlight. They should have been covering their faces but they were just scanning, like they were looking for me and just didn’t see me.
They turned back, kept walking, and I just watched them not sure of what to do. Their noises and their images faded into the distance. I just sat there. I didn’t know what to think or what to do. It was just so bizarre. After a while I laid back down, and just relaxed until it started raining at about 5:30AM. That’s when I packed up in the darkness and continued with my adventure into the morning.
So that’s what I saw. I saw children in Death Valley, over a hundred miles from freaking ANYTHING! Just walking, talking, wandering, then vanishing. Oddly enough it didn’t freak me out at the moment. I was more confused than anything. That’s why I couldn’t make a decision on what to do in that moment. Now, looking back, it’s freaky.
More bizarre still is a report relayed to me by a reader in relation to an article I wrote on Skinwalkers. The witness told me that when he was out on a hike in Death Valley he had paused to take in the sunset, which had been drawing near. He then said that he had noticed a figure off in the distance standing there in the desolate landscape looking as if they were enjoying the setting sun as well. It seemed to be a man dressed in what appeared to be some sort of Native America clothing, although he was not close enough to be sure. It was a bit odd, but nothing truly bizarre. At least not yet.
As the witness watched, he says that the mysterious figure began to walk across the desert, backlit by the deepening hues of the sunset painted sky, but then something changed. The figure, which had been bipedal, began to lope along on all fours, still looking like a man trying to mimic a quadrupedal animal, but very fast. The stranger picked up speed and its movements became smoother, more natural as it ran off, allegedly until the point that when it finally ran away it was described as being more like a coyote or wolf before disappearing into the desert. Skin walker or not, whatever he saw it is a strange account to be sure.
Why does this sprawling badlands of dust, dirt, and oppressive heat draw to itself so many stories of ghosts and phantoms? Is it some quality of the land itself? Does some power reside here that pulls in and imprisons these spirits? Is it just the bleak surroundings and the stifling, relentless heat that conspire to trick and disorient the mind? Whatever the reasons may or may not be, Death Valley seems to be a place imbued with mysteries both natural and supernatural, its landscape at once beautiful, lethal, and at times paranormal.