What’s it like hunting for spirits in a 134-year-old Victorian house.
It’s almost 10 p.m. on a Saturday night and I’m sitting in pitch-black darkness inside a Victorian house in East Oakland. There’re about 15 other people here — each of whom paid the $50-$75 ticket price for tonight’s five-hour event — and we’re all sitting on the floor, waiting with bated breath as our guide, a flaxen-haired medium from Colorado named Chris Moon, makes his first attempt of the night to communicate with the dead.
“We’re not here to disrespect you in any way,” Moon says aloud, in a calm, even voice. “We’d like to speak to you, not speak at you. The reason we are here is to learn more about you, to help you in any way, and to have a conversation with you. Would you like to speak us tonight?”
The voice that answers Moon is thick and raspy, and it doesn’t belong to any of the people in the room.
It came out of a device that Moon brought with him: a wooden case known as a ghost box that uses radio frequencies to allow two-way communication between the spirit and living world. When the device is on, it sounds not unlike you’re scrolling through an AM/FM radio dial, catching bits and pieces of various stations, songs, and programs.
But if you ask it a question — and listen very closely — you’ll hear coherent words and maybe even phrases. These snippets, Moon tells us, are the spirits answering us back. And tonight, in this 134-year-old house that has seen at least three people die within its walls, there is no shortage of spirits eager to communicate with us.
The Cohen-Bray house sticks out like the lone person wearing a costume at a Halloween party. Gifted to Alfred Cohen and Emma Bray as a wedding present in 1884, it’s the only Victorian structure left in a neighborhood that used to be known for its cherry and apricot orchards. Nowadays, the Fruitvale district is one of the most condensed and crowded locations in East Oakland. Its open spaces have been replaced with mid-century apartment buildings and tiny, one-story bungalows — many of which have bars across their windows — and its streets are routinely crammed with parked cars.
The Cohen-Bray house is but a short walk from International Boulevard, an incredibly long road that runs the entire length of the city’s eastside, spanning from the downtown area to San Leandro, the next town over. In addition to being one of its oldest, it also happens to be one of Oakland’s most infamous and crime-ridden streets. In 1996, the city even changed its name in an attempt to distract from its bad rap. (It used to be called East 14th Street.) It’s not as bad nowadays, but if you walk around at night, you’re likely to see sex workers in high heels and short dresses posting up in front of shuttered buildings or the flashing lights of a police car and two cops questioning a sedan full of teenage boys.
Despite the changes that have occurred around it, the Cohen-Bray house has remained untouched over the years, earning it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and the honor of being an Oakland City Landmark. Four generations of Cohen-Brays have lived, died, or been born in the house, including Emelita Cohen, the youngest of Alfred and Emma’s four children, who lived there for 90 years until her death in 1988.
Though it is no longer owned by the family — the house was donated to a non-profit in the early 1990s — a cousin still lives there as its caretaker and a handful of relatives help out in other ways.
Nancy Donald, one of Alfred and Emma’s great-grandchildren, has been volunteering at the house for years. As a child, she visited the house every Christmas to see her grandparents and other family members. Back then, she was a little scared of the three-story edifice, especially its attic which the children were warned not to visit. As she’s spent more time there, her fear of the creaky old building has lessened considerably. Granted, she’s never spent the night in the house, but to date, nothing scary has happened to her “other than the feeling of being alone in a big, empty space.”
Others feel differently about the house. Pockmarked with peeling, yellow paint and surrounded by a black wrought iron fence shrouded in cobwebs, the narrow two-story building is the definition of “creepy” and a far-cry from the brightly painted, well-preserved Victorians and Queen Annes across the water in Alameda and San Francisco. Maybe it’s the dead flowers in the front yard or the eternally shuttered windows, but one thing’s for sure: it’s not hard to see why locals get spooked by it.
“The neighborhood thinks it’s a haunted house,” Donald told me. “And it looks like one.” She credits Emelita, who lived there alone for 40 years, for encouraging the derelict look. “She thought it was actually a good thing because it would make people afraid to get too curious about it, so she kind of never dispelled the rumors.”
In 2010, Donald realized another silver-lining to the house’s tattered facade. Aside from dissuading crime, it could be used for hosting paranormal events. “It’s a really good fundraiser,” she said. “We don’t have to feed them or clean up after them.”
Part of the reason Donald’s ingenious money-making scheme works is because it’s authentic. The Cohen-Bray is haunted, just not necessarily by bad spirits. Numerous channelers and mediums have visited the antique building, all claiming to have sensed “activity” within its walls.
“They’ve gotten all kinds of information that is based on things that they couldn’t have known about,” Donald said. “One woman just started to speak and use the voice of my cousin that had died in the house. She was talking about things that she couldn’t have known anything about.”
Docents and volunteers at the house have also reported freaky stuff happening, like knocking, doors opening, swinging chandeliers, voices saying “Get out of here,” and feeling as if you’re being pushed when standing at the bottom of the stairs.
It is this activity that has brought Moon, his psychic mother Paulette, his assistant Dee, and his cameraman Jim here tonight.
For the last five years, Moon and Paulette have made a career of hunting ghosts around the country, sharing their stories through radio, YouTube, and now books. In their quest to communicate with spirits and help them “cross over,” the mother-son duo has done everything from sleeping in haunted locales, like the Lizzie Borden house in Massachusetts, to teaching Ghost Hunting 101 classes on college campuses.
“We’re the only mother-son ghost hunting team,” Paulette told me. “But that’s only for today. Tomorrow there will probably be five more like us.”
I’m one of the few people at the ghost hunt who has never seen or been haunted by a ghost. Pretty much everyone who is here — the bulk of whom are female — claims to live in (or know someone who lives in) a haunted house.
“My husband’s house has been haunted since 2006,” says Sandra, a middle-aged woman from Castro Valley wearing a shirt that reads “Real Women <3 to Ghost Hunt.” “Somebody committed suicide in one of the bedrooms, and shortly thereafter, we started hearing footsteps, lights turning on and off, and doors slamming. The last event was in November 2014 when my granddaughter, who was 4 at the time, was communicating with the spirit in the bedroom.”
Rather than become frightened, the appearance of the ghost helped jumpstart Sandra and her husband Brett’s interests in paranormal events, and they estimate that they’ve been to about 12-15 ghost hunting events since then. Sandra even owns her own ghost-detecting tools, such as a pendulum, voice recorder, and a K-II EMF meter.
Alva, a thirtysomething interior designer in Oakland who grew up in a haunted house near Lake Merritt, also brought her voice recorder for tonight’s foray because she’d “picked up some voices” the last time she’d visited the Cohen-Bray house for a paranormal event. “There was one of a man and then one really clear of a girl saying, ‘I’m here,’ ” she tells me.
For Beatrice, a 54-year-old bottle-blond who works in escrow and lives in Millbrae, this is her first ghost hunt. But it won’t be her first time communicating with spirits.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve seen them. I’ve talked to them. I’ve heard them,” she tells me. “I used to talk to my grandfather that I never met. I don’t really remember the conversations now, but I remember this deep Italian accented voice. I used to go tell my grandma about our conversations, and he’d tell me things that no one but my grandmother would ever know.”
For an innovative birthday celebration, a woman named Adrienne — who claims her house is “definitely haunted” — brought her soon-to-be 63-year-old mother Gloria to tonight’s event. The pair, who drove more than an hour from their home in San Martin to get to the Cohen-Bray house, are fond of watching ghost T.V. shows, but have never gone on a ghost hunt themselves. In fact, that’s largely why they’re here tonight instead of dining at a fancy restaurant, which is how they usually celebrate Gloria’s birthday.
“I believe in things like this,” Gloria says. “And I want to see what it’s like for real.”
Even though we’re in an old house that has experienced deaths and a fire out back, no one at our ghost hunt is interested in talking to those spirits. Instead, they want to speak to their deceased loved ones.
“Brett are you here with me?”
“Matthew are you there?”
“Javier, how’s the other side?”
“Mom, do you mind that Michael has a cat in your house now?”
Earlier, before Moon turned on his ghost box and flicked off the lights, he explained to us that we could yell out any questions we liked. In fact, he said, we might even find ourselves uttering some pretty strange queries.
“One thing that I tell people is that the spirit will tell you what they want you to ask,” Moon says. “So you might ask the craziest thing that just pops in your head, like, ‘What was your favorite kind of ice cream? What was your dog’s name?’ There’s going to be all kinds of thoughts that come to you, so just say them out loud.”
When we’d taken a tour of the house, I’d noticed a rattan bassinet filled with creepy dolls from the early 1900s. One had snakelike braids coiled around her head and another must have been dropped, because half of her face was missing.
They come to mind and I decide to ask my first question.
“Do any of the dolls upstairs have spirits in them?” I say aloud in the pitch-black darkness.
There’s static from the ghost box and then a voice audibly says, “All of them.”
Everyone repeats the spirit’s response aloud, and there’s a palpable excitement in the room. I don’t have chills running down my spine, but the top of my head does start to feel itchy.
Eventually, people realize they can ask questions that have to do with subjects aside from their dead relatives, and the questions become more juicy:
How many children are here?
What happens here during Halloween?
What do you mean? We’re dead.
Where’s the treasure hidden?
Across the street. (Pause) By the tree. (Pause). It wilts, the tree that wilts.
Is there anyone here from the Ghost Ship fire?
Where’s the dog at in this room?
On the bed.
Who are the spirits upstairs?
Sometimes there are no responses when asking the spirits a question. Such is the case when I ask if my childhood dogs Zoe and Dakota are here and the ghost box becomes suddenly silent. When one woman asks, “What’s the sex of my unborn child?” the ghost box is, again, eerily silent.
Oftentimes, when answers do come through, they are vague or make no sense.
Are there any spirits here with a message for me?
You have to wait until Tuesday.
Grandpa, what color should we paint the house?
Who’s going to pay for it?
Some of the spirits have a sense of humor.
Does Robert have anything to say?
Who’s the president?
Others are rude.
Who’s with me right now?
Go fuck yourself.
At one point in the evening, while we’re all congregated in the dining room, Moon asks if there is a candle he can light. He explains that this is not how he normally does things and admits he’s a bit embarrassed because he feels like he’s about to do a seance. But earlier in the evening, when he was in the attic with his assistant Dee, a spirit had told them to do just this.
“I don’t know why, but when we were upstairs, he repeated, ‘Promise me you’ll light a candle. Promise me you’ll light a candle.’ Over and over again,” Dee explains.
The lone candle lit, Moon then switches on his ghost box and static envelops the room. For the next six minutes, no one except Moon and the spirit communicating with him through the ghost box speak.
“I’m reaching out to the spirits inside this location who’ve come to meet with us tonight,” Moon begins, his voice monotone and his eyes half-closed, staring at the candle in front of him. “We ask that you please speak directly through this device that I am holding in my hands. The device allows you to use your own voice to speak. We’re here to help you cross. We’re here to help you pass. We’ve come to help you. We are here to help you.”
Moon then asks who is with us in this room, and through the din of the radio frequencies, a voice clearly answers, “Ryan.”
Moon then proceeds to have a conversation with Ryan, albeit a seemingly one-sided one because none of the gibberish coming out of the ghost box sounds like actual words, at least not to me. There are pauses of inaudible static when Moon seems to be listening to the spirit, and he rephrases his questions so as to keep us, the participants, in the loop about what Ryan is saying.
Moon: I’m listening to you Ryan. What do you want to say to us? (Pause) I don’t know what kind of person you were to begin with. I’m sure people misunderstood you. (Pause) Did you die in this house, Ryan? (Pause) He didn’t die here. Ryan, did you die near this location? Did your body expire near this location? (Pause) It did? Out front? He says he didn’t see the car. Ryan, have you been trapped here for a very long time? (Pause) Nine years is a long time, Ryan. I want to help you go home, Ryan. Will you allows us to help you go home?
Moon then instructs Ryan to “imagine closing your eyes” and to move toward the light to his left. We listen as he guides the spirit to what I assume is the afterlife, instructing it to “tell me when you get through.” Ryan responds that “it feels like it’s been a week” and Moon announces that the spirit has officially crossed over.
“Ryan, we love you,” Moon finishes. “We’re sending you love, we’re sending you to the other side. You are free. You are free. Sending love. Blessings to you. Please help the other spirits here cross. Thank you so much. Goodbye.”
Moon then turns off the ghost box and the room erupts into applause.
“Wow,” multiple people say. “Wow.”
By the time we finish our last ghost box session in an upstairs bedroom, it’s almost 11 p.m. and everyone appears very tired, none more so than Moon. Bags have formed under his eyes and he sits slumped over the ghost box in an upholstered chair, his chin resting in the palm of his hand.
“I feel more tired than I have ever been before,” he says, and when people suggest they do a ghost box session in the attic, he’s reluctant.
“We had an intense experience upstairs,” he explains. “Things got a little crazy before I thought they’d get a little crazy.”
He goes on to mention “impressions” he got of a little girl dying in a fire and an older woman who was distraught. He says he thinks the little girl might have been trapped behind a wood or metal door, and nobody knew she was there. He even picked up on the fact that her favorite toys when she was alive were “multi-colored wood blocks.”
In the end, a few people wander upstairs to look around the creepy attic which has a peaked ceiling and walls covered in scribble from visitors and family members over the years. It’s clear that the ghost hunting portion of the night is winding to an end.
I spy Donald, the ancestor of the original people who owned this house, and ask her what she thought of the event.
“This is the most that’s ever happened here,” she tells me. “Absolutely.”
Alva, the woman who had picked up the recording of a little girl while visiting the house a few years ago, is equally as pleased.
“It was very fascinating,” she says. “It just really made me believe that there are spirits everywhere around us constantly trying to communicate with us. It makes me wonder what would happen if we stopped to listen more often.”
A few weeks later, I check in with Beatrice, the woman who used to talk to her dead grandfather when she was a child, to see how she felt about the night. Though she’s always believed in spirits, she tells me she was slightly skeptical at the beginning of the Cohen-Bray ghost hunt.
“I was weary of the ghost box,” she says.
But that didn’t last long.
“The answers I got back only the deceased would have known. I communicated with my husband, father, grandmother, and brother. It gave me peace of mind and lightened my heart to know they are at peace and no longer suffering.”
One of my most vivid memories of the night was when we were upstairs in the bedroom using the ghost box and Beatrice had asked her brother, Danny, a question: “What’s my nickname?”
The response had been hard to hear, but Moon had understood it and repeated it back to us: “He says he has to do the math.”
At the time, Beatrice had seemed surprised by his reply. She explained to us that Danny had had Down Syndrome and “literally couldn’t do math.”
Later, when I speak with Beatrice again, she seems to be less nonplussed about the incident. In fact, she tells me she now understands why Danny said what he said.
“Because he had at least six nicknames for me,” she says. “Him saying that would be something he would say to show he is still a little smart ass.”