Thursday, July 31, 2008
The Ghosts of Camarillo
The visit to Camarillo was intended for pleasure; not a full-fledged ghost hunt, just a sort of unauthorized tour requiring trespassing and breaking and entering. We arrived at our destination in high spirits (so to speak): Louis and Allison, the "jefes" of their respective paranormal groups, Chuck, Grant, Mike, Ty, and Leila. We scurried around what is now CSUCI, avoiding detection and cursing the camp that decided to screen "Finding Nemo" in the middle of a courtyard, thereby potentially damaging our EVP sessions (that's electronic voice phenomena, for those of you not addicted to this odd . . . hobby?). We wandered in to the first open building, one of two yet to be restored and converted to dorms for the university students. The two buildings are all that remains of Camarillo State Hospital, where the mentally ill were housed and underwent infamous treatments designed to break their will and whither their souls . . . at least until the 1980s or so, when conditions and treatments improved.
It was dank and dusty, a maze of hallways, rooms, bathrooms and larger meeting rooms or auditoriums. The overhead florescent lights had not completely died; they cast a sickly yellow glow, occasionally blinking or brightening, almost alive in their struggle to illuminate the dreary, abandoned rooms. I could smell the dirt and mold, feel and hear the broken glass under my feet, and perceive the occasional odd echo of an unidentified sound in a distant hallway. There were random items strewn about: a chair in one darkened room, with a single, dry rose reposing on the torn vinyl seat; curtains ripped from the bars over the windows; a rusted sink with water stains from 30 years ago; a sign that had fallen to the floor, its message no longer decipherable.
Some of the rooms were so black that I was overcome with vertigo, trying to orient myself in time and space. The small glow of the digital camera gave me a few seconds to figure out entrances and exits; yet there was no logic to the place, no organizing principle. It appeared to me as a jumble of rooms with obscure or forgotten purposes. What, exactly, happened here? Who was trapped here? Why was there a courtroom in the far corner? Why was the largest room painted a nauseating blue? What was the horrendous smell, acrid and overwhelming, permeating the mail room?
Our band of ghost busters wandered around from place to place, rather unsure how to proceed. Some of us stuck together, attempting to formalize the process, others wandered off alone, not disclosing their plans or intentions. I ended up in the courtroom with most of the others, conducting an EVP session and feeling both vaguely frightened and slightly silly. I wanted so badly to "catch" something: a voice, a strange shape or figure, or any anomaly that would defy rational explanation. Ty's camera was running, we all had our digital recorders at the ready, and every now and then someone would take a picture of the darkness in front of us. Knowing that the police could catch us and toss in jail for multiple infractions added to the general atmosphere of apprehension. After sitting in silence for a few minutes, Louis tried a "Frank's Box" experiment (a device that picks up all radio, cell and CB waves, creating a medium for spirit communication to occur--a controversial notion, to say the least), asking "who is here tonight". We all heard clearly the name "Mike" emanate from the box before the frequency skittered off to pick up more fragments and flashes of random transmissions. There was indeed a "Mike" with us that night, listening intently in the dark. That was all that the box revealed.
Eventually we made our way out of the first building and convened in the courtyard. I had experienced some odd sensations: a freezing cold spot in one hallway, and chills all over my entire body before I entered the courtroom. I also thought I heard some distant, small voice attempting to articulate itself over, or through, the hiss of the pipes. However, it was all so subtle, so vague, so frustratingly out of reach that I couldn't quite convince myself that anything out of the ordinary had happened. One of us was telling the story of the second building--intended for the high risk patients, and very well guarded in its time--when Louis pushed the front door and watched in amazement as it slowly swung open. Unit 28 was unlocked and completely accessible. There was a flurry of radio contact between our two groups, and I volunteered to explore the black maze with Chuck, Ty, Grant and Layla. I made it half way up the stairs before I realized that this building was nothing like the first--I turned around, frankly terrified, and descended the stairs, ending up in the fog-encased courtyard where Louis and Mike stood guard. Moments later, I tried again. I had some idea that this was going to be a vastly different experience from Unit 26. What awaited me was more than I was prepared to handle that night.
There was a grate covering the open stairway so that patients could not hurl themselves to their deaths below. The upstairs hallway led to two portals, one on each side; pigeons were nesting in the rotten eaves and the smell of damp, rotting material was everywhere. The boiler was still functioning, and the pipes made odd, metallic pings and bangs as the air moved through them. It was oppressively hot, humid and so dark that you could actually feel it, as if the atmosphere were alive or electrified. We entered the door on the left, walking into a huge room with floor to ceiling windows on each side. The wood beams and floor were from the 1920s or so, maybe ten years later that that. I kept my digital camera on so that the feeble screen light would illuminate our path through the broken glass, boxes, draperies and rotting wood. As the group navigated a long, long hallway, I was drawn to a bathroom on my right--I don't know why, but even through my fear, I was pulled to a spot in the center of the room. There were mirrors on the tiled walls, and a seemingly endless series of smaller rooms telescoping beyond my line of sight. I asked if anyone was in the room with me, and I received a response.
It was not an intelligible voice; I could not understand what it said. It was not, however, the banging or pinging of the pipes. I asked again; again I received a direct response. It is difficult to describe how I felt at that moment--I will make the attempt--my legs felt weak and paralyzed; I felt both waves of heat and cold run through me, and an instinct to run away as fast as possible. I could not move. Something had responded to me, and I don't know why. I don't know what answered my request, nor do I know how to catalog or analyze that experience. Logic and reason disappeared after that, since neither one were offering me a way to understand what had just happened. As it turned out, the group had stopped just outside of that room when I walked in there, and as I finally emerged, they told me that they had all heard the same thing I did.
The independent verification of my experience did not calm my state of mind; if anything, my need to exit the building intensified. I allowed myself to join the group in the salon at the end of that maze of hallways and rooms, but I was so scared that I actually ran back through the entire labyrinth and ended up outside with Louis, Mike and Chuck. I downplayed my panic and fear, not wishing to appear vulnerable and unprepared, which of course, I was. We talked about everything and nothing as the other group made their way through Unit 28. They emerged about 30 minutes later, and we all wandered back to our cars and ended up at Denny's in Thousand Oaks. It all seemed so pleasant and fun at that point; but something had happened in that building, and I still don't know how to talk about it.
I vacillate between two extremes: on the one hand, we were simply a bunch of adults acting like children, running around dark, abandoned buildings and scaring ourselves; on the other hand, we had found something alive in a place that should have been entirely dead and forgotten. What that "something" is keeps me up at night.
Whatever I encountered that night had no face, no body, no light. What I really want to know is if it had a soul.