Podcasters Carmen Sánchez and Manuel Ávalos have hit a major milestone.
“We made a podcast baby, and it survived to one year,” Sánchez says in the introduction to the anniversary episode of San Hauntse last week. “That’s better odds than any child in the early 1900s!”
The macabre sentiment is fitting for a weekly podcast all about local legends and lore, many as historical as Sánchez’s imaginary old-timey infant.
“Oh my god, Carmen,” Ávalos responds with an audible eyeroll. It’s an affectionate razz that a bond as storied as theirs can easily withstand.
Long before they were documenting San Jose’s ghostly legends together, the duo first met as students at John Muir Middle School on the south side of San Jose.
“I got seated next to Carmen in sixth grade science, and we’ve been friends since,” Ávalos tells me.
In the intervening years, the pair would obsess over all things scary and weird, from cryptids to true crime to horror games like Outlast 2 and Dead by Daylight. More than just spooky entertainment, these fascinations kept them connected when Ávalos attended university in New England and Sánchez studied psychology in the Southwest.
BFFs to Co-Hosts
According to Ávalos, the podcast’s origins were simple.
“We were both into scary things, and both into San Jose,” he says. “Carmen was in Phoenix and I was in San Jose. We wanted to be able to hang out. Even if she were here, it would be difficult because of Covid. We were like, ‘Let’s start a podcast.’”
The show’s concept took shape with a master list of places the two might like to investigate. Many fabled sites made the cut, among them the widely mythologized Hellyer House—a single-family home that’s even labeled as haunted on its Zillow page—and Dottie’s Pond—a tiny lake where visitors say they have spotted the wraith of a murderous child once drowned by a demon.
At the top of their queue was the homegrown pizza and arcade game chain where generations of East Side San Jose children (my younger self included) have emptied their piggy banks.
“You see it while you're going down 101,” Sánchez explains. “You can just see the scary haunted Chuck E. Cheese. We were like, ‘We need to make this the first episode.’”
In the famed event said to precipitate the site’s haunting, a little girl is reported to have met her mortal demise when she fell from the building’s third floor. Despite having combed the internet for newspaper articles or a death certificate, the co-hosts were unable to find evidence that this fatal plunge ever occurred. Still, passersby claim to have spied the child’s ghost peeking out through the third-story windows, or drifting her way through the parking lot.
“If you had your birthday party here, you were super cool or popular,” Sánchez attests in a lighter moment of the episode. Ávalos, who celebrated his fifth birthday at the pizza joint, might be apt to agree.
Early on, the pair outlined an installment about south San Jose’s Hicks Road. The legend tells of a colony of inbred Satanic cannibals with albinism—a problematic confluence of identities that Ávalos describes as “a lot to unpack.” In addition to their outlandish assortment of descriptors, members of the colony are also rumored to rough up travelers who encroach on their turf.
“It’s just such a well-known legend,” Ávalos comments. “It really got me into the spirit and gave me a lot of energy.”
The depth of knowledge they unearthed was so great it would eventually yield a three-part series, an original Hicks Road song that Ávalos composed, and an interview with local director and author Julian P. Flores.
It also helped define the structure of the show.
“When I started compiling information, I noticed a pattern,” Ávalos recalls. He created a structure based around themes like history, pop culture and first-hand accounts. “We’ve been using it ever since.”
Peas in a Podcast
Podcasts thrive on personalities, and the hosts of San Hauntse each bring a distinct and compatible set of interests and skills.
“I love pop culture,” Sánchez explains. “I have a knack for memorizing names, actors, faces. When I can connect celebrities or concepts with a location, it helps me remember it better.”
Sánchez lights up while listing eerie movies inspired by South Bay stories, like the 2018 film "Winchester," which sensationalizes the tale of unconventional East Coast heiress Sarah Winchester, who resettled in San Jose in the 1880s. In 1923, her architecturally strange mansion became the Mystery House that today’s tourists roam for $42 a pop.
An early Keanu Reeves flick, "River’s Edge," draws on the heartbreaking 1981 murder of high schooler Marcy Renee Conrad in Milpitas. For years, this tragic event lured vandals and ghost hunters to east San Jose’s Marsh Road—until law enforcement closed off the thoroughfare.
Sánchez also recounts how Green Day filmed their “Basket Case” music video at the Agnews Developmental Center. There, workers reported encountering apparitions, disembodied screams and laughter, cold spots and wavering doors. The alleged source: the specters of the patients who died en masse in the earthquake of 1906.
“[The band members] are local, and they chose Agnews because of the history element, because of the scariness of the asylum aspect,” Sánchez explains.
Here, Sanchez’s fascination with pop culture dovetails neatly with one of Ávalos’ passions.
“I’m more into the history side of it,” he says.
Ávalos began to bulk up his knowledge of local history when he moved back to the Bay after five years out of state. He reflects that some of the juiciest episodes have been ones that required deeper digging.
“The coolest part is finding out how big some of these topics are if you look in the right place,” he states.
Take, for example, the episode on Bigfoot.
“It was always more of an Oregon or Washington thing in my head, but Carmen suggested we look into it. It turns out there’s a lot more [locally] than we realized,” Ávalos reveals.
Growing up, Sánchez knew about Bigfoot, the shaggy ape-like creature she presumed to be friendly. “But then I was reading more about it,” she says in the episode, “and I guess Bigfoot’s something to be scared about, like La Llorona.”
The duo stitched together records of nearby sightings. In addition to accounts of an adjacent Ohlone legend, they found an 1882 newspaper article recounting how campers in Felton recoiled from the Wild Man of the Woods. Though Bigfoot sightings have been reported throughout the Bay Area, no witness has spotted the mythical forest-dwelling creature in San Mateo, Santa Clara or San Francisco counties.
“That’s probably because these are the most heavily populated and urban areas,” Ávalos speculates.
Despite its geographically niche focus, for San Hauntse, unexplored content abounds. Owing to an engaged listenership and a growing sense of the resources available, the hosts say new information surfaces all the time. As episodes air, they receive IMs, DMs and emails from eager locals offering new leads to sleuth and personal accounts.
“If we went back and knew what we know now, we definitely could make a part two, especially for those big episodes,” Sánchez shares.
What’s more, Ávalos asserts: “History is ongoing.” As the sites change, opportunities for follow-up episodes emerge. He offers one iconic (and timely) example: the shuttered Sunnyvale Toys-R-Us mega-store where, over 40 years ago, celebrity psychic Sylvia Browne held seances. Back then, she identified the resident phantom as Johnny Johnson, a laborer employed by a wealthy and influential settler family who once claimed the land. When his boss’ daughter spurned him, Johnson became distraught and distracted at work. In the story, Johnson died of an accidental self-inflicted ax wound to the leg.
Though there’s no evidence this actually happened, claims of paranormal occurrences persist. A century later, Toys-R-Us workers reported echoing footsteps, faucets turning on by themselves and toys in disarray, as if upset by an unseen hand. This Halloween weekend, the building’s new tenants will celebrate with a three-day grand opening.
“It’s being set up to be an REI,” Ávalos says. “Maybe that legend will continue and we’ll get haunted snowshoes or something.”
One unsettling—albeit unsurprising—theme has materialized across the tales they’ve covered.
“We always joke that the scariest part of the podcast is how much racism and sexism you encounter,” Ávalos says. “That’s to be expected unfortunately, given that a lot of the topics we deal with are very old—1800s or older.”
The podcasters share an example of sexism and nepotism dating back to the late 1800s. Contemporaries Sarah Winchester and Mary Hayes Chenowyth were of similar status: both were wealthy, white women whose respective sprawling estates stood just ten miles apart. Yet, today Chenowyth is little-known, despite her unusual history and claim of possessing supernatural powers. The psychic healer received leagues of ailing patients who doctors dismissed as incurable and housed them at her mansion. She professed herself to have a divine form of x-ray vision enabling her to see through her patients’ skin to detect where their symptoms took root.
Ávalos and Sánchez note that in 1900, Mary Hayes Chenowyth’s sons bought the San Jose Mercury News. Their authority put them in control of local storylines, the co-hosts theorize, which allowed their offbeat mother to evade facing scrutiny in print.
Meanwhile, Sarah Winchester—who never said she was a witch—got cast in the papers as an eccentric woman intent on outpacing a curse. Historians concur that Winchester’s lore is wildly fabricated.
“[She] refused to conform to what was expected of women at her time,” Ávalos says. Winchester then raised eyebrows as a reclusive, business-savvy property owner who, widowed at 42, remained single for the remaining four decades of her life.
These unconventional circumstances made her an easy target for a sexist hot take from the media. A century after her death, her legend lives on as clickbait.
In their Hayes Mansion episode, the pair introduce a conspiratorial twist. What if the Hayes brothers intentionally cast shade on Winchester’s false reputation in their newspaper? “I feel like Sarah just became the scapegoat and the perfect deflection for Mary,” Ávalos hypothesizes. “It’s the perfect cover up,” Sánchez concurs.
Ávalos contends that if you’re willing to gaze below the surface, these enduring legends often reflect a sinister streak in the social and cultural ideology of our region. There’s plenty to examine in the biased ways that marginalized groups get portrayed in the stories locals share, especially those told from a position of privilege.
“Seeing how people recount different events or stories—or maybe which ones are remembered and which ones aren’t—really shows what lies beneath,” he states.
As corrective to some historical biases, recent San Hauntse episodes have highlighted Ohlone folklore, as well as key events in Indigenous history, like the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz that began in 1969.
The co-hosts are also intentional about identifying the other “-isms” they encounter in these stories. In the episode on Agnews Developmental Center, they critique the ableist language and attitudes that once pervaded the mental health field. Episodes also come with content warnings as necessary, seeing as many of the legends build on violent histories potentially retraumatizing for some listeners.
When asked the crucial question (if they actually believe in ghosts), the co-hosts frame themselves as open-minded skeptics.
“There’s always someone’s truth to the matter,” Sánchez wagers, despite noting that she doesn’t necessarily believe in the lore herself. “I haven’t had anything [supernatural] happen to me directly. I’m sure if something did happen, then I would see it as such.”
When she hears personal accounts, she adds, she does not dismiss believers’ experiences.
“Sometimes I’ll take it with a grain of salt,” she says, “but the majority of the time, it’s just a really good story. That’s what I enjoy about it.”
Ávalos says he likes to remain neutral.
“I try not to influence our listeners,” he says. “I like to take the stance in the podcast of ‘This is the information out there, this is what people report and you can do whatever you want with that information.’ Personally, I don’t know. I truly don’t have an answer. I like to think if [the stories] are real, they must be a part of nature. Ghosts are also pretty common across cultures and times. I leave it open to whoever is listening or reading.”
A year in, both co-hosts say that spending 52 weeks immersed in nearby paranormal happenings has only increased their connection to San Jose.
“I cannot leave my house without seeing something that we’ve referenced in the podcast,” Ávalos says. “It’s nice to be able to see things I’ve grown up with my whole life and actually understand them on another level, not just for their historic value, but their cultural significance, and their importance in San Jose’s lore and oral history.”
Now living in Phoenix, Arizona, Sánchez is more bittersweet.
“It pulls at my heartstrings that I’m not home for this,” she states, “that I can't be there in real time and talk with people or go with Manny to different community events, or just ghost hunting on the reg whenever we find something new.”
On her frequent visits to San Jose, she finds that residents are eager to dish on the details.
“I’ll meet new people and ask them about ghost stories,” Sánchez says. “It turns into something more.”
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