Not long ago, on a crisp October day in Rhode Island, professional ghost hunter Nick Groff went for a stroll along the pitch pine trees with his good friend Bob the Bone Finder.
“He brought in his ground-penetrating radar and we scoped out the property for anomalies,” Groff said. “We had some weird stuff happen.”
By now, Groff has spent the better part of two decades seeking out weird stuff. One of the founders and original stars of the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures, Groff has investigated hundreds of allegedly haunted locations around the world.
“I’ve slept on morgue slabs all night, been in weird tunnels and cave systems, abandoned asylums and prisons. It takes a lot to scare me,” he says. “But it still shocks me when you capture something.”
Though Groff has lived most of his life in New England (and spends half his time on the other side of reality) he was actually born right here in San Jose.
“I went to middle school and high school in New England, but I’d be in San Jose every summer for the most part,” the ghost hunter says. “My grandfather lived right around the corner from the Winchester Mystery House, close to a big park with these cool twisty slides that I used to love going to.”
Like many paranormal investigators, real and fictional, before him—from The X-Files’ Fox Mulder, to Ghost Whisperer’s Melinda Gordon—Groff buried himself in the occult after an early brush with the unknown.
“When I was eight years old, I fell from a tree and ripped my arm open on a cyclone fence. It was shredded to the bone, and I just remember seeing all these faces hovering around me,” he tells me.
Thankfully, his mother was home at the time, and happened to see the accident.
“Instinct or mom powers kicked in, and she called the ambulance,” Groff says. “My mom saved my life.”
Soon afterward, Groff began to notice strange shadows around the family home. Then, his grandmother started to share with him her belief in the paranormal.
“She would talk to me about ghosts, but also about space-time, extraterrestrials, UFOs. I got really heavily involved in all of that,” he says.
After high school, Groff studied film at UNLV and explored desert ghost towns on spring break. Shortly after graduating, he and two friends he had met in Vegas, Zak Bagans and Aaron Goodwin, began making a feature-length movie about their explorations.
Ghost Adventures (2004) is a modest but spooky little film in which the team allegedly capture all manner of paranormal phenomena. The movie (up to you whether or not you want to call it a documentary) premiered on the SciFi Channel in 2007. The following year, Ghost Adventures the reality show premiered on the Travel Channel. Both the film and the series followed Groff, Bagans and Goodwin as they investigated places said to be haunted. By its third season, it was the channel’s second most popular show.
Since leaving Ghost Adventures in 2014, after 10 seasons, Groff has kept up a supernatural pace of projects, creating and often starring in numerous high-concept paranormal reality shows, including Paranormal Lockdown, Ghosts of Shepherdstown, Ghost Stalkers, and his new series Death Walker, which premieres Halloween on the independent-film-and-TV streaming service VIDI Space.
“Paranormal Lockdown was probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, because I had to live at the locations for three days,” he says. “That was wild. Sometimes it was like a bad camping trip.”
Beginning Thursday, Groff is also hosting A Seance Revisted, a three-day long livestream investigating the Farm on Round Top Road, the home that inspired the 2013 film The Conjuring. On Oct. 30, smack in the middle of the stream, the group will be conducting a three-hour live seance at the home.
“That’s gonna be wild,” Groff says. “This location has been reported haunted for generations, but people could never figure out what it is that’s haunting it. I believe it comes from the property somehow. The house is 300 years old, so there’s a ton of history there. We’re gonna dig a little bit deeper with our crew live.”
Though Groff is one of the most active paranormal investigators on TV, he says recently he has begun to doubt some of the received wisdom about what exactly it is that goes bump in the night.
“I’m looking at things differently now,” he tells Metro. “Rather than just going to another location, using equipment and saying ‘this equipment is validating me,’ we have to look at the scope of things. We live in a weird universe, and we’re a young species.”
For Halloween this year, we asked San Jose’s traveled ghost hunter to weigh in on a number of South Bay haunts—most of which he was well aware of beforehand.
Winchester Mystery House
Once standing seven stories high, the Winchester Mystery House is a bizarre, sprawling, and allegedly haunted piece of San Jose history. Most locals are probably familiar with the tale by now, but if not, here it is in a nutshell: In 1884, Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, purchased a small farmhouse in Santa Clara and took to making it her dream mansion. Over the next four decades, nearly without pause, the wealthy recluse added rooms upon floors, upon stairwells, upon windows, chimneys, basements, and whatever else she could to the home, building and rebuilding the house endlessly until her death in 1922.
Notoriously private about her affairs during her lifetime, the enduring myth of Sarah Winchester says her endless construction was an attempt to elude the thousands of angry ghosts which came with her fortune: the untold thousands killed by Winchester rifles.
As both a paranormal investigator and native of San Jose, Groff is no stranger to the Mystery House.
“That’s a location I’ve been to a ton of times. It’s such a cool, unique place,” he tells Metro. “Imagine going your whole life building, building, building, and you’re never content. You’re just unsituated your whole life, and then you go, and it’s still lingering.”
Tour guides at the longtime attraction often tell of weird happenings at the Winchester Mystery House—even when they’re off duty. Rebecca Akmese worked there for a year in high school, and says that something strange is definitely happening in the house.
“Nothing malicious. It’s never anything ominous, but there’s something going on all the time,” she says. “The house itself kind of has a buzz that you can feel, and it feels like it becomes more present as you go further through the house.”
During the year she spent working in the house, there was one room in particular that unsettled her.
“Our hayloft apparently had something going on it,” she says. “It’s just another empty room now, but as a tour guide I often felt skittish in that room.”
Akmese says one day she was waiting for another tour group to leave the room so she could clean it, when suddenly she heard a man scream.
“This was the scream of someone who was in pain,” she says. “Someone had just gotten hurt. So I rush through the hayloft to get to the group that had just been there, and everyone looks at me like I’m some weirdo. They were completely fine.”
A few months later, a woman on one of Akmese’s tours told her she was psychic, and that she could see things that had happened in the house.
“She said something happened in that hayloft—a fight between two workers. And it’s replaying itself over and over and over again in that space.”
Toys R' Us
“There’s also the Toys R Us,” Groff says, beginning to lead the conversation. “It’s a weird story, right?”
Right. Shortly after opening in 1970, employees at the former Toys R Us in Sunnyvale (a space which currently stands empty) began to report strange happenings in the store. Lights flickered. Toys moved on their own. Presences were felt.
During a 1980 episode of the TV show That’s Incredible!, psychic Sylvia Browne performed a seance in the store, allegedly channeling the spirit of a man named Jan Johnson who had worked on the nearby Murphy farm in the 1880s. Supposedly, Johnson had fallen in love with Elizabeth, the Murphys’ daughter, who snubbed him for a mysterious lawyer from the east coast. One day while chopping wood, Johnson axed his own leg in a fit of love-sick rage, bleeding out into a nearby well. It was Johnson, Browne said, who haunted the toy store.
It makes for a good story, but an article in SF Gate from last year throws at least one bucket of cold water on Browne’s tale. Among the historical inaccuracies pointed out by author Katie Dowd is a big one: Elizabeth Murphy couldn’t have been Jan Johnson’s love interest in the 1880s, since she had died in 1875. That “east coast lawyer” also turned out to be wrong—Elizabeth was married to San Francisco merchant William Taaffe.
Nonetheless, many Toys R Us employees said something was haunting the building. San Jose native Daniel Urteaga worked at the store for almost two years in the early ‘80s. He says during that time he experienced the store’s spirit more than once.
“The first time I encountered it, I was working a graveyard shift to get some extra money,” he says.
After hours of stocking shelves in the early morning, Urteaga got his break. Exhausted, he snuck into the attic, where another worker had tipped him off to a secret employee napping station—a large empty box. While he was settling in a little snooze, the light at the end of the hall began flickering. He tried to ignore it, but it kept happening.
“The third time it happened, I looked over and right away I saw it.”
Under the flickering light, Urteaga describes seeing a dark figure that he calls “an entity.”
“It was just black. No face, nothing. It went straight by me down the hall. And that’s when I felt the coldness going right through me, right through my body. It creeped me out so bad I never went up there again. When they asked me to go up there to get boxes, I’d send someone else to get them.”
Another time, on Christmas Eve, the entire store’s staff gathered together for a holiday lunch in the break room. It was well into the morning by then, the store locked for hours.
“We had straightened everything up before going to lunch, but when we went back out there, almost everything was on the floor. There were cards out of boxes, skateboards and bikes tossed off racks. Almost everything in that store was on the ground. We totally freaked out.”
As for Groff, he says he never got the chance to investigate the location in person, “but I always wanted to. My cousin, who produced a lot of these shows with me, as kids we would always talk about that store. As long as I can remember, the ghost has been there.”
Chuck E. Cheese
“There’s also a haunted Chuck E. Cheese on Tully,” Groff continues, again leading the conversation. “People have reported seeing the ghost of a little girl on the third floor.”
Immediately recognizable for its gigantic glass tubes and imposing Chuck E. statue, the Chuck E Cheese just off the Tully exit of 101 is a longstanding San Jose landmark. Since taking over the old Magic Village toy store in the early ‘80s, rumors that the building is haunted by the ghost of a girl who fell off the third floor have swirled around this particular family entertainment/pizza-theatre restaurant.
Having spent time in the area as a child, Groff had already researched the Chuck E. Cheese.
“We know people have had experiences, but what’s strange is there’s no documented death of a girl at that building,” Groff says.
Back in 2009, Bay Area Ghost Hunters, a collective of local paranormal enthusiasts, hosted a meetup at the Chuck E. Cheese, citing the persistent rumors of activity. Later, when BAGH organizer Adrienne Foster looked deeper into the store’s history, she also found it contradicted the popular myth.
“I ran across a woman in a San Jose history group on Facebook who said her father built the store and that nothing like that ever happened,” she says. “The place is haunted, but I don’t know what exactly haunts it.”
Though Groff hasn’t investigated the Chuck E. Cheese in person, he speculates that if something is haunting the building, “it could be somewhat like a tulpa—thought-form energy.”
In the paranormal, a tulpa is a belief which becomes real, something which emerged out of the immanence of thought (fans of Twin Peaks may also remember the tulpa as a plot point in season 3).
“We have conscious thoughts that create electricity,” Groff says. “People have had experiences, thought it was a little girl, and over time it manifested as a little girl. I believe something like that could have happened at Chuck E. Cheese, but I don’t know.”
For her part, Foster says if you want to see a haunted location in San Jose, just go downtown.
“There’s loads of ghosts in downtown San Jose, especially around Santa Clara and Market,” she says. “That’s the oldest area of San Jose.”
The final legend on the list, the tale of a small pond in Santa Teresa County Park, is surely San Jose’s most salacious, a pulpy story with at least one foot in the tabloids. Yet, there is surprisingly deep history beneath the waters of Dottie’s Pond.
The tale goes that in the 1800s, a young member of the Bernal family named Dottie fell in love with the wrong man.
“She was involved in a sort of star-crossed romantic situation, and her parents forbade her from marrying her love,” recounts poet and essayist Leslie Patron, a distant relative of the Bernal family. “Then, when Dottie tried to run away, her father got violent with her.”
Here is where the story gets strange. Cornered in the barn by her father, the legend says Dottie spontaneously developed telekinetic powers.
Patron: “She winds up hanging her parents from the barn rafters. Then, in a trance, she wades into the pond, and these massive demon hands pull her under the surface.”
Today, the story goes that Dottie’s ghost can be seen picking berries by the pond, the demonic hands that pulled her below still wading beneath the nearby waters.
A Bernal Family genealogical chart on file in San Jose’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library indicates that there was a Dolores Bernal born in 1827, the sister of Rancho Santa Teresa patriarch Ygnacio Bernal. However, only two words accompany her name in the record: “No data.”
“In all likelihood, the Dolores Bernal in the record is not Dottie, and Dottie is just a completely made up idea,” says Patron, “but I like the thought that the origin story could be grounded in truth.”
It’s also possible that any spirit lingering at Dottie’s Pond has been here much longer than Dottie herself.
In 1972, when developing the area for homes, a prehistoric Ohlone burial ground was unearthed near Santa Teresa Spring. Research conducted in 2015 by De Anza anthropology instructor Mabie Elisabeth indicates some of the skeletal remains date as early as 500 - 200 BC.
In fact, it appears the Ohlone had their own legend about Dottie’s Pond. The whole area surrounding the pond was once called ‘Arma ‘Ayttakiš Rúmmey-tak, or “Place of the Spirit Woman Spring.” Legend passed down orally (and on a county parks website from 1999) say that an apparition of a female in black robes revealed herself there to Ohlone Chief Umunhum.
“It makes it seem to me that there’s something about that site, possibly that all of these stories are just different takes on a shared experience,” says Patron. “Could they all be the same apparition? It’s an interesting idea.”
As for our resident expert, this is one location that might be a little too locals-only for him.
“I don’t know much about it,” Groff admits, “but California is very rich in history. There’s a lot of death, and a lot of interesting mysteries behind these locations. I’d like to go and experience it for myself. It sounds fascinating.”