We Tried Ghost-Hunting At That Creepy Abandoned Ranch Outside of LA
It took several showers, a power-washing, and a furious scrubbing with several charcoal briquettes, but I was finally able to get the last few particles of Hollywood Boulevard off of me. With that behind me, for my next installment of TINSELTOWN TERRORS?!? I decided I’d do something a little more off the beaten path, literally: I decided to explore the abandoned and allegedly haunted Nazi base that exists deep in northwestern Los Angeles.
Today’s trip has no guides, no tours, nothing: just following some online guides to find the semi-urban-legend Murphy Ranch where we’ll conduct a little ghost investigation. Just myself, my wife Kate, a backpack with about thirty pounds of gear, and my trusty wanderstück instead of the cane I sometimes need to walk with.
(What’s a wanderstück, you ask? I’m glad you asked. It’s a little something I brought back with me from Germany, also called a wanderstock. It’s usually known in English as a hiking staff: a rockhard varnished piece of wood that ends in a steel spike. It’s excellent for crossing rough terrain, testing to see if cliff edges can take your weight, and, theoretically, perfect for beating aggressive wildlife and/or Nazi ghosts.)
We hopped in the car and made for Santa Monica, and the haunted fascist ranch that awaited us there. But first: Starbucks! As I picked up my strawberry açai lemonade (I didn’t get coffee because I didn’t want to crap my pants in the woods), I asked the barista if this Starbucks was haunted. “I’m writing an article,” I explained, “so is this place haunted?”
“Oh, yeah,” she replied.
“No shit?” I said, expecting this to be a set up to a joke about how it’s haunted by obnoxious Boomers who buy $19 cups of hummingbird feed mixed in with a milkshake and don’t tip. “What’s it haunted by?”
“Ghosts,” she said simply, and that was that. Ghosts. Okay. Well, I tried.
As we drove on Sepulveda we were nearly run off the road by two black SUVs with car horns that had been replaced with the horns of a semi. Sepulveda, by the way, is a long squiggling mountainous road composed almost entirely of one blind corner after another. In other words, exactly the worst type of terrain to drive like an enormous jackass on.
We managed to survive those two dill-weeds driving like if Speed Racer was trying to get the most reckless driving citations in Glendale and arrived in Santa Monica. After driving around aimlessly for a bit, we found the trailhead. It’s a dirt firepath plopped down in a neighborhood where people definitely use the phrase “the help.”
We took off down the path, and man, it is incredible how quickly you’re just in the middle of nothing. In one second you’re in an expensive suburb of the world’s 23rd largest city and the next second there’s absolutely nothing to be heard but the lonely chirping of crickets and the rasping, subtle chorus of California cicadas. On the two occasions when a helicopter flew overhead it felt like an intrusion from an alien world. It was, frankly, a little eerie out here, despite being heart-stoppingly beautiful.
There, deep in that valley, was where we were going. The belly of the beast. The path we were on wrapped around the lip of the valley, and according to the websites I’d read, there should be an easily-missable set of stairs that would take us straight down a few miles ahead of us. After about a mile on the trail, the pavement began to be cracked and splintered. Some parts were just dirt. As we walked further along the verdant canyon we eventually found the staircase, which is a really generous description of what is, in essence, a set of jagged concrete IKEA shelves strewn haphazardly down a mountain face with an incline so severe that, were it even a ball-hair steeper, these “stairs” would cross pretty rapidly into “ladder” territory.
I wear a size 12 shoe and my feet absolutely did not fit on the individual steps. Some were broken or missing completely; some were overgrown with plants and bramble; nearly all of them were covered in a layer fine, slippery, loose dirt. The only way these could be more dangerous is if they also had StairBears, but I just made those up so I think we’re okay.
Now at the bottom of the valley, we only had to hike a short way before we found it. The building that once housed power infrastructure, the only extant building of Murphy Ranch – a little temple rendered in concrete, garishly painted, squatting at the bottom of a canyon.
This was where we had come to do our own little Ghost Adventures-style investigation. But first, some history! A lot of what’s known about Murphy Ranch is hazy and lost in the fog of war, but we’re pretty sure it was built around 1933. The land was purchased by Jessie Murphy, a person who appears in absolutely no other records and is probably a pseudonym. The Murphy Ranch also commissioned Black architect Paul Williams – no, not that Paul Williams – to design the gate to the ranch, which I’m guessing must have been awkward when they finally met him in person. The gate, as far as I can tell, is sadly no longer standing. A shame, because Williams is one of the most distinctive architects of the American Southwest, having designed that big weird building at LAX and the La Concha Motel in Vegas which now houses the Neon Museum (which I strongly recommend!).
Anyway, these Nazis wanted to build a totally self-sufficent commune (a term they’d probably object to due to its association with Communism, but I don’t care because they’re Nazis and the only emotions Nazis should feel is “oh, I am currently being punched in the teeth"). Their big plan was to live on the Ranch away from civilization, wait out World War II, and then emerge into Los Angeles and greet the victorious conquering Third Reich with open arms.
I’d also like to point out that, despite America’s self-heroic historical revisionism, prior to entering the War there were an absolute shitload of Nazis in the USA. Father Coughlin, a radio figure who was a vocal supported of Nazis, at his peak in the early ‘30s, was listened to by nearly a third of the country. Of course, shortly after Pearl Harbor the government shut the whole “Nazi Commune” thing down pretty hard. The Ranch was raided and, except for a brief stint as an artist’s colony, that was the end. Many of the buildings have been destroyed or left to collapse. While you used to be able to enter the buildings, they’ve since been sealed by the government – either to stop people from dying in a dangerously unmaintained structure or to contain angry Nazi ghosts.
Because this is a Halloween column, I busted open my little ghost kit and pulled out an EM meter (it measures ambient electromagnetic waves, which I’ve been made to understand is what ghosts are made of) and a spiritbox (which rapidly sweeps between radio frequencies to allow ghosts to talk to us). I’m not exactly sure how either of these detect ghosts exactly, but as I’ve said before, I’m not a ghostologist. I majored in possibly the only thing even more made-up (film theory). When I tried to activate the spiritbox, I found that it was – cue the spooky theremin! – was mysteriously bereft of power. This mystery was quickly solved, however, when I opened the back and saw it didn’t have any batteries.
I still had my cell phone, so I was able to hold an EVP session – this, by the way, is when you record basically nothing and listen for voices in the audio. I flicked on my EM meter and started speeding (this is Film Industry jargon for “recording sound:” use it to impress your friends!). My EM meter didn’t register anything, which is unsurprising since we were at the bottom of a canyon in the wilderness.
But when I started doing speeding here, by the structure, something really eerie happened:
First of all, apologies for the way my voice sounds. (I’m not thrilled about it either!) Second of all, as you can probably tell from my excited squealing, as I was recording this my EM meter was spiking all the way and fluctuating rapidly. I checked, and no, it wasn’t my phone causing the EM emissions. I don’t think there are any electronics in this sealed, abandoned, 1930s-era building, and there wasn’t anyone else around. It was really, really freaky, and I have no immediately obvious explanation for it.
(I’m not about to drive over to Zak Bagans’ place and apologize for making fun of him so much, though. Partially because just because I can’t explain something doesn’t immediately make it supernatural, and partially because, well, total conviction about ghosts aside, he’s a comedy goldmine. Sorry, Zak! )
Emboldened by this, I took a second recording. I decided to do another EVP session here, but it was just as fruitless as the first two. It strikes me, as I write this, that perhaps I should have been conducting these in German if I was trying to rouse some Nazi ghosts. Regardless, I tried to utilize what I’ve learned from watching Ghost Adventures and did a little harassment of the undead.
Everything else we came across was just ruins, and it seemed we weren’t picking up any ghost activity. But we did have a new problem: we still had miles of hiking to do uphill to get back to the trail that leads back to where we parked, and the sun was rapidly setting. Since we were so low in the valley, it was already starting to get dark. I had to fight my instincts against staying and getting photographic coverage of Magic Hour, because something told me it wasn’t a good idea to get stranded at night in the wilderness valley housing a haunted Nazi base.
As we walked there were quiet moments when we could hear the distant, echoing, distorted voices of hikers on the trail that runs the lip of the canyon – or, at least, I assume that’s what we were hearing. By the time they reached us they were unintelligible and eerie, but clearly had the cadence and rhythms of human speech. It was, frankly, really damn creepy.
The path back up was mostly a steep dirt track overgrown with roots and saplings. The barely existent dirt track turned into a crumbling paved road. We made it back to the top of the canyon just as the sun was setting. It was gorgeous, painting the wilderness in hues like delicate jewels. Thick roiling clouds of chilled sea air blew in, Pacific blue, to be ripped apart by the razor’s edge of the mountaintops. It was breathtaking.
We trundled back to the car. It had been a wonderful, frightening time, and we decided to get some barbecue on the way home – maybe there’d be ghosts? By the way, I’m something of a barbecue connoisseur, and Boneyard BBQ in Sherman Oaks has the best ribs I’ve ever had in my life. Get the babyback ribs wet style, medium rare. They’re smooth and tender as rich, porky butter. (This counts as free advertising so I can get a discount, right?)
Score on the Spookometer: Five out of five! It was eerie, atmospheric, gorgeous, and we even had an EM spike without a readily apparent explanation. Way better than the Santa Monica Pier.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant, a showrunner’s assistant, or even to be staffed on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.