In preparation for my first visit to the Whaley House, I've spent the morning looking up spirit photography. For the most part, the pictures are lazy Photoshop jobs that give the impression of ghostly figures, or "orbs," a term for glowing globs that over-excited ghost hunters use to excuse their dirty lenses.
But for every hundred hoaxes, there will be that one image that causes the hair to stand up, that makes skeptics think twice. These are the images that have validated spirit photography's semi-legitimacy ever since people began putting images to film.
At the Whaley House—"America's Most Haunted House" and where a lot of good ghosty pics have been produced— I'm trying to recreate the most effective images. The trick is finding a wide angle that would allow a spectral figure to show up in a corner, a mirror or a reflection. I'm so caught up in shooting the historic house with amateurish, canted angles that I hardly notice the museum guide dressed like a Mormon sister/wife standing next to me.
"That's a powerful weapon you're holding," she says, nodding to my Canon DSLR. I assume it's a reference to a ghost hunter's preferred tool-of-the-trade, but she says it without making eye-contact, which, in addition to her wispy demeanor and deathly pallor, puts me on edge. It certainly dissuades me from asking the question:
Is this house haunted as fuck?
It's a question that's been on my mind ever since I watched The Haunting of Whaley House, a straight-to-video horror film released on July 31 by The Asylum, the production company known for ripoffs of major films ("mockbusters") including Transmorphers, The Terminators and Snakes on a Train.
The basic plot of the Whaley House follows a group of teens who sneak into the titular house and get murdered, one-by-one, by the vengeful ghost of Thomas Whaley and the other spirit of Whaley lore, Yankee Jim. As the bodycount rises, so does the tension—hence this amazing line of dialogue: "This house is haunted as fuck!" is said not once, but twice in the movie.
(Other great lines include: "Now they're fucking possessing us! I've had it with this shit!" and the simple-but-effective "Fuck you, ghost!")
You don't need to go on the educational, non-haunted-as-fuck tour of the historic house to see that the filmmakers took great liberties with the Whaley legacy. For example, the Whaleys in the film are hell-bent on replacing their dead daughter Violet Whaley with the main character (by means of fucking possession!), while Yankee Jim—depicted as a drippy skeleton—melts everyone else's skin off. None of this is mentioned in the official Whaley House brochure.
As obvious as these disparities are, the fact that the filmmakers didn't use the actual house, or even film in San Diego (the Bembridge House in Long Beach acted as the Whaley stand-in), gives the film a snaky quality. It feels like the filmmakers borrowed just enough not to have to pay respect to the Whaley legend, a sentiment that raises the question: Do movies like this tarnish the historical reputation of one of San Diego's most iconic landmarks?
Whaley House writer/director Jose Prendes claims that he was hesitant to attach the Whaley name to his haunted-house script and agreed to do it only when it became a financial stipulation from The Asylum.
"I pitched [The Asylum] a whole bunch of haunted-house plots with no real name," he says during a phone interview. "A family moves in and etc.' or Some kids break into a house and etc.' A few days after I sent them a handful of pitches, they told me, We're going to focus it on the Whaley House; we want to deal specifically with that location. At least the title of the movie has to be The Haunting of Whaley House.' I'm guessing they wanted to market the movie off the fact that it was considered America's Most Haunted Home."
When asked what, if any, permissions were needed to use the Whaley name, Prendes says, "That part is on the producers and their lawyers," but he concedes that he did, indeed, seek permission from the ghosts.
"I went down to Old Town and visited the house, and I went to the cemetery next door where Yankee Jim was buried. I feel like I communed with the house. I said, They want me to do a movie about you. I hope it's OK.' I hope I got permission from the spirits, you know? That was it. I started writing."
Unfortunately, ghosts can't grant such permissions. Alana Coons, Education & Communications Director of Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), which manages and operates the Whaley House, says The Asylum initially contacted SOHO regarding a Whaley film but offered no follow-up after preliminary discussions and never secured permissions. She says that SOHO is pursuing action against The Asylum (no stranger to legal action: Universal filed a lawsuit against the company earlier this year for the Battleship knockoff, American Warship).
"The information available on the film depicts the Whaley House as a location of significant paranormal activity, which results in the exposure of visitors to unimaginable horrors and physical violence. Clearly this is not consistent with the image that SOHO strives to promote," Coons writes in an email.
"The filmmakers have no concern for the tens of thousands of volunteer man-hours and financial resources dedicated to the home," Coons continues. "Nor have they exhibited any interest or capacity for the respect, honor and integrity that are integral in the business world to which they strive to be a part of with their filmmaking.' Any harm to the property, loss of revenues due to the depiction of the film or harm or emotional distress to our docents that are directly caused by this ridiculous film will be entirely the fault of the filmmakers and damages will be sought."
The museum guide apparently was right: These cameras are capable of doing a lot of damage to ghosts.