The spirit world is an integral part of Mexican culture. I grew up listening to creepy ghost stories, terrified but unable to keep from asking, "And then what happened?" Seriously, I don't know how many times I had to pee in the middle of the night but instead opted to wet myself out of fear that La Llorona , the legendary spirit woman who cries out for the children she drowned, was going to make me her next victim if I dared walk down the hallway to the bathroom.
It probably didn't help that my mom instilled fear in me with threats of a horrifying supernatural experience. "Vas a ver, cabrona! Te van a jalar las patas cuando duermes!" she'd warn while dramatically waving a wooden spoon in the air. I slept curled up in a tight ball for the first 10 years of my life for fear that a ghost would pull my feet, just as my mami admonished, because I covered my face in her favorite Chanel lipstick.
In retrospect, that's a pretty fucked-up thing to tell a kid, but it's kind of the Mexican way. The only person scarier than your mom is Satan. Those threats stuck with me. Even now, I never let my feet dangle off the bed at night for fear of getting pulled by a demonic entity. As I type this story in bed, I keep jumping at every sound I hear while my boyfriend snoozes away next to me, blissfully unaware that our home could very well be the portal to Hell.
The fascination with ghosts, ghouls, poltergeists, Ouija boards and all other paranormal matters has remained. I'm simultaneously enthralled and completely freaked out, like a kid standing on the high-dive, deciding if she's really going to cannonball.
This led me to meet up with Jay Willard, a stout young dude with dark-blue hair and a tongue ring, a paranormal investigator with the Association of Paranormal Study, at the El Campo Santo Cemetery in Old Town. Sitting on a bench among the grave stones, we talked about his work.
Willard and the APS team investigate possibly haunted locations, collecting evidence and then determining if the claims are legit. APS has researched many haunted spots in town, including El Campo Santo and the 10th Avenue Theater in East Village.
"It's haunted," he says with absolute certainty about the theater. Apparently, while recording for EVPs, or electronic voice phenomenon, in the middle of the night, he heard a little girl say, "Mommy." That's where you take a standard voice recorder (most cell phones have them) and ask questions out loud, hoping to catch a message from beyond the veil.
The trouble with EVPs is you don't always know what you'll catch. Once, Willard and a few others were recording for EVPs in Pioneer Park in Mission Hills, which was once a cemetery. "Is there anyone here with us?" someone asked out loud, and they all heard a spooky, "Yes." It wasn't until a homeless man popped out from behind an old gravestone that they realized it was no spirit. He would've gotten away with his nap, too, if it wasn't for those meddling ghost hunters.
Still, Willard claims he's heard growling and disembodied voices, seen apparitions and experienced scratches on his body during investigations.
We decide to go on a mini investigation in Presidio Park, where Jay says he's felt a dark presence, particularly by the old Mission San Diego de Alcala. He hops on his motorcycle, emblazoned with a Psychopathic Records decal, the label responsible for giving us Insane Clown Posse and juggalo culture. I follow him on my scooter to the site.
Never in my life did I think I could cross off "Ghost hunting with a juggalo" from my bucket list, but here I am, following a diehard member of the family to a second location. Whoop, whoop! Thank you, Jay, for making it possible.
In Presidio Park, he points out a small structure that stands below the Mission. We climb the steps along the side of the cracking building to its roof, where he shows me bricks and stone laid in the shape of a pentagram. This, to Willard, is evidence that some dark shit has gone down here.
"Notice how the pentagram is upside-down," he says. "That's the mark of the devil." He swigs from his bottle of pineapple Fanta.
Willard and I walk over to where the original church stood. It burned down more than a century ago, though you can still see part of the brick work. We sit down on the bricks; Willard says he can feel a bit of energy coming from them. The only energy I feel is from that day's breakfast burrito bubbling in my gut, but I choose to believe.
We take out our voice recorders, ready to start, when Willard asks how I'm feeling.
"You can't have any bad energy or else something can attach itself to you and follow you home," he warns.
I immediately panic and start running through the day's events, worrying that the greasy burrito might have been made with ghost-attracting juju.
We proceed anyway. The recorders go on and Willard asks, "Is there anybody here with us?"
Later, I listened to the two EVP sessions we did that evening. Though I can't say I identified a ghostly presence on either one of my recordings, I was creeped out hearing us ask dead people to talk to us. I had a weird nightmare that night of a dark figure looming in a hallway. I woke up with a start and spent the next hour staring at my ceiling with my legs curled up into my body. I loved it.