Published May 10, 2023
By TERESA FRAHM
Do you believe in ghosts?
Fifty years ago, this question would have garnered an overwhelming “No!” from most adults. In 1978, Gallup, an American analytics company, found that only 11% of American adults believed in ghosts. Yet that number had jumped to 36% in 2021, according to a survey by IPSOS, a multinational research firm. The same survey suggested that about 20% believed that aliens had visited Earth.
Folklore is a part of human culture and has existed for millennia. It shows what our ancestors feared, what they valued and what they wanted to teach to those who came after them. Stories and traditions are rich in California, and Monterey County is no exception. Regardless of how tangible the monsters are, the stories that have come down through generations are part of what makes this place so special.
They say something watches in the shadow of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Stories of mysterious dark figures have been a dominant part of Big Sur folklore far before Europeans settled here. Mentions of tall, humanoid creatures with dark cloaks or fur have been sprinkled throughout local history, from the journals of early Spanish settlers, who referred to them as los vigilantes oscuros, or “the dark watchers,” to the writings of local author John Steinbeck, who mentioned the dark watchers in his story “Flight.”
“Pepé looked suspiciously back every minute or so, and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead,” Steinbeck wrote. “Once, on a white barren spur, he saw a black figure for a moment; but he looked quickly away, for it was one of the dark watchers. No one knew who the watchers were, nor where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never to show interest in them. They did not bother one who stayed on the trail and minded his own business.”
According to writings by Steinbeck’s son Thomas, Steinbeck’s mother Oliver Hamilton had her own experiences with the dark watchers. In his book “In Search of the Dark Watchers,” Thomas Steinbeck wrote that his grandmother often left offerings of nuts and berries for them.
Reports of such phenomena have not remained historical, however. A number of residents and visitors to Big Sur claim familiarity or even personal experience with the legend.
“Camping in Big Sur, I thought perhaps I could encounter a bear or even a cougar,” recalls Christy Fischer, a resident of Carmel Valley. “But what appeared on the edge of camp that night was huge, dark and standing upright. This was no animal, and it did not want me there.”
According to local legend, dark watchers make themselves known in late afternoons or evenings, either standing in silent sentinel on the crests of hills or on the edges of the trees.
Over the years, there have been several theories presented to explain the phenomenon, ranging from pareidolia, the human mind’s natural tendency to find patterns, to the Brocken Spectre, which the Encyclopedia Britannica describes as a phenomenon involving the reflection of the observer’s shadows on mist, creating strange patterns.
In terms of famous supernatural phenomena, Big Sur is known for more than the watchers, and the Point Sur Lighthouse is a prime example of that. Ever since the light was first lit in 1889, Point Sur has been both a resource and a home to lightkeepers and their families. In 1991, it became a historic landmark. Now volunteer docents offer tours and information to visitors.
According to some, the living aren’t the only occupants of the lighthouse. In 2012, the Weather Channel rated it one of the most haunted lighthouses in America, and in the same year the well known paranormal television show “Ghost Adventures” visited the location.
Julie Nunes, a Point Sur docent and ghost hunter, leads paranormal tours to raise money and interest in the lighthouse. According to Nunes, nearly every tour group has some kind of strange experience. Once, while using an old recorder device in an attempt to pick up EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena, the group caught an unexpected voice.
“We were outside, with no children on the tour, and I asked the question, “Is anyone here with us?” says Nunes. “We didn’t hear it at the time, but when we listened back, a little girl’s voice said, “I’m right here.”
These encounters reportedly happen frequently, but the docents rarely feel threatened.
“There’s nothing malevolent or evil there,” Nunes says. “It’s a happy, happy place.”
Big Sur isn’t alone in sporting rumors of supernatural happenings. One of the most infamously haunted local places is the Stokes Adobe in Monterey.
Constructed in 1833, the historical Stokes Adobe building, now a lively restaurant, has harbored stories of abnormal goings-on for years. Built for Ambrose Thompson and later sold to James Stokes, a fraudulent physician, British Navy deserter and alleged murderer, the adobe grew and changed significantly since its inception, accumulating ghostly stories and a reputation of hauntings.
“After closing, after all the guests leave, sometimes you can hear knives sharpening,” says Juan Valentino, a staff member at Stokes.
Andy Gallegos, manager at the restaurant, claims to have seen something more tangible. After closing one night, he says he heard the sound of a door jam thudding. He went to a partially-windowed door, and as he took his hand off the door, it hit the wall. After a moment, it started to swing back towards him again. As it did, he noticed a shape through the window.
“It was big and dark. It didn’t have eyes. It wasn’t solid, the lines were kind of wispy. And I just stopped,” Gallegos says. “I know it must have been just moments, but it felt like a long time of me just staring at this thing in the corner. And as the door comes back, it breaks my line of sight and it’s gone.”
Something many observers report sharing is a difficulty speaking about their experiences.
“It’s like trying to describe a color you’ve never seen,” says Carol O’Neal, the volunteer historian at the Point Sur lighthouse. “If you don’t have any experience to fill in, how would you describe it? There are things we just don’t know about. I can’t explain it, and I’m not going to try!”