Ghost-hunting aboard the Queen Mary
BY COREY LEVITAN
One night last week, I shared a gorgeous first-class cabin aboard the Queen Mary with a woman I met only a few hours before.
If only she were alive...
At least 49 people have died aboard the luxury liner, which voyaged 1,001 times between 1936 and 1967, the year it permanently docked at Long Beach. Many are thought to have never left.
Reports of paranormal phenomena are frequent and consistent. There's the little girl who swims in the pool that's been empty since 1966, the woman in a white dress who floats through walls around the grand salon, the dude
in the T-shirt with the wrench who hangs around the engine room.
Peter Serraino believes the wrenchbearer to be 18-year-old John Pedder, who was crushed to death in July 1966 while trying to slip through the rapidly closing watertight door No. 13.
"What's interesting about him is that he goes about his business as though he's still alive," said Serraino, a punk-rock-looking psychic from Hacienda Heights.
Serraino's name may ring a bell. In a previous Adventure With Corey, he was the best of five mediums who agreed to contact former Beatle George Harrison for his first posthumous interview.
When I asked the Queen Mary's publicist, Robin Wachner, to recommend someone familiar with the ghosts there, she mentioned "this Peter guy."
Are there really any coincidences?
"John likes you because you're both Welsh," Serraino told Susan, our guide for the night of ghost-hunting I proposed. (Assuming they're honest about never speaking before, Welsh was an astoundingly accurate guess; Susan's
last name is Gonzalez.)
"Can you ask him if he's ever tapped my shoulder?" Gonzalez asked Serraino.
"He pulled you," Serraino responded.
"He almost knocked me backward," Gonzalez confirmed.
"Can you ask him not to do that to me?" I requested.
We began walking as Gonzalez, a San Pedro resident who has guided Queen Mary tours since January, told us about one night on M deck.
"I was giving a tour for about 45 people, and suddenly something came out of the wall," she said. "It was wearing either a dress or grey tails."
Gonzalez said she opted not to say anything.
''Then two women on the tour started giggling and said, 'What the hell was that?'" she said.
We descended a stairway into a ballroom area decked out for Shipwreck, the Queen Mary's very manually haunted Halloween maze event.
"Something's here with us," Serraino reported. "Grab onto the handrails. You never know what it might do."
At that instant, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. What's weird is that it wasn't all the hair but a highly specific patch, behind my right ear. The sensation was somewhere between static electricity and a human
I shook the feeling out of my head, but the skepticism remained.
When we arrived at boiler room 3, Serraino said he sensed numerous fiery deaths. We surveyed the large area from a catwalk in silence, waiting for signs from the other side.
Staring into the dark for five minutes is like pressing your pillow into your closed eyelids -- your imagination begins playing tricks. Mine invented two red points of light that appeared to be eyes. When I looked
directly at them, of course, they disappeared.
"Can we move on?" I asked. "I'm not impressed."
"Did you see that figure below us?" asked Kate, an adventurous journalism student I recently met and invited along.
"You mean the demon with the red eyes?" Serraino responded.
That's not all. Two distinct shadows then raced across one of the rectangular slivers of dim light visible on the hull. We were the only ones in the room, and none of us was moving.
Where are Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis when you need them?
The first-class swimming pool is the most famously haunted Queen Mary spot. The previously mentioned little girl, whose moans an old "Sightings" episode allegedly recorded, is thought to have drowned here.
I descended into the empty basin
first. Serraino hesitated, worried
about disturbing whoever (or whatever)
called it home. But he didn't sense
anything abnormal -- that is, other
than the gaggle of young soldiers
watching us from the overhead balconies. (The Queen Mary transported 765,429 military personnel during World War II, many of whom died aboard. The ship was repainted and renamed "The Grey Ghost" during this era.)
"Oh my God!" Kate screamed.
Just as Serraino entered the pool, she reported, wet footprints appeared on the matting around it. They began at two screwholes (where a ladder or diving board once attached) and continued out to a locker room.
And they obviously belonged to a small child.
"They're forming right now!" Kate freaked.
"Those were not there a minute ago,"
confirmed Daily Breeze photographer
Bruce Hazelton as he snapped away. We each touched them; they were not
''This is beyond the call of duty," Gonzalez said, declaring this "the scariest thing that has ever happened to me here."
As I tried instantaneously reconciling my scientific worldview with the definitive supernatural evidence unfolding before me, something occurred to me: I've seen those footprints before.
The Queen Mary exploits its metaphysical rep not only with Shipwrecked but with a spectacularly tacky tour called Ghosts and Legends. Many of its vaunted hauntings are recreated from noon to 6 p.m. daily for $19 ($17 for seniors, $15 for children).
The evidence was all around us -- loudspeakers for the girl's cries, a projector for her foggy apparition, and a wire attached to the pool gate, which automatically slams shut after the wet footprints approach it.
"Well, yes, those are the same footprints," Gonzalez admitted. "But there's no way for them to be activated without the machinery being on."
Suspicion set in deeper than any footprints could. Gonzalez was about to let me report that the footprints came out of nowhere, knowing full well that they were painted on the matting. (Photos taken by Hazelton before we
discovered the prints reveal that they were, in fact, present the whole time.)
And, if Gonzalez really did see a ghost penetrate a wall once, how could footprints be the scariest thing she ever saw?
I flashed back to an earlier incident, when a banister knob flew off as we passed it. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Gonzalez flick it off before commenting on how it happened by itself.
Actually, there were rational explanations for everything we experienced so far. My neck hair stood up because I was scared. The red-eyed demon was sheer imagination and coincidence. And the shadows on the wall came from the crewmen we saw working on Shipwreck in another room, from a light source we didn't properly identify.
Our final destination was the isolation deck, which once housed a hospital and morgue, where all the Queen's dead men at one point lay. It now features a display of rooms where sick passengers were quarantined.
As Gonzalez unlocked a door marked "Authorized Personnel Only," two loud female voices emanated from the cabin to our right, B517.
"No, tell me more!" one said. The other laughed.
Serraino froze in his tracks.
"They're real people, Peter!" I proclaimed, rolling my eyes.
To prove my point, I knocked on B517. There was no answer.
I knocked louder. Still no answer.
"That's what they sound like, Corey," Serraino said, "real people."
Still skeptical but spooked anew, I followed the gang through an abandoned tunnel leading to the isolation deck.
Kate posed Serraino for a picture in front of a room dominated by a couch. Just before she raised the camera to her face, the red cushion on the couch depressed.
"Oh my God!" she screamed again.
At least Kate SAID it depressed. I was looking elsewhere at the time. But the seat did hold a distinct and unusual butt impression, which even seemed to slightly move.
A good journalist would have
inspected the cushion.
Fortunately for me, I've never been accused of good journalism, because I wasn't going anywhere near that friggin' thing.
Even Mr. Ghost Buster ran away.
"There's a putrid odor in that room," Serraino said. "There's a man there who is very sick."
Yes, dead would indeed qualify a person as very sick.
"No," Serraino corrected me. "He's just had some surgery done on his bowels. It's ghastly."
There were still rational explanations. Although the isolation deck is not on the Ghosts and Legends tour, the cushion could have been mechanically rigged. Or Kate could simply have been wrong about what she saw and we could have imagined the imprint's movement.
The voices in B517 could have been crew members waiting for us to walk by, or a recording triggered by the turn of Gonzalez's door key. (I was not wrong about which cabin they came from.)
And all the hot and cold spots we simultaneously noticed about every 10 minutes for an hour could have been, well, hot and cold spots.
All the rational explanations added together, however, began to lose their rationality. Even though Halloween tourist traffic would benefit, it would require an inordinate amount of manpower, money and coordination to rig
an entire ship like an amusement park visited by the "Scooby-Doo" kids.
More significantly, it is extraordinarily unlikely that the low-paid employees of the Queen Mary, current and former, could keep such a potentially high-paying, blackmail-friendly secret from the media.
Regardless, the scariest part of my investigation still lay ahead: retiring to cabin B461 -- hopefully just for the night and not forever.
"You're sleeping here alone?" Gonzalez asked. "You are so brave."
Not true. I originally planned to share my bed with a girlfriend. But she broke up with me the week before.
"It's probably because she didn't want to spend the night here," Kate said.
Not true, either. There are plenty of better reasons to break up with me.
Gonzalez explained that the staff doesn't rent out B461 because "the guests end up calling in the middle of the night to switch rooms, so it's not worth it."
According to Gonzalez, a housekeeper once heard the shower when the room was supposed to be vacant. After her knocks went unanswered, she summoned security.
"When they opened the door, the shower stopped but nobody was responding," Gonzalez said. "The shower and mirrors were all steamed up but there was no one there."
Remember that room Jack Nicholson's kid was warned not to enter in "The Shining"?
Before our hunt, I asked Peter to
case out the joint for any unknown
roommates. He entered the bathroom and
shook his head. It seemed my shower had
sorrow in it, in addition to shampoo,
conditioner and a tiny soap.
"It feels like a despondent woman with some kind of a drug problem," he said. "There was something about infidelity and losing a child." He put the period at late 1930s.
Gonzalez remarked that a pair of recent occupants found their toiletry bag knocked all over the floor.
"She was looking for drugs," Peter said, adding that he believes she may have committed suicide in the room. (The Queen Mary has no record of it.)
After bidding adieu to the gang, I retired at 11:30 p.m. to my cabin, which I now noticed was half a corridor down from the morgue and my lady friends in B517.
I flipped on the TV for some much-needed comfort.
"This Halloween, the ship that went through hell has come to take you back," said the voiceover.
It was a commercial for the new film "Ghost Ship."
Nothing much happened until Jay Leno finished interviewing Salma Hayek. That's when the lights flickered. I opened the front door, not to facilitate a screaming exit but to gauge whether the lights in the hallway were flickering. This would indicate a shipwide electrical phenomenon.
Two minutes later, my lights did it again. The outside lights did not.
I popped three times the recommended dose of the stress herb Valerian and climbed back into bed. Why was I fearing exactly what I had come to experience? Besides, maybe the woman was attractive.
When Leno introduced his musical guest, Rod Stewart, I heard water begin to run in the bathroom.
Grabbing my digital camera, I pussyfooted in to check the tub. It was dry, and the water noise was faint, as though someone was showering in the cabin above me.
False alarm, I told myself.
When Conan O'Brien came on, however, the water noise became louder. I noticed the sign on my telephone: "Dial '*' if you need help."
I imagined the call: "Yes, umm, concierge? There's a dead despondent chick in my shower."
The noise suddenly stopped, then the
room filled with the smell of perfume.
It was the flowery kind that old ladies wear.
Or ladies who were young in the late 1930s.
I opened my front door, not to facilitate a screaming exit but to gauge whether the smell came from the hall. It didn't.
I hit the bed again, this time over the sheets and with my digital camera ready to fire.
At 12:49, the bed moved. Just a little. Maybe it was a Valerian hallucination, or maybe it was my heart skipping two beats. But it got me to thinking: What if I actually see this woman?
She's only going to photograph as an indistinct white orb, because they always do. And even if she was clearer than that, the only thing I could hope to conclusively prove to skeptics is that a) my camera doesn't work right,
b) I'm good with Photoshop or c) I'm nuttier than a squirrel's lunch.
When I felt what I perceived to be faint breath on my back, it was all I could take. I opened the front door, this time precisely to facilitate a screaming exit.
By 1:15 a.m. I was racing home faster than the family at the end of "Poltergeist."
Although I believe there is some energy aboard the Queen Mary that science can't yet explain, I can't offer any conclusive proof. (Can anyone, really?)
What I can say for sure is this: planning to spend the night aboard a reportedly haunted ship, and actually doing it, are two entirely different things.
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