Tucson harbors haunted places where spirits and ghosts have lingered for years, whispering into our collective ears the eerie tales they have left behind.
As a Tucson native, I have had the pleasure of visiting many haunted locations. Although I have never personally experienced a sighting myself, I grew up with the oral traditions that prompted youthful nightmares.
Among the most-famous haunted places in Tucson are Hotel Congress, the Fox Theatre, the Pioneer Building, the Manning House and the University of Arizona's Centennial Hall
Tucson is renowned not only for its spooky traditions, but also for research about the possibility of life after death.
Working in a small, tucked-away office at the UA, Gary Schwartz has been conducting research for more than 20 years about what happens to our spirit once it "leaves our physical presence here on Earth." Schwartz, a former faculty member at Harvard and Yale before moving to Arizona in 1988, is the founder of the UA Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health, through which he has investigated countless séances and has interviewed mediums from all over the world regarding his theories about empirically verifiable communication with the dead.
Schwartz draws a parallel between his research and that of the Wright brothers.
"When the Wright brothers first flew their airplane, no one across the world believed them, and now hundreds of thousands of people fly on planes every day," he says.
Schwartz believes that "some day, the communication (with the dead) will be much simpler and more obtainable than anyone could now imagine, even as simple as picking up a cell phone."
Schwartz's research is embraced by many of the believers in spirits who inhabit our town. Jo'Ann Ruhl, a local medium and astrologist referred to me by Schwartz, gave me a tour of the supposedly haunted areas of Centennial Hall.
Ruhl says her abilities as a medium and psychic began "at birth." At the age of 3, Ruhl says, she was talking to a spirit who inhabited her home. When her mother asked her whom she was speaking to, Ruhl would reply, "I am talking to Sister Anne." Ruhl did not yet know that a nun named Anne had died in the room her parents had turned into her playroom. Ruhl says her Sixth Sense-type relationship with the dead remains today as she continues to "connect" with spirits on a daily basis.
Ruhl says there is a big difference between a ghost and a spirit. Ghosts are unaware that they have passed on, while spirits are conscious of their freedom from their physical body. According to Ruhl, Centennial Hall has both ghosts and spirits. She says a ghost named Peter inhabits the projection room. He is a shy ghost who still has strong ties to his job there, so much so that he is spending his time after death keeping a watchful eye over the room.
Ruhl says Centennial Hall is also haunted by Edna, a spirit who lived in the late 1800s and comes to the hall on a regular basis, because it offers a link to her past. Ruhl says Edna abandoned her lifestyle as a dreary suburban housewife and followed musical acts for the rest of her days. She goes to Centennial Hall, the site of countless concerts, to "feel the positivity evoked from the energies in the crowd."
Hotel Congress is said to house numerous ghosts. According to hotel employees, Vince, a handyman who lived in the hotel for 30 years, used butter knives from its restaurant as screwdrivers, and they inexplicably materialize around the hotel. Another ghost rumored to inhabit the hotel is that of a woman who shot herself in the head while staying in Room 242. Numerous guests have since reported her sitting on the edge of the bed late at night.
As at Centennial Hall, the historic Fox Theatre's projection room is reportedly haunted by a past projectionist who can't let go of his job. Another spirit seen roaming the halls of the Fox is that of a man who was killed while helping build the theater. The wooden board he was working on before he passed is still just partially installed in the theater's ceiling due to no one wanting to fix it after his death.
Downtown's Manning House is said to be haunted by the family for which the house is named. The ghost of Levi Howell Manning, a former Tucson mayor, has been seen strolling through the home's halls while holding a lighted candle. Jean-Pierre Vidrine, a host for the Tucson Ghost Tour (www.tucsonghosttour.com), relates an account by a guest at the Manning House who was washing her face in the restroom. When she looked into the mirror, one of the Manning children was staring straight into her eyes.
Colleen Concannon, the current owner of the now-closed Manning House, says she once had an employee quit after seeing a hazy figure drinking whiskey at the establishment's bar.
Perhaps the most frightening of all Tucson haunts is downtown's Pioneer Building, formerly the Pioneer Hotel. On the evening of Dec. 20, 1970, during a Christmas party for employees of Hughes Aircraft Co. (now Raytheon), a fire broke out and claimed the lives of 29 people. A then-16-year-old hotel employee, Louis Cuen Taylor, was convicted of intentionally starting the fire and is serving a life sentence at the state prison in Florence.
People working in renovated Pioneer Building offices today say that when they are working late, they sometimes hear footsteps and music playing, as if the holiday party were still in progress. There have also been accounts of people smelling smoke when nothing is burning, and of a small girl looking for her mother, a maid at the hotel who perished in the fire.
There are also numerous, less-well-known residences in Tucson that are said to harbor spirits. One of my closest friends lives in a house that she and her family swear is haunted by a former occupant who died there. The woman has been seen walking the halls as if she never left. My friend says they have accepted her presence and are not afraid of her.
They also wonder if she may be connected to some unexpected good fortune involving the house. Many years ago, when my friend's parents purchased the home, a brick from one of the walls fell out as they were cleaning out the garage. Behind where the brick had been was $3,000 in cash—the exact amount needed for the down payment on the house. Ever since, the family has believed that the building was meant to be their home.
As the UA's Schwartz told me, "Sometimes, we need to go into the dark to see the light." Maybe we just need to open our minds and look a little closer to truly see what may very well be all around us.