If you have never stopped to ponder the rich, ghostly energies and history of Santa Barbara, you are certainly not alone. Whether your family has lived here for generations or you are just passing through, Santa Barbara Ghost Tours (SBGT) is sure to illuminate an array of mysteries and histories one may not expect from this sleepy beach town.
Led by Julie Brown, SBGT paints a larger portrait of the city, incorporating personal and family histories of local residents as well as past events like the 1925 earthquake and the Spanish Colonial era, in addition to delving into the Asian-American communities and their connection to the Presidio neighborhood. Of course, the tour would not be complete without mention of historical figures, from José de la Guerra to Pearl Chase, as well as lesser-known spirits, which Brown brings into the limelight.
When she isn’t leading or conducting research for her ghost tours, Brown volunteers as a docent for the Santa Barbara Mission, and she is also a tenured finance professor at Santa Barbara City College, where she also serves as the Department Chair of Business Administration. Brown founded Santa Barbara Ghost Tours in 2017 after spending several months researching curiously overlooked elements of Santa Barbara’s history. But her fascination with the spirit world started long before then.
Brown has been collecting ghost stories since she worked as a tour guide at Long Beach’s famous Queen Mary while attending USC. At the time, she explained, the owners did not wish for the Queen Mary to be known as the “ghost ship” it is recognized as today and for her to frighten their clientele. However, despite her boss threatening to fire her if she did not stop “spooking” their guests, Brown continued sharing her tales, figuring correctly that the paranormal angle would generate intrigue rather than scare people away. (She was never fired.)
Small and guest-focused, Brown’s Santa Barbara tour options include a “Dead of the Night” theme, which guides you through sections of downtown that will have you exercising all five senses. You can even book a “paranormal pairing” experience combining wine tasting and ghost stories. Guests are also provided a goodie bag that contains “spiritual protection items” including crosses and rosaries (and a snack in case you get hungry!). Accompanying Brown on our tour was Allison Kross, who shared with us a beverage recipe titled the “Hot Comandante,” inspired by the winter weather and “the spirit” of José de la Guerra.
From the moment Brown made her entrance — dressed in a silky canary-yellow gown and a crown to match — it was clear this was not going to be a regular Saturday night. She began the tour by asking if anyone had ever had a paranormal experience. Answers ranged from encounters with relatives who have passed on to curious figures in the corners of one’s eyes to strange reflections in the mirror. Some guests said they weren’t sure they’d classify their experiences as paranormal, to which Brown responded, “If you ever think you have [had one], you most certainly have.”
Brown then spoke of previous generations of Santa Barbarans who, with or without our knowledge, have sprinkled reminders that they were once here — or, perhaps, that they never left. She said our local ghosts are rather friendly and also communicative, if you know what to look for. Of the 100-plus stories Brown has uncovered, here are a few that stick out:
According to Brown, and unbeknownst to many, one of our very own theaters — you’ll have to take the tour to find out which one! — is considered the most haunted theater in California. Before being demolished by the 1925 earthquake, it was known for holding the occasional séance, and the female architect behind the new building omitted windows so that “spirits may not escape.”
In more recent years, Brown shared, a local student was made to volunteer at the theater as a form of detention. While working in the basement, he felt a chill, and when he looked to his side, he saw a faceless woman with tight brown ringlets. Petrified, he dashed out of the basement, exited the theater, and ran across the street to call his mom. When he told his teacher what had happened, she thought that he was making it up to get out of punishment. She accompanied him to the theater in order to show him there was nothing to be afraid of, but let’s just say that after her visit she never made him, or anyone, volunteer there again.
Another stop on our tour led us to where there have been sightings of a woman with a white umbrella believed to be named Kana, who was of Japanese descent. Here, Brown shared her findings about Kana’s romantic relationship, which needed to be kept secret during her lifetime due to the cultural differences between her and her partner. Brown was speaking from a parking lot on the outskirts of the Presidio, where there is a shabby wooden fence and a long patch of dirt, which Brown believes is Kana’s final resting place. “I think she keeps coming back here because, well, look at it — it’s disrespectful to the memory of those who are buried here,” Brown said.
Along the tour, Brown told us more tales of deceit, unrequited love, and hidden treasure, and we came to our final stop at the site of what Brown refers to as Santa Barbara’s most horrific murder that took place all the way back in 1921. After the deadly altercation between the town cobbler and his wife transpired, City Hall purchased the property where the victim’s body was found. When recounting the gritty details of her discovery, Brown said that she never forgot the words that came out of the husband’s mouth when the authorities caught him red-handed.
To learn what the cobbler said and to hear more about the spirits that grace the streets of Santa Barbara’s past and present, schedule a tour with Santa Barbara Ghost Tours. Don’t fret if you left your rosary at home — Julie Brown has got you covered.