Richard Senate recalls his first encounter with a ghost the way other people remember the Challenger disaster or the Kennedy assassination. It is one of those profound moments burned so deep in his memory he can summon it with videotaped detail. It was July 3, 1978. He was up late, working on an archaeological dig at Mission San Antonio de Padua in Central California. Around midnight, he left the lab to grab a frozen chicken out of an ice box in the kitchen. On his way there, he noticed a monk shuffling around the courtyard, dressed in a robe and carrying a lit candle. He thought this a bit odd, considering most modern-day monks wear jeans and sweatshirts, but other than that, there didn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary about the guy. When Senate approached to say hello, however, the man literally vanished into the evening air.
At that point, Senate lost his appetite. He went back to his room and tried to sleep, the incident replaying endlessly in his mind. At the time a skeptic of paranormal phenomena, Senate tried to rationalize what he had seen. But no strict scientific explanation made sense. He was sure there had been somebody there; he could even make out the folds of his garment. The next day, he told the mission caretakers about his experience, and they informed him that, oh yes, the place is crawling with phantom monks. The one Senate happened to run into was Brother Joseph, a near-saintly figure during his lifetime who, after his death, continued his nightly ritual of wandering the grounds in prayer. There was no getting around it: Richard Senate had seen a ghost. And it would shape the path of his career for the next three decades.
“People ask me, ‘How long after that did you decide to become a ghost hunter?’ ” he says. His answer: “About thirty seconds.”
Since then, Senate has met a lot of spectral beings, many of them in Ventura, the city he has called home for the majority of his 58 years. Although most of his multiple job titles — anthropologist, historian, teacher, author, museum docent, coordinator of historical programming for the City of Ventura — deal with forging an understanding of the natural world, Senate has earned his greatest renown as an explorer of the supernatural. He is credited with creating one of the first Web sites dedicated to ghost hunting and has published 13 books on the subject. He teaches classes on paranormal investigation and leads tours of the county’s haunted sites. For Senate, however, the physical and metaphysical are not sovereign states. Knowledge of one can lead to deeper knowledge of the other, and that is ultimately what he is looking for in his exploration of both. His goals are simple; the ramifications are not. “I want to find out what ghosts are — their true nature,” he explains. “And the more I delve into it, the more I think there isn’t one answer but several, and it’s going to go to the essence of reality itself.”
Today, Senate is enjoying a three-egg omelet at Nona’s Courtyard Café. It was his idea to meet here, and no wonder: the place gives off a spooky vibe only a lover of weird history could appreciate. The restaurant is located inside the Bella Maggiore Inn, a high-end hotel during the oil boom of the 1920s that degenerated into a flophouse before being converted to a bed-and-breakfast in the mid-’70s. To get to the café, you must walk through the hotel lobby, past dangling candelabras and paintings of early 20th century socialites who seem to stare and judge. Nona’s itself is vaguely creepy, with its large, European-style courtyard, high retractable ceiling, walls covered in foliage and fountain with a stone lion’s head spewing water from its mouth. There’s an eerie, antiquated quality about the entire building; even if it was built yesterday, it would probably still be haunted by old spirits.
And indeed it is. According to Senate, around 1940 the body of a prostitute named Sylvia was found hanging in a closet in Room 17. Police ruled it a suicide. But in the ensuing decades, numerous visitors reported strange occurrences happening in the room where she died: lights would flicker; ceiling fans would turn and switch directions by themselves; wallets would disappear; the scent of cheap perfume would suddenly and inexplicably overwhelm the air. Some guests claimed to feel as if they were sharing the bed with an unseen presence, and one woman even testified to being choked after mocking the alleged ghost. Eventually, a séance was held, and Sylvia appeared to proclaim that she did not kill herself but had in fact been murdered by one of her clients, a sailor. She also announced her intention to stay in the hotel until he comes back, to exact a little revenge. Considering the murder happened more than 60 years ago, the chances of a return visit are slim — meaning Sylvia will inhabit Room 17 for a long time to come.
“A bit of advice,” Senate offers: “If you check into Room 17, don’t sing ‘Anchors Aweigh.’ ”
The story of Sylvia demonstrates one of Senate’s favorite proverbs about residents of the netherworld: Ghosts are people, too — “people who just happen to be dead,” he says. “Human emotions still apply. The reasons why humans do stuff are the reasons why ghosts do stuff: revenge, love, et cetera.” But that awareness still does not fully explain what ghosts actually are. Senate has yet to come to any hard conclusions on that end. He does not, however, subscribe to the notion that all ghosts are formerly flesh-and-blood humans trapped in a state somewhere between life and death. That explanation, promulgated by Hollywood and traditional folklorists, fails to account for why, when people allege to have seen an apparition, a large percentage of them describe someone who is still alive. Ghosts, then, could be the products of time warps, Senate says. Or the manifestation of a kind of psychic energy. Or something else entirely. He isn’t sure. He probably never will be. And he doesn’t appear very upset about that. The way he figures it, centuries ago, scientists thought they had the universe figured out; a lot of scientists think the same today. In truth, there are still plenty of unknowns out there, things science, technology and the human brain are not evolved enough to grasp. Hundreds of years from now, who knows? But at this period in time, the answers Senate seeks may just be beyond his, or anyone else’s, realm of comprehension.
Of course, that’s not going to stop him from searching.
Searching, after all, is the common thread linking all of Senate’s various occupations. He became fascinated with uncovering the mysteries of the past as a child after watching The Mummy, the 1932 film starring Boris Karloff. In high school, he had the opportunity to participate in an excavation of the district formerly known as Ventura’s Chinatown, which led to him majoring in history and anthropology at Cal State Long Beach. Initially, he hoped to teach junior high, but his enthusiasm fizzled once he realized he didn’t like any of his fellow teachers. After winding through a series of go-nowhere jobs — sporting goods salesman, clerk at Payless ShoeSource — Senate was hired by the city to be the coordinator of historical programming, a position he kept for 22 years. He ran the Albinger Archaeological Museum as well as the Olivas Adobe Historical Park, where an exhibit hall was named in his honor following his retirement. And he found a way to teach that allowed him to avoid other teachers: through city-sponsored home school programs.
Then, he met Brother Joseph. And that’s when he started a search of a different kind.
When Senate joined the ghost hunting community, it was a rarified group. He admits not knowing exactly what he was doing at first, mainly because there were no instruction manuals for how to proceed with such studies. Therefore, he approached his investigations like he would any other archaeological survey, gathering information about a purportedly haunted site, then simply going in and observing. Now, however, with the rise of the Internet, “every kid in a basement with a computer is a ghost hunter.” As a result, the field of paranormal research has split into two camps: the scientific (“the nerds,” Senate calls them) and the metaphysical, people “who wear weird clothes and see ghosts everywhere.” Senate places himself somewhere in between. He utilizes instruments such as dowsing rods to gauge supernatural activity, but in most cases, his most precious tools are still his own eyes and ears.
“In a lot of ways, it’s like being a detective,” he says. “The goal is to collect information and either prove or disprove the existence of ghosts.”
In 1991, Senate began hosting “ghost walks” around Ventura, which he says is “one of the most haunted cities in America.” He takes attendees on a tour of the city’s particularly spook-infested places, including the Ortega Adobe, the Bard Hospital and city hall, where earlier this year, five people simultaneously witnessed the appearance of the famed “Lady in Red,” a woman in ’50s garb who supposedly stalks the corridors of the building. Such sightings occur frequently on his tours, Senate says. Once, at the Olivas Adobe, a man openly dared any ghosts that may have been present to make themselves known. Seconds later, an old nightgown on display leapt into the air completely on its own. Naturally, Senate encourages people to bring their cameras.
While the ghost walks have always been popular with tourists and locals, Senate says that interest in the supernatural in general has mushroomed in recent years. He attributes the spike to the return of supernatural themes to popular culture, in movies like The Sixth Sense and The Others and television shows like the Sci Fi Channel’s Ghost Hunters. But he also insists there is a broader reason for the public’s increasing belief in once-ridiculed theories, one that goes deeper than mere entertainment. “Traditional forces in society are under attack,” Senate says. “As such, people are turning to other things for answers. There’s a rejection of scientific principles, and the idea of ghosts and things not accepted by science becomes more attractive.”
For that reason, the work of Senate and his peers is gradually taking on a significance it never before possessed. If the point of archaeology is to harness the past as a guide to the future, then examining the paranormal is a way to better our understanding of a complicated present. Whether or not we’re all seeing dead people isn’t the important part; just the fact that we’re seeing something is.
“Even if it’s all in our heads, it’s still worthy of study, to find out why people imagine such things,” Senate says. “But the evidence is too powerful. There’s more involved than just hallucinations.”