Albuquerque’s city history is longer than most in America, dating back to 1706 as a Spanish settlement. Before that, in the 1500s, a series of Tiwa pueblos lined the Rio Grande Valley. And if you take into account the petroglyphs carved onto the volcanic basalt of Albuquerque’s Westside, people have inhabited this area for at least 3,000 years. So, if you’re inclined to believe in such things, Albuquerque should have plenty of potential ghosts of previous residents roaming its streets.
In honor of All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) and All Saint’s Day (Day of the Dead), The Paper. decided to look into our storied city’s haunted history. We turned to local expert Cody Polston. Polston is the founder and president of the Southwest Ghost Hunters’ Association, one of the creators of Old Town’s iconic Ghost Tours and the author of the just-published book Haunted Albuquerque. He’s pretty much the authority on haunted houses here in New Mexico.
Elements of a Haunting
According to Polston, there are five criteria that make up a “legitimate” haunting. The first is “repeating behavior.” When investigating a site, Polston listens to the stories of the people who have lived or worked there and compares their experiences. Very often, ghosts appear to engage in repetitive behavior: slamming a particular door, making sounds in a certain room or materializing every night on a staircase dressed in white.
“The second piece is longevity,” says Polston. Whatever is believed to have happened in the past should be consistent over time. If someone died in the 1940s, their ghost should be visible in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and up to today. One sighting in the last hundred years hardly qualifies as “haunted.” But dozens of glimpses of a mysterious figure in an upstairs window? We may be on to something.
Thirdly, if an alleged haunting is happening consistently through time, it should have “lots of witnesses.” If a building is being haunted by someone who died in the 1940s, several generations of owners, guests, customers, etc. should be able to describe seeing something.
That leads directly into the fourth criteria which is that “witnesses should match.” What someone saw in an eerie back hallway in 1972 should be the same as what people are seeing in that back hallway today. Talking to people who had experiences with a location in the past is as important as talking to the people who inhabit it today.
The final criteria is what Polston calls “the element of truthfulness,” a detail “that’s going to suggest something more than just a ghost story.” This is where research comes in. If people report seeing a ghost with a limp and historical records confirm that the person who died in this location had a bum leg, then there’s a verifiable element of “truth” to the stories. If, on the other hand, the stories say Abraham Lincoln once lived in a particular haunted house, and it turns out he didn’t, then the tales of Lincoln’s ghost are more likely confabulation.
Think your house is haunted? Believe there’s the specter of a conquistador in your garage? What should you do? Polston cautions people to first, “See if you’re freaking yourself out.” Start with the five criteria. Is there historical evidence of a haunting, or are you just imagining things? Lots of people, particularly former residents, “should have had experiences” in the location. Polston suggests digging through archives of newspapers to learn what has happened there in the past. Have people died or been killed at the location? Is there a history of unusual events there? “If it all checks out,” says Polston, “keep tabs on it.”
If you do decide your house is haunted, Polston says there’s no need to be concerned. “I’ve never been pushed or scratched or possessed. I’ve never encountered anything dangerous.” Polston has investigated “dozens and dozens” of locations throughout Albuquerque over the years (and countless more around the Southwest). He says the odds of a verifiable haunting are “very, very rare.”
We spoke to Polston about his favorite haunted locations in Albuquerque. The author and amateur historian has written about many of them in his books, including Haunted Albuquerque, Wicked Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Most Haunted Exposed and Ghosts of Old Town Albuquerque. Here are his choices for the Duke City’s most ghostly spots.
#5. Albuquerque Little Theater—Believe it or not, this is a “new” haunted location—at least for Polston, who only started investigating it a couple of years ago. “It’s hard to investigate a location when hauntings go back beyond the lifetime of people,” says Polston. But the ALT building on San Pasqual wasn’t constructed until 1936. When he checked it out, “All these people showed up. People who have lived their lives in that place.” Listening to the stories of actors, directors and lighting techs who have spent years in the ALT, Polston noted that, “They say they see stuff out of the corner of their eye. Near the box office. When you look, it goes away.” Polston concluded that the “ghost” many reported glimpsing was a former employee that worked there in the 1970s. “He passed away. His request was to be cremated and placed under stage. And they did that. … A lot people think it’s his ghost.” Polston even crossed paths with “the son of the ghost” who had been “trying to get into the theater after hours, ’cause his dad was in there. We were able to bring him together with the theater staff. It worked our really cool.” Polston also appreciated the ALT for its spooky after-hours atmosphere: “There are a lot of neat elements: huge areas, massive dressing rooms, rows and rows of costumes.” In the end, though, everyone at the Little Theater appreciates their resident ghost. “They all believe it’s friendly, benevolent,” says Polston.
#4. Casa Vieja Brewery—This “very, very old house” in Corrales is currently home to a popular brewery. Polston and local radio show host TJ Trout (with whom Polston has been conducting annual Halloween ghost hunts since 2001) recently spent an entire night there drinking beers, along with members of Trout’s crew and local psychic Cynthia Hess. “One of the interesting things is there’s a story there was a monk that was buried in the wall.” Polston employed some “new technology” and used an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) to record sounds at the location. “It was the freakiest thing,” says Polston, who rarely uses such “entertainment-based” ghost hunting tricks. “When we played it back, [the recording] was playing old-timey music. People were saying, ‘It’s gotta be a nearby bar leaking through.’ Through three-foot thick walls? It was just strange.” Aside from the eerie banjo tunes, Polson heard “lots and lots of stories” about the location, which was built as a private home in the 18th century. “When [chef] Jim White owned it, they reported seeing a woman in a black dress. … The big thing now is children. And seeing shelves move when they know they’re alone in the building.”
#3. La Placita Restaurant—Polston is sad that this historic restaurant, an Old Town institution since 1931, is now closed. Customers or no, it remains one of our city’s most haunted buildings. “It’s fascinating,” says Polston. “There have always been stories about the ghost of a little girl. [We hear] details about her dress, a communion dress with white sunwheels in the beadwork.” A lot of people confuse the traditional Native American design with a swastika. Polston and his fellow ghost hunters kept that particular detail “quiet for years.” Whenever witnesses started talking about “swastikas,” investigators knew they were getting accurate details about a haunting. “Historically, it’s true. There was a girl who died very young there. Another ghost supposed to be there is Victoriana, who died in childbirth. A guard that used to patrol the area told of seeing a woman carrying a small baby.” Polston employed EVP here as well, asking who was there and got a “sound like ‘Victoria’ or ‘Victoriana,’ but cut off.”
#2. Church Street Cafe—This is one of the locations Polston wrote about in Ghosts of Old Town Albuquerque. It’s also one of the places he “got to right after an event happened.” Years ago Polston was shooting a segment with a film crew from Travel Channel for the show “Weird Travels.” The crew was using actors and filming historical reenactments. Polston and his partner Bob Carter (with whom he wrote The Conscientious Ghost Hunters Compendium and The Complete Ghost Hunter) were hanging out waiting to be interviewed. “Bob went back inside to get a Dr. Pepper refill” but immediately ran out screaming, “Dude! You’ve got to get your equipment out of the car!” When the two men went back inside the restaurant, they saw “everyone standing with their backs to the wall, silverware all over.” The freaked-out film crew had just witnessed “an invisible hand swatting silverware off the table. The Travel Channel cameraman had just powered down his video camera and was trying to power it back up.” Some 12 people saw the silverware fly off the table without disturbing the napkins folded neatly underneath. Polston says, “We found out later a story that a women whose name was Sara got into a knife fight with the man who fathered her baby.” Evidently, to this day, Sara’s ghost starts “acting up when somebody tells the knife story.”
#1. Maria Teresa’s Restaurant, now Casa Esencia—The former restaurant is now owned by Hotel Albuquerque and is used as a special events center. The building has been renovated, most of the antiques have been removed, and Polson feels a lot of the “historical character” has been wrecked. Nonetheless, it remains one of Albuquerque’s most haunted locations. “When it was restaurant, there was lots of crazy stuff. A manager locked up one night. He was the only one in the building, counting money for deposit. He hears the piano start playing.” Figuring someone has broken into the restaurant after hours, the manager “closes and locks the building and calls police. The police come, and the building is empty. There’s no way someone got out. Every door is locked.” Back in “1999 or 2000” Polston investigated the location with a local public access show psychic, hoping that whatever ghost haunted the location would reach out to them. Polston, always searching for a rational explanation, tried to get the piano to make noise by rocking it, jumping on the floor next to it. He even checked it for mice. The investigators left disappointed. However, “The next day the manager calls, telling me, ‘I got in trouble. I came in with the head guy and went back to the Armijo Room and all the chairs were stacked on top of each other blocking the entrances.’ “
On Friday, Oct. 29 Cody Polston will be a guest on TJ Trout’s radio show. This year, they investigated Casa Vieja Brewery in Corrales. You can listen to the results of their hunt on 96.3 KKOB from 3 to 6pm.
Polston will spend Halloween (Oct. 31) at Treasure House Books in Old Town signing copies of his latest book, Haunted Albuquerque, from 3 to 5pm. He’ll move over to Don Luis Plaza for the start of that night’s Old Town Ghost Tour around 8pm and stick around signing books and talking ghosts “until whenever.”