For every person now alive, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, there stand 30 ghosts, “for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.” So it stands to reason that wandering spirits abound in a vast state like Texas. From the barren deserts of the west to the thick woodlands of the east, specters have been reported to haunt defunct hospitals, active schools, lonely highways, and thriving hotels. Whether you believe in the afterlife—or just enjoy a spine-tingling tale—you don’t have to look far in Texas for a haunting. Sometimes, you just need to look over your shoulder…
Deep dark woods and an oft-seen but unexplained light? These are ideal ingredients for a good ghost story.
The Big Thicket is a dense, biodiverse forest region in East Texas. A few tribes, including the Alabama-Coushatta and Caddo, hunted around the edges, but it was essentially uncharted territory when Anglo settlers arrived in the 1830s seeking solitude to hunt and carve out subsistence farms. Swampy, dark, and difficult to penetrate, it was a destination for people who didn’t want to be found. Oil and lumber operations rendered the terrain more accessible, but the Big Thicket remains plenty dense and mysterious today.
In the heart of the Big Thicket is Hardin County, and in the heart of Hardin County is the infamous Bragg Road, home to countless sightings of the Ghost Road Light (aka Big Thicket Light, Saratoga Light, and Bragg Road Light) that appears to nighttime travelers on the road between Saratoga and the defunct village of Bragg Station.
Before the current road was built, the arrow-straight clearing served as Santa Fe Railroad’s branch line built in 1903. From its inception, locals considered the line haunted by Mexican laborers murdered by a thieving foreman; a recalcitrant deserter shot by Confederate soldiers; a hunter lost forever in the woods; and a decapitated railroad brakeman searching for his head. But all the stories share a common theme—a floating orb of light.
The road replaced the railroad tracks in 1934, but the light remained, seen by hundreds of people over the decades. In the 1960s, Archer Fullingim, iconoclast editor of The Kountze News, spread its notoriety in articles. National Geographic published a clear photo of the light in a 1974 feature about the Big Thicket. Texas folklorist Francis Abernethy documented sighting stories from old-timers and young folks alike.
In 1997, Hardin County designated Bragg Road as Ghost Road Scenic Drive Park. A pretty road through the woods in the daytime turns into a spooky spot for supernatural sightings by night. Word is the most auspicious times to see the light are on moonless autumn nights. Dare you go? –MM Pack
The Grove, a private home built in Jefferson in 1861, offers weekend tours (reservations required) with stories about the glowing white figure of the original owner, Minerva Fox Stilley; ghostly victims of the violent Reconstruction-era murders known as the Stockade Case; and mysterious wet footprints indoors, odd sounds, and unexplained odors. 405 Moseley St., Jefferson.
The oldest continuously operating hotel in East Texas, the Excelsior House Hotel in Jefferson, is notorious for sightings of a headless man; a woman in black holding a child; and “Diamond Bessie,” murdered by her itinerant lover. Director Steven Spielberg told the Dallas Morning News he was spooked while staying there in the 1970s. 211 W. Austin St., Jefferson.
Yorktown Memorial Hospital
728 W. Main St., Yorktown
From the outside, Yorktown Memorial Hospital looks like the definition of “haunted”: a 30,000-square-foot building with a granite and concrete façade and overgrown bushes around its sides. Broken windows lead into a black interior; the door is chained shut. Inside the building, a cool breeze wafts down the dark hallway, leaves press against dusty windows, and wasps crawl along the walls.
Originally built in the 1950s and managed by the Felician Sisters of the Roman Catholic Church, the sprawling facility contains two main floors, a basement, two wings, a chapel, and an observation tower. The hospital closed in 1986, says current caretaker Stephanie Mayfield, after a new facility opened in nearby Cuero. From then on the building operated as a drug rehab facility, but the state closed it in 1992. The building sat empty, attracting stories of terrible malpractice and lurid misbehavior. Rumor has it that hundreds of patients died there, Mayfield says.
Naturally, it also acquired a lasting reputation for ghosts. There are stories of patients killed by neglect or surgical mistake and the ghost of the surgeon who is often held responsible. A fearsome black specter with red eyes has been reported to haunt the chapel and growl when Bible verses are read there. Mayfield says she once saw the ghost of a young man staring out from behind the locked front doors, a bullet wound in his head. The spirits of the nuns residing on the second floor are said to push and scratch at men with tattoos.
Mayfield has experienced feelings of oppressive weight and cold spots, unseen things touching her during tours. Just walking through the building makes her jittery, and she mentions hearing footsteps and faint moaning sounds. “A lot of awful things went on here,” Mayfield says. “The place freaks me out! The vibe’s not good … once you shut those doors and get in here, you forget there’s even anything beyond the hospital.”
The hospital is on private property and has been a popular spot for ghost tours since the building was acquired in part by Jo Ann Marks-Rivera, owner of Victoria’s Black Swan Inn (likewise haunted). Rivera hired Mayfield to look after the building after the departure of an earlier caretaker. The hospital offers daily walking tours for $25, photography/video shoots for $100 an hour, and overnight investigations for $500.
The hospital has had a recent problem with vandals breaking in for unauthorized ghost hunts, graffiti, or other mischief, often leaving the building’s antique furniture in bad shape. Mayfield wishes to remind everyone that this doesn’t just rile up the local ghosts, it’s also against the law and will be prosecuted as such. If you’re not there on an official tour, honor that most hallowed of haunted house signs: Keep out. –Asher Elbein
The Donkey Lady—a local variant of the weeping ghost La Llorona—is said to haunt the Donkey Lady Bridge in south San Antonio. Applewhite Road, San Antonio.
At The Alamo you may hear ghostly whispers or see the shade of a Mexican soldier. 300 Alamo Plaza, San Antonio.
A stay at the Emily Morgan Hotel is reputed to expose visitors to whole floors of ghostly visitations, including phantom visions of the building’s past as a hospital. 705 E. Houston St., San Antonio.
In Goliad, the Presidio La Bahia commemorates the Goliad Massacre with Spanish-speaking poltergeists, humming women, and a spooky (though entirely real) flock of vultures. 217 US 183, Goliad.
The Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Centre
125 W. Mills Ave., El Paso
El Paso’s Plaza Theatre opened as an opulent movie palace in 1930, operating for 55 years before shutting down in 1985. The theater then remained dark for about two decades before a grand renovation took place, turning it into a performing arts center in 2006. Not surprisingly, the Plaza spent its 76 years from inception to rebirth accumulating ghost stories.
“We managed to revive this historic theater before it was too late,” says Gary L. Williams, senior program officer with the El Paso Community Foundation, the organization that saved the Plaza Theatre and then partnered with the city of El Paso to restore it to its former glory. “The dust and cobwebs may be gone, but it appears the ghosts have remained.”
Some of the Plaza’s creepy tales, concocted in abundance, feature all the usual suspects—a drifting woman in white, a materializing man in black, a vanishing child bouncing a ball. Like most ghost stories, their veracity lies in the retelling rather than the reoccurring. But a much larger share of the Plaza’s supernatural phenomena may require a ghost hunter’s skill set to resolve. Apparitions including orbs, lights, and shadows; physical manipulations like electrical components switching on without power, objects moving independently, and sounds without sources; and manifestations such as stimulation by touch, smell, and temperature have all endured, transgressing the barrier between the spiritual and the material worlds again and again. Together, they suggest something more dynamic than a mere ghost story. You might want to call this a real haunting.
“Intelligent people don’t believe in ghosts!” exclaimed 90-year-old Charles Russell, Plaza manager from 1940 to 1951, during an interview for the 2006 commemorative reopening. “While I consider myself to be intelligent, if you ever spent the night in the Plaza Theatre, you might change your mind.” –E. Dan Klepper
The Gage Hotel in Marathon harbors a few ghosts, including a violin-playing woman with long white hair who has appeared on the historic section’s second floor, according to General Manager Carol Peterson. 102 NW First St—Hwy. 90 W., Marathon. 432-386-4205; gagehotel.com
Theories regarding the Marfa Mystery Lights proliferate, from UFOs to atmospheric phenomena, but none are able to confirm their true origins. Check them out at the Marfa Lights Viewing Area and be patient: The lights are often a no-show… until they aren’t. Hwy. 90, 8.8 miles east of Marfa.
Rumors suggest that El Diablo—an easy-on-the-eyes vaquero with an extra dash of swagger—once showed up to party at Los Arcos Ballroom in Odessa, dancing the night away until his cloven hooves (or, alternatively, chicken feet) gave away his true identity as the devil. 2205 W. Whitney Lane, Odessa. 432-269-2991
(Formerly the Animal Industries Building)
423 Spence St., College Station.
In 1959, Roy Simms—foreman of the meat locker in Texas A&M University’s old Animal Industries building—was performing a bit of routine butchery on a slab of bacon. As he was cutting toward himself, the knife slipped in his hand, stabbing his leg near the groin. The blade cut open his femoral artery. His assistant, who’d stepped out for a moment, returned to find him bleeding out on the floor. An ambulance was summoned, but in vain: Simms died before he could be removed from the building.
Simms’ death was a tragic accident. But it doesn’t take much for tragic accidents to take on a more ghostly cast. “In the daytime, we never thought much about any ghosts or strange occurrences,” says Jeffrey Savell, a Texas A&M professor who was an undergrad and grad student in the 1970s. “It was the nights when we were in the Meat Laboratory, conducting research, usually by ourselves, that one would hear strange noises or feel like you were not alone.”
Over the years, Savell says, students and custodians working in the bowels of the building have reported invisible footsteps, strange noises, and objects scattered far from their original resting spots. Savell attributes many of the stories to the natural spookiness of an old building and noisy machinery such as the elevator and the refrigeration compressors. A series of renovations of the building have turned the site of Simms’ accident into an office space.
Whether or not Simms’ ghost roams the hallways, Savell says, one thing keeping his memory alive is the lesson offered by his death. “It became a precautionary tale each semester as we visited with students about safety and meat cutting. It gets their attention when you tell them that someone lost their life because of a knife accident.” –A.E.
The Driskill Hotel in Austin features some spooky apparitions, including the ghost of a bride who supposedly committed suicide there and the ghost of a little girl who died on the Grand Staircase. Large ghost tours are not allowed to visit, but you can always take a peek inside by yourself or book a room for the night. 604 Brazos St., Austin.
The University of Texas’ historic Littlefield Home in Austin was the last home of Alice Littlefield, who passed in 1935 and has been reported to play the piano and move objects around. While not open to the public, the exterior can be visited. 302 W. 24th St., Austin.
The drive from Wimberley to Blanco is known as The Devil’s Backbone, and contains its own history of phantom riders and undead settlers, as well as gorgeous Hill Country vistas. Ranch-to-Market 32, southwest of Wimberley.
2000-2016 Strand St., Galveston
“They’re friendly,” says Cheryl Jenkines, manager of Galveston’s eclectic Hendley Market. She’s talking about the non-
corporeal habitués with whom she’s worked in Hendley Row, the oldest commercial structure in the Strand Historic District, since 1990.
It’s not surprising that Hendley Row is a hot spot for supernatural activity. Completed between 1855 and 1858 for shippers and cotton brokers, it was the town’s tallest structure during the Civil War; the roof doubled as a Confederate lookout for Union ships. Galveston and nearby barrier islands’ history have been laced with tragedy. It was the site of a bloody Civil War fight, and serial epidemics of yellow fever decimated the populace. Hurricanes blast through regularly; the 1900 storm left up to 12,000 casualties in the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. No wonder Texas writer Bryan Woolley called Galveston “an old cemetery with a beach attached.”
The resident ghosts of Hendley Row represent aspects of Galveston history. There’s the Confederate soldier seen on the roof and around the building. The bloodied, teenage “factory worker” is a vestige of the building’s cotton-grading days. “The lady in white” and the running and playing “little boy” and “little girl” are thought to be 1900 storm victims. The upper floors house apartments and offices now, but Hendley Market’s glass ceiling reveals views of stairs and landings (and perhaps apparitions). During renovations, workers reported tools mysteriously moving around.
Jenkines and staff recall other spooky experiences. Some years ago, a friend gave her an old photo—of “Dr. Wilbur,” from a house on Church Street—that’s always displayed in the shop. When Hurricane Ike inundated the building with 10 feet of water in 2008, the photo went undamaged while many other things were destroyed. Every year on Nov. 1, Jenkines constructs an elaborate Day of the Dead altar that includes the photo and lighted candles. Before closing, the staff follows a three-person backup routine to ensure the candles are completely extinguished, even dousing them with water. Yet almost every year, one or more candles are burning the next morning. And Jenkines has photos of lighted candles at night, taken by a passerby through the shop window. Perhaps Dr. Wilbur is afraid of the dark. –M.M.P.
The landmark Ashton Villa, built in 1859 by wealthy businessman James Brown, is no longer open to the public other than infrequent seasonal tours and private rentals. Reported resident ghosts are Brown’s daughters—the adventurous Bettie Brown and piano-playing Tilly Brown-Sweeney—and Confederate soldiers seen patrolling outside. 2328 Broadway, Galveston.
The majestic Hotel Galvez hosts ghost tours (reservations required) with tales of spooky occurrences and spirit sightings—most famously a sailor’s distraught bride-to-be “Audra” from the 1950s; “Sister Catherine,” a heroic nun killed in the 1900 storm; and naughty, laughing phantom children. 2024 Seawall Blvd., Galveston.
The third iteration of the elegant Tremont House features ethereal as well as physical vestiges of its earlier incarnations, including a Civil War soldier; the mischievous small boy “Jimmy;” and the gambler “Sam,” murdered for his winnings. 2300 Ship’s Mechanic Row St., Galveston.
In Houston, Market Square’s La Carafe Wine Bar, built in 1860 and the oldest commercial property in the city, is home to the ghost of bartender/manager “Carl,” plus footsteps, loud noises, and unexplained lights from the empty upstairs. 813 Congress Ave., Houston.
Visitors to the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier used during World War II, can take self-guided tours of the decommissioned ship where they might encounter “Charly,” the polite seaman in white; other ghostly sailors; or a uniformed Japanese pilot. 2914 N. Shoreline Blvd., Corpus Christi.