Boo! It’s Halloween.
By Bill Swank
Pumpkins, goblins, witches, you know the drill.
Let’s do, “The monster mash, it was a graveyard smash.”
I don’t like chainsaw, zombie, vampire, extraterrestrial, alien, ghost, werewolf, axe murder, walking dead, serial killer, horror movies, but when Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho came out in 1960, I was scared.
There was a rumor at the time that an old, two-story home in Bay Park was the house used in Psycho. It was in the days before access to the internet when people were unable to verify such claims simply by going online. It wasn’t until a 1970s backlot tour at Universal Studios that I learned Norman Bates’s boyhood home was still being used in movies. Just seeing that iconic prop sent shivers up my spine.
Today, people think of Clairemont as a community of homes that suddenly appeared on a hilltop in the 1950s. Then, like the 1958 lyrics in Burt Bacharah’s theme from The Blob, “it creeps and leaps and glides and slides across” the canyons, the mesas, the sagebrush and jackrabbits. Clairemont claimed barren moonscape to the north and east reaching into Linda Vista. It’s tentacles spread south and west into established Bay Park and the original undeveloped Morena District.
The so-called Bay Park Psycho House (Stough-Beckett Cottage) still stands at the corner of Denver and Milton in Bay Park. Built in 1888, it is Clairemont’s only structure designated as an historic site. The architecture, known as “Eastlake” design, “is an example of a modest Victorian home.” John Arthur, the current owner, debunks the rumors about a haunted past.
The Walter Andersen family moved to Bay Park in 1942. Walt Jr. remembers dirt roads and other Victorians in the neighborhood. “The prettiest of them all was at Galveston and Napier. The Spencer family who lived there were friends of my parents. The house had a lot of intricate details. People would set up their easels on the upper corner and paint the house. Even in decline, it was a neat looking house.”
Irene Spencer will be 83 on Christmas Eve. She loved her old redwood home, but remembers living with family friends, Sanna and Alfred Olsson, during junior high school. Bees had infested the Victorian and Irene was allergic to bee stings. It took over two years to evict the invaders who had turned the once proud Gothic into a giant beehive. The Spencer residence, also built in 1888 and purchased in the early 20th Century by her grandfather, Ervin Laraway, was razed in the late 1960s.
Irene knew the Beckett family who lived in the house at Denver and Milton. “After my father and husband built our new home (down Napier), people used to say our old house was haunted, too,” she laughed. Her mother was friends with Josephine Tejada who lived on Frankfort Steet. Mrs. Tejada was the mother of Raquel Tejada Welch who starred in the vintage horror classic, One Million Years, B.C..
The Ambort House on the north side of Ingulf Street between Erie and Frankford is now owned by Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist Church. It was a three-story Victorian, but there has been extensive remodeling. Missionary teacher Michelle Gennaro and her family are currently in temporary residence awaiting their next overseas assignment. She graciously shared a photograph of the original home from the 1880s. Michelle added, “People have said it was haunted, but it’s not.”
The Cass Victorian on Erie Street is owned by Joe and Susan Valentino. They have lived there for 30 years and it is currently being renovated. The house has a compelling history. Former owner, Charles L. Cass, was a federal prohibition agent who, in 1926, helped breakup the notorious Hugh McClemmy bootleg smuggling operation in Tijuana. In retirement, Mr. Cass became well known for his cactus and staghorn ferns. (Cass Staghorns are specimen plants and difficult to find. They are available at Walter Andersen Nursery.)
The Valentinos explain that they decorate every Halloween and, every year, at least one child will tell them it was the first time they were brave enough to trick-or-treat at their home. Neighbor George Heatherington (70) scoffs all the stories about haunted homes in Bay Park. “I remember trick-or-treating as a kid at the house on Milton (Stough-Beckett Cottage) and Mrs. Beckett was always very nice.” he said.
“The place that was scary was the old Cudahy packing plant (farther south on Morena Boulevard) after it closed,” recalled Heatherington. “It was full of spirits.”
Happy Halloween, Clairemont, but beware of the bovine ghosts of Cudahy who return on October 31st in search of their eyeballs.
All Photos Courtesy of Bill Swank