Ghost Flustered

Nine years ago when Valeria Bernstein and her husband moved into their Tam Valley hillside home, they were not alone. “The first night we slept in the house, we both felt like there was someone else here,” she recalls. Apparently, they had moved their first few pieces of furniture, including their bed, right into a vortex of paranormal activity.

Right away the couple had strange feelings and heard footsteps. They chalked it up to the unfamiliar creaks and squeaks of a new home. But when a former tenant of the house came over to pick up leftover mail, she was surprised to see that Valeria’s baskets were on a particular shelf. “I could never keep anything on those shelves,” she remarked.

The pets sensed something too. “Our first dog could not stay still in the living room,” says Bernstein. “He was fine in other areas of the house but was restless in the living room. The dog we have now often hides in our bedroom to avoid the living room, and when he is in the room, he will sometimes stare at one particular corner.” She recalls a particular spooky afternoon when her two cats were chasing after something she couldn’t see. One of the cats has since disappeared; the other avoids coming into the house.

Then there were the sightings. A few weeks after settling in, Valeria woke to find a gentle-looking Asian man, dressed in white, standing over her bed. She screamed. He looked surprised and vanished. A few days later came her first visual hint of a different kind of spirit or “thing” that now comes and goes. She describes its presence as dark and gloomy. “Sometimes we hear footsteps and sometimes I’ll just catch a glimpse of a dark shadow.” Its preferred path is between the stairs to the lower level of the home and the kitchen, which happens to be just past her bedroom door.

Bernstein has searched county and city records pertaining to the property and surrounding area (above Tamalpais Elementary School) to search for clues. She even looked into buying an infrared camera, but decided it was too expensive. She welcomes any ghost-busting television crew to camp out in her living room, but for now she’s grudgingly accepted the presence as part of the household. 

As she explained to local parapsychologist Lloyd Auerbach, she finally decided to try and make peace with the situation. “I stood on my couch, faced the bookshelf and said, ‘This is my house, you can stay if you want to, but do not harm my family, and don’t cause trouble.’” 

“Unfortunately,” said Auerbach, director of the Office of Paranormal Investigations in the East Bay, “you might have made a friend.” He wasn’t making light of the situation; he’d listened to Bernstein’s story and agreed she’d done the right thing. However, he now notes, “you can always go back to him/her and say you’ve changed your mind — and ask how you might be able to help him/her move on.” Even if the unseen presence doesn’t pose actual harm, he says, living in a home with negative energy can’t be healthy.

Auerbach has been studying such unexplained events for over three decades. He’s written numerous books on the topic; he chaired the now-defunct parapsychology department of JFK University; and as one might expect of someone with this kind of vocation, he has had his share of air time, appearing on A&E, the History Channel, the Learning Channel, Oprah and the Today show; he even tried to get a few words in as a guest on The View.

Not all his work centers around ghosts. “As a parapsychologist, I work with the full range of psychic phenomena,” he says. “My work is about consciousness and the power of the mind beyond what we can see, touch or feel. This encompasses abilities such as clairvoyance, psychokinesis and telepathy — which have been studied in laboratory settings.” A small part of that, the aspect that’s of interest to most people, is “the survival of the mind” beyond the physical body — i.e., ghosts. “It’s fine for people to be skeptical or say they don’t believe in what I do,” he says, “but to claim that there is no scientific evidence (for it) is just plain wrong.”

To help Bernstein find out who or what was sharing her home, Auerbach asked a series of questions. “We need to figure out what is going on,” he explained; “in other words, ‘Is it live or is it Memorex?’ ” Translation: are the Bernsteins dealing with a spirit (an emotional entity caught between two worlds) or an imprint (residual emotional energy of some kind)?

Since Valeria caught only glimpses of this dark shadow and it didn’t appear as an entire form (unlike the Asian apparition, whom Auerbach believes she frightened off with her scream), he’s leaning toward the idea of a residual imprint. This is a psychic phenomenon that holds information from the past, including emotional energy. In some cases it’s detected as a magnetic field, such as static on a TV. If that’s the situation, Auerbach says, the invisible houseguest might be removed in one of three ways. The family can try placing magnets in strategic places, or — and “this may sound hokey,” he warns — they can “have a party and bring people together to think happy thoughts, with the purpose of erasing the depressed energy and replacing it with happy energy.” Finally, he added, “some psychics are very capable of clearing such imprints from buildings.”

The Bernsteins haven’t decided how to proceed. “Everyone (we know) knows we have a ghost, and it’s not a big deal,” Valeria says. “And to be honest, I think we should be more wary of the living than the dead.”

More Local Ghosts

Valeria Bernstein’s home isn’t the only one in the county with unexplained visitations—in fact, a few local spooks have attained legend status. Those who bubble to the top of a Google search seem to be brokenhearted (or -headed) women. For instance, the ghost of Rosie Verrall, mistress of John Reed, has greeted and/or spooked more than one overnight visitor to her bequeathed yellow Victorian, the Lyford House at Tiburon’s Audubon Center. A few miles north, actors and volunteers with the Ross Valley Players have reported sightings and eerie happenings over the past few decades in their playhouse, a converted 1860s barn. Rumor has it the spirit is a young woman who was kicked in the head by a horse and hence separated from her lover by death. And then there’s widow Ella Nichols Park at the Falkirk Mansion in San Rafael. Not only has she been seen in the window, but during weddings she’s been heard wailing and moaning just as the officiant says “till death do you part.”

Mimi Towle

Mimi Towle has been the editor of Marin Magazine for over a decade. She lived with her family in Sycamore Park and Strawberry and thoroughly enjoyed raising two daughters in the mayhem of Marin’s youth sports; soccer, swim, volleyball, ballet, hip hop, gymnastics and many many hours spent at Miwok Stables. Her community involvements include volunteering at her daughter’s schools, coaching soccer and volleyball (glorified snack mom), being on the board of both Richardson Bay Audubon Center. Currently residing on a floating home in Sausalito, she enjoys all water activity, including learning how to steer a 6-person canoe for the Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club. Born and raised in Hawaii, her fondness for the islands has on occasion made its way into the pages of the magazine.