Ghost Hunting TV Shows – What’s Real, and Links for Aspiring Stars

Ghost hunting TV shows… what’s real? What’s fake? You may want to think about this.

In the early 2000s, ghost hunting TV shows helped many people learn more about paranormal research and haunted sites. That helped this field expand, almost overnight.

However, many viewers were disappointed when they went ghost hunting, themselves.

Ghost hunting wasn’t nearly as much fun as it had seemed on TV.

I’ve talked about this in the past, and – I’ll admit – ranted more than a little.

Here are my current thoughts (mid-2019) about ghost hunting TV shows.

If you’re busy and you’d like to listen to this instead of reading it, here’s the six-minute recording:

Ghost Hunting – Reality v. TV, revisited

In April 2019, with a new (and different) season of TV shows, Fiona revisited the topic of ghost hunting on television versus what happens in real life. Six-minute recording. Related article: Ghost Hunting TV Shows, Revisited

Recently, a news report confirmed what I’ve been saying… and more concisely (and perhaps with more authority) than I have.

The article is “5 Myths about Reality Television,” and it was in the Washington Post newspaper.

Here’s part of what the article said:

With very few notable exceptions (like “Big Brother”…), most reality television is shot first over a period of days or weeks, then edited. A month in the field could be whittled down to 44 or 22 minutes of action. That way, the audience sees reality stars only in essential moments… Almost nothing airs exactly as it fell into the lens, but the final product is usually more or less what happened.

That’s true about many (not all) ghost hunting TV shows. A typical one-hour episode might require three to five days of daily filming at the site.

Then there’s editing, to make the show compelling to watch, with cliffhangers immediately before each commercial break.

What viewers see are the highlights of an investigation. They don’t see time spent waiting while nothing happens… and that can most of what goes on, at many (perhaps most) investigations.

We sit for an hour, and then something odd happens. We investigate it and debunk it, and then sit or walk around for another hour. And then something creepy happens, and it’s memorable. When we can’t debunk it, that’s what makes the wait worthwhile.

It starts with a good location.

Viewers don’t see the dozens of locations scouted by people like me. Location scouts know that most ghost stories turn out to be more fiction than fact.

(That’s typical in any community; if you’ve gone ghost hunting, I’m sure you’ve visited many places where absolutely nothing noteworthy happened. It can be discouraging.)

When a producer contacts me to identify good sites for filming, the majority of “haunted” sites either aren’t haunted or the owners (or tenants) prefer not to be featured in a TV show.

(The good news is, I almost always find some genuinely impressive haunted sites in the area, with owners willing to grant access to investigators and the camera crew.)

An encouraging trend

So, from my experience, most sites features on TV shows are actually haunted. Also, what viewers see is usually more or less what happened.

I’m seeing a shift – towards almost radical authenticity – in some ghost hunting TV shows.

Most Haunted remains one of the leaders in this trend. They test show ideas (and investigation techniques) before most do.

Also, Most Haunted producers suggested they may air shows featuring outtakes. That’s a fun idea. (See @OnlyMostHaunted at Twitter.)

While more authentic ghost hunting TV shows – like Most Haunted – aren’t the adrenaline fuel of their fast-paced, highly edited counterparts, I like this trend.

(2020 update: Yes, some shows are far better at showing what’s real. And others still go for sensational shrieks and chills.)

Problem: shows’ time limits

Ghost hunting shows are short – really short – compared with real-life investigations.

The only sites I’ve investigated for just 22 minutes (the length of a 30-minute TV show, sans commercial breaks) are those that seemed too dangerous for research.

Usually, that had nothing to do with ghosts; instead it was about creepy people in the area, or imminent lightning strikes.

My average time at a haunted home or large site? It’s probably around two to three hours.

Later, I may revisit that location multiple times, and each additional visit can last several hours.

Or, if I’m familiar with a site, I might investigate just 45 minutes (the content of a one-hour TV show).

That kind of brief investigation is probably a follow-up visit, to debunk (or confirm) anomalies we previously encountered.

Though the time problem isn’t exactly new news, I was glad to see mainstream media mention the reality behind many “reality” TV shows.

Your investigations will be different

If you’re new to ghost hunting, don’t expect something startling every five or ten minutes.

Instead, arrive at events and investigations with low expectations. Lots of waiting may be required.

That’s a good opportunity for you to do a thorough (and sometimes repeated) “baseline yourself” check, so you’re always aware when weird things start happening at a haunted site.

What you see on TV rarely represents everything that happened at the site. I’d describe it as “ghost hunting without the boring bits.” (That’s a nod to Horrible Histories and Ghosts. I love their humor.)

However, TV shows can reveal the wide range of phenomena you might encounter at an extraordinarily haunted site.

Shows that emphasize real ghost hunting experiences… they’re well worth your viewing time. You can learn a lot from them. And, with their insights, you might be better prepared when you encounter something chilling.

Related articles

And, if you want to be on a ghost hunting TV show, search related keywords at sites like AuditionsFree.comBackstage.com, and – for the UK – Starnow.co.nz, TheStage.co.uk, and similar sites. (There are many.)

Evaluating Ghost Hunting Documentaries

Hand print plus angry jack o' lantern faceEach year, after Halloween, a few people express disgust for ghost-related TV shows and documentaries.

Usually, it’s because the following series of events happened:

  1. First, the complainer went to a few “haunted” sites at Halloween, sometimes after a Halloween party.
  2. Then, he or she spent 10 – 20 minutes at each location.
  3. Nothing happened, or nothing the person noticed.
  4. He or she decided that all ghost hunting TV shows are fake, and all paranormal researchers are delusional or lying.
  5. He or she joined a skeptics group, and his or her new friends further convince the person that ghosts aren’t real.

There’s not much I can say about that.  I’ve been ghost hunting for decades and know that ghosts don’t perform on command.  In addition, many sites that are haunted… they may or may not seem haunted when I visit them.

  • If I’d left the Myrtles Plantation (LA) after a few hours – or at any time before around 10 PM – I’d have thought the site had no ghosts.
  • At the other extreme, I expected nothing at Bradford College (MA), and the site quickly proved to be haunted and have poltergeist activity.

I can’t prove that ghosts exist.  I can’t prove that a location is haunted.  I don’t need to.  Others’ opinions are interesting, but once I’ve found an answer to a question – one that seems conclusive to me – I don’t rely on what others say or think.  I listen to them, but my personal experiences and conclusions will trump others’, at least until I’ve had time to test opposing theories myself.

Similarly, I didn’t create this website to convince anyone that ghosts are real.  Not at all.  I share my stories because people think they’re interesting, and my experiences may shed light on their ghostly encounters, too.  Mostly, I share how-to information about ghost hunting so that others can expand our collective understanding about ghosts, ghost hunting, haunted sites, and the paranormal field in general.

For most people, “proof” of ghosts (or any other paranormal phenomena) exists only in the context of the experiences of the individual.  The references are internal.  When the conversation is about spiritual matters – including ghosts and Deity – or about extraordinary phenomena (UFOs, crypto, etc.), others’ evidence may be compelling.  Despite that, at the end of the day, your experiences are what matter… not mine, and not anyone else’s.

Meanwhile, I can explain a few ways to evaluate ghost hunting TV shows.

1. Check the production company’s reputation.  Have they produced other credible documentary-type shows in any genre, or do they also produce silly, “just for fun” shows?  Have they been associated with discredited TV shows (like Extreme Paranormal, which was a product of Painless Productions)?

  • Check IMDb for the name of the production company.  Then, check IMDb’s link to the production company, for a list of other shows, documentaries, and movies they’ve participated in or distributed.  One bad paranormal-type show might reflect poor choices and later lessons learned.  Two or three frivolous shows – not just ghost-related shows – suggest that the producers are more interested in money than credibility. (Well, hey, it’s called “show business” for a reason.)
  • If the production company is large, check the names of the individuals involved as producers.  They’re usually listed at IMDb, at Wikipedia, and in the individual episodes’ on-screen credits.
  • Remember that production companies can change, even mid-season.  Sometimes the pilot or first six shows are by one producer, and then the network changes producers.
  • If you’re not sure why the production company matters, read star Jason Gowin’s interview about Extreme Paranormal: Extremely Honest: A Conversation with Jason Gowin.

2. Check the history and reputations of the people on the show.  Was he or she hired as an expert or as an entertainer? That can indicate a lot.

  • Has the star been working in the field for years?  If there’s no evidence online, or websites might have been created to look like there’s a lengthy history, check Amazon.com or other book-related sites.  See if the person was published.
  • Double-check the resume of the each star.  I describe that process in my article, Scams and Con Artists.  Never trust vague, evasive claims.
  • Just because someone worked on one discredited show, doesn’t make him or her a fraud.  Plenty of former stars would like to be as forthright as Jason Gowin was… but they can’t.
  • Has the star been associated with a series of bad shows?  Is the star belligerently defensive of his or her work? If so, that’s a warning about his or her future shows.

However, as Jason Gowin’s interview explained, even the stars don’t have much control over the edited episode you see on  TV.

3. Check the sites (and their owners) before and after the episode airs.  A guest on TV show appeared to be terrified by the activity at her home.  (To me, it looked like she was acting, but some of these shows use re-enactments.)

After the show aired, the producers found out that the “terrified” owner had written a book.  She was waiting for the show to air to use that as a “hook” to attract publicity and book sales.  The producers were embarrassed, but the damage was already done.

  • Use a search engine using the person’s name, business, or address (in quotation marks) and words like ghost, haunted, or frightened.  See if the person was looking for help (or looking for an audience) at paranormal forums.
  • If it’s a business, look for bad reviews.  For example, if a restaurant’s food was awful and the service was worse, maybe they’re using a TV show to reinvent the restaurant as a haunted site more than a reliable place to eat.
  • On the other hand, if no one seems to own or rent the location (home or business) for very long, that’s a good sign that the paranormal activity is real.  (One example: The club at the corner of Derby and Central Streets, in Salem, Massachusetts.  I described that site in my article about great research sites for ghost hunters.)

4. Meet the stars.  Go to events where you’ll have a chance to meet, or at least listen to, the stars.  Face-to-face, you may learn a lot that research can’t reveal.  If you want to be very cautious or even skeptical, consider something like F.A.C.E. training before you talk with the stars.

  • It’s not news that I didn’t like Jason Hawes when I saw him on TV.  In person, he turned out to be one of the funniest, most interesting guys I’ve ever met.  So, my real-life opinion of Jason was 180 degrees different from my reaction to him on TV.
  • By contrast, another TV star seemed very sincere on TV, but in person… well, I’ve learned to take what he says with a grain of salt.  I like him, but his humor is so dry, I can’t tell when he’s joking, on-screen or off.
  • Another paranormal “expert” seemed really caring on TV.  In real life, he was rude.  I’d have taken it personally, but he blurted the same kinds of snide comments to other professionals.
  • On TV, Dustin Pari seemed nice. In real life, I’ve met few people as caring and sincere.  In my opinion, TV shows have never represented him as well as they could.
  • But… I could list another dozen or more ghost-related TV stars who are, in real life, exactly as they seem on TV.

My advice: Always meet the stars before reaching a conclusion about any TV show.

In most cases, you’re evaluating two aspects of each show.

  • First, if the show has credibility as a documentary, or if it’s just entertainment.  That varies with the production company and the network.
  • Second, whether the stars of the show are credible as individual researchers.  Check the real background of each “star.” (Their past involvement with paranormal research should be evident, online.) Some people are cast in TV shows because they look like what the producers want… the guy who looks great in a tight shirt, the cute girl who shrieks when startled, the gritty “just the facts, ma’am” skeptic, and so on.

Except for the rare instances where someone like Jason Gowin speaks out, no one outside the shows & production team knows what really occurred at the site.  Sometimes, even the stars are fooled by hoaxes.  Most stars I know don’t watch their own TV shows. That’s especially true when they have no input during post-production editing.

In general, they’d rather not know if they’re portrayed as idiots… not until it’s time to renew their contracts, anyway.

These four evaluation points may not prove whether a paranormal show is real or fake. Most are somewhere in-between, anyway.

That’s why many producers are calling the shows “unscripted” instead of “reality” shows.

Only watch shows that entertain you. If they turn out to be real as well, that’s a bonus.

If You Want to Be on a Paranormal TV Show

Many of my readers are eager to star in a TV series.

Here’s what you need to know.

One of the main resources for media exposure is Help a Reporter Out, aka “HARO.”

Remember, those listings are not screened or verified. You could be talking to some creepy guy with no media connections at all.

Never give out personal contact information unless you have confirmed the person’s professional references.  Call the network, production company, or publisher to verify the contact information for that person.

Got a job offer? Get everything in writing.  Make sure it’s very specific about what you’re expected to do, for how much money, and exactly when you’ll be paid.

Know the risks.  Another producer offered me a part on a new TV show.  She said it was going to be a serious, academic show.

The production company bought my plane ticket, said they’d reserved an upscale hotel room for me, and promised I’d have a full-time chauffeur during the filming.

Everything seemed ideal.

Then, right before I got on the plane, someone on the production crew blundered.  She told me the show’s real name. It was far from academic.

I cancelled.

So, make sure your contract says exactly which show you’re being filmed for.  Don’t give the production company (or the network) free rein to use your interview or appearance in any show they like.

Listen to the producers’ questions. 

  • Are they too eager to believe your story?  Suspect false sincerity.
  • Are they fishing for drama where they wasn’t any?  It’s one thing to build a good story that engages viewers.  It’s another to turn your experience into something far more extreme (and ridiculous) than it was.
  • Are they digging for something to discredit you, or portray you as someone unstable?  Of course, producers want to avoid guests that could be a liability.

Jason Gowin (from Extreme Paranormal) said this after his confidentiality agreement had expired:

Realize that nothing you do on television will be safe from manipulation… Rest assured, you are there to make money for them, not be a beacon of integrity. [Link]

Pay attention to your gut feeling.  If something doesn’t seem right, maybe it isn’t.

Don’t expect fame for yourself or your paranormal investigating team.  Most TV shows avoid guests who might profit from a TV appearance. Producers may edit out anything that might help your career.  Expect that.

A paycheck is not guaranteed.  The producers’ (and the networks’) explanation is: A paid appearance could be misunderstood as a performance.

Many TV shows will get around this by offering to pay for your travel expenses and give you a “per diem” to cover additional out-of-pocket costs.

The per diem could barely cover meals from McD’s dollar menu.  Or, the per diem might pay for a nice big TV, to watch yourself later, when you’re on the show.

Generally, producers won’t tell you how much the per diem will be, unless you insist on it in the contract. Expect a tiny per diem, and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

If you’re going to be a cast member on a series, make sure you earn enough to cover your monthly bills.

I have a firm policy of not asking friends how much they earn from their shows.  I don’t want to know.  I already feel sorry for how much privacy they’ve given up, and how much they’re away from their families.

  • According to rumors, many stars earned a low four-figures, per episode, sometimes working seven days a week and 10- to 12-hour days.
  • I’ve heard that supporting cast members (not the two or three stars) earned about $500/episode. I hope I’m wrong about that.

You can be on TV if you really want to be.

If you’ve read this far, you probably think fame is worth the risks.

The first thing to consider is your strategy. Sometimes it’s easy to get on ghost-related TV shows. Sometimes, it’s easier to get on another kind of TV show, and use that as a credential to get on the show you want.  That’s why you’ll look at opportunities far beyond paranormal shows.

Start with the following resources.

Resources

I recommend HARO lists (linked above) and sites like RealityWanted.com (Sites like that appear and disappear rapidly. If you’re not dealing directly with the network, always be sure you’re talking with a reputable company.)

Also check network-specific webpages, such as casting calls for SyFy, MTV, ABC, VH1, TLC, HGTV, BBC (UK).

(You never know when a network will take an interest in paranormal programming.  I recall an episode of a food-related TV show where people competed by preparing ghost-themed cakes… and a real paranormal investigator was among the judges.)

You may find even more casting calls at production companies’ websites, such as Pilgrim (Ghost Hunters, etc.).

References

Get advice from experts.  Don’t leap into this field unprepared!  You may have just one chance to be on (or pitch) the show of your dreams.  Get it right the first time.

  • The 2006 book, Get on TV, is still one of the most popular books on this subject.  It’s not specifically about reality shows. It teaches you how to build a career by being on a wide range of TV shows.  If being a TV star has been your life-long goal, this book is worth reading.
  • If you’re interested in reality TV and you’d like to be a guest, a star, a producer or a writer, you’ll want to read Reality TV: An Insider Guide to TV’s Hottest Market.  This 2011 book gives you a good overview plus specific advice, and earns rave reviews from people in the industry.
  • This next book is by the winner of Big Brother 10 (U.S.), Dan Gheesling:  How to Get On Reality TV.  And, since it’s a Kindle book, you can download and read it immediately.

There are other books about this subject, but those look most useful.

American Idol House, CA – Haunted or Not?

American Idol house… haunted? Probably not.

Season 10 of American Idol was hosted in a house that some contestants felt was haunted.

They complained of the following phenomena:

  • Flickering lights in the house. (Could be a wiring issue.)
  • An infestation of spiders. (I’ve lived in Hollywood. It’d be an anomaly if a Southern California home didn’t have spiders now & then.)
  • A door that blew open, even when blocked with a chair, and leaves flew into the house. (I’d start by checking weather reports for that evening. If they didn’t reveal an explanation, I’d suspect a prank.)
  • A sheet that moved on its own, and possibly flew down a corridor by itself. (This definitely sounds like a prank.)

There was only one event that sounds like something potentially paranormal. According to a report in OK! magazine (USA), some of the American Idol contestants were watching a horror movie. Contestant James Durbin decided to follow-up with a prank.

According to his report, “”I opened the door to the garage – I was trying to freak out Pia [Toscano] – and it freaked me out because something white that looked like an arm that kind of came down.”

Later, another contestant described it as a hand that fell from the ceiling.

That could be something normal, but it’s far more consistent with paranormal activity than anything else mentioned.

Supposedly, the contestants immediately moved out of the house and were given alternate housing.

Since only one incident sounded even remotely paranormal, I’m not sure why this was news. Personally, I wouldn’t investigate a house just because someone thought they saw an arm or a hand appear when a garage door was open.

It seems like at least some of the cast quickly came to their senses, too.

Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures suggested a crossover show, where his team would investigate the house and use the American Idol finalists as triggers for activity. He was turned down.

Since that could have been a ratings bonanza for Ghost Adventures while attracting more attention to American Idol, being turned down increases the likelihood that the whole thing was a prank.

Floating sheets, spiders, and flickering lights sound like something out of a very bad “scare” show on MTV.

AmericanIdolHouseGhostsThe real test will be whether the house’s new owner, Munchkin, Inc. millionaire Steven B. Dunn, encounters anything odd in the house.

Personally, I don’t think he has anything to worry about. He’s a clever entrepreneur with an MBA from Harvard and a noted art collection, so I expect the spectacular views (seen at right) were more important to Dunn that the American Idol connection or the house’s possible ghosts.

The selling price of the house also suggests that it’s not haunted. According to reports, Dunn paid over $11 million for the American Idol house.

For a 15k square foot house on two acres in Bel Air, where houses sell for about $480/square foot, $11 million is a good price in today’s market.

So, I’m not seeing any of the usual indications of a distressed, haunted property.

I’m not sure if the floating sheets and flickering lights (etc.) were a very amateurish effort at faking a haunted house. Surely, the producers could have found some bargain-basement SFX guys from actual ghost “reality” shows…?

If someone is looking for a spectacular haunted house in or near Hollywood, these are better choices:

  • Harry Houdini widow’s former residence at 2435 Laurel Canyon Boulevard. (Not #2398, as some erroneously report.) [More info.]
  • 1005 Rexford Drive, former home of several personalities including opera star Grace Moore and actor Clifton Webb, both of whom are supposed to haunt the house.
  • 1822 Camino Palermo, where Ozzie & Harriet and their family lived. Apparently, Ozzie is still haunting the house. [More info.]
  • 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive was the home of TV’s Superman, George Reeves. His death was declared a suicide, but most people close to Reeves are sure it was murder. [More info.]

For more Hollywood haunts like these, you’ll find plenty of lists online. One of the most complete is at Haunted-Places.com, but since they have the wrong Houdini address, it’s smart to fact-check any address (and story) on their long, detailed list.

I don’t think we’ll hear anything more about ghosts at that American Idol house. Except for Durbin’s report – the only one with credibility – I don’t see any reason to suspect paranormal energy at the Season 10 house.

However, the ghost reports at the Season 8 house could be more serious. Apparitions and unexplained growls are far more credible, at least among “reality” shows like this.

Are Ghost TV Shows Real?

In the past, and especially when “ghost hunting” TV shows became sensational, people asked me if the shows were real.

The simple answer is no, they’re not. They may represent what we do, as ghost hunters, but even the most authentic shows are edited to make them more entertaining.

Also, some people use ghost hunting TV shows as training for their own investigations. That can be risky, foolhardy, and — in some cases — miss the point of real ghost research.

Here are some points to keep in mind:

1. Lighthouse - photo by Horton GroupTV shows don’t represent how many houses we visit that aren’t haunted.  The majority of houses that seem haunted are either victims of high EMF or infrasound levels, or some other very normal (if odd) explanation.  Even if they are haunted, the issue is related to residual energy, not a ghost or an active entity.

2. Demons and malicious spirits are very rare.  If you think you’re being bothered by a demon, call an expert, not just the local ghost hunting club.  However, demons and evil entities appear at about 1% of the hauntings we’ve encounter… if that many.

3. Don’t let TV shows convince you that most ghosts are evil or dangerous.  They’re not. Watch the “ghostly” TV shows & movies of the past, and see how they portrayed ghosts.

Topper – the Cary Grant movies
Topper – the TV series
Ghost & Mrs. Muir – original movie with Rex Harrison
Ghost & Mrs. Muir – TV series (unavailable in Dec 09)
One Step Beyond – TV series (described as “historic accounts” of paranormal events) (Episode on YouTube (one of many))

 

4. Provoking ghosts?  Instead, look for someone like “ghostbait” from the Hollow Hill team:  Someone who, just by being there, seems to attract ghosts and hauntings.

5. ‘Tis the season!  When you’re watching “A Christmas Carol,” think how you might interpret Scrooge if you were at a location that he (and his ghostly companion) were visiting.  Would you think he’s a ghost that is scary, or needs help to “cross over”?

TV shows aren’t “reality.” (Even TV producers changed the term to “unscripted,” since they didn’t want to be sued for pretending a show was “real.”)

Don’t try to mimic TV shows or movies. Don’t take seriously any advice from paranormal TV shows. In many cases, the ghost hunter didn’t really say whatever-it-is; the advice was edited to give the audience chills.

Learn what ghostly phenomena really are. Study the history of paranormal research. Discover what psychics and ghost hunting equipment really do.

Explore haunted places with a pro. Events are a good starting point.

Never go ghost hunting alone. Always have a level-headed person with you, and — if you feel frightened during an investigation — leave at the first hint of danger.

TV shows can be fun to watch, but most of them don’t represent what we really do as ghost hunters. You’re seeing an edited version, and it was edited with a specific production goal in mind.

Real ghost hunting is different.

Bonito City Ghosts – The Real Story in New Mexico

Bonito City and its ghosts – if there are any – were featured in a 2009 ghost-related TV show.

The show’s three ghost enthusiasts visited Bonito Lake in Lincoln County, New Mexico. However, that show’s version of Bonito City’s past was very different from actual history. They may have missed the real ghosts of Lincoln County.

Martin Nelson and Bonito City, New Mexico

hotel-oldwest-illusAccording to TV shows…

Bonito City was a thriving town until the night Martin Nelson shot and killed seven innocent people at the Mayberry Hotel for no apparent reason. After that tragedy, people began to move away.  It’s as if Martin Nelson killed the town, not just some of its citizens.

Some years later, a dam was built that flooded the ghost town – and all of its buildings – to create Bonito Lake.  Soon, people reported ghosts at the lake, including the dangerous spirit of Martin Nelson.  Today, people avoid the site and whatever haunts beneath its waters.

The Truth about Bonito City

bonito-1Bonito City was one of many western towns that sprung up briefly when people were looking for gold.

Martin Nelson came to Bonito City to strike it rich as a miner, but soon realized that there wasn’t much gold.  He could do better with petty crime… and so he did.

One night, Martin Nelson was interrupted while robbing the hotel room of Dr. William H. Flynn who had recently arrived from Boston.

After a loud fight over the watch that Nelson planned to steal, Nelson shot everyone who stood between him and a quick escape… including the doctor, five members of the family that owned the hotel, and two neighbors.

Then, Nelson was shot and killed by Charlie Barry, the local Justice of the Peace.

In the years that followed, people gradually moved away from the town.  Mining near Bonito City required hard work for few results.  A few people stayed to farm, but most figured they could do better elsewhere.

By the early 20th century, Bonito City was a ghost town and conveniently located near the Rio Bonito… an ideal water source for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

After negotiating with the remaining landowners, the railroad began building a dam to store water in the newly-created Bonito Lake.

However, since they needed clean water, every building, sidewalk and fence in Bonito was torn down and removed before the city was flooded.  The graves were also moved to nearby Angus, New Mexico.

Today, Bonito Lake is a favorite vacation spot for campers, mountain bikers, fishermen, and rock hounds.

HERE’S THE COMPLETE STORY…

More Details – Bonito City and Gold Fever

goldfever1When gold was discovered in California, many people dreamed of becoming rich overnight.  All an area had to do was hint that their rivers, streams or hills contained gold, and mining towns would spring up overnight.

On this page, you’ll see  a typical newspaper article from 1883, suggesting easy money for anyone willing to join the gold rush.

Bonito City – not far from Santa Fe, New Mexico – was a cluster of tents in 1882 when “gold fever” brought aspiring miners from states such as Texas and Virginia.  For a very short time, Lincoln County was the most populated place in New Mexico.

At its peak – around the mid-1880s – Bonito City seems to have included a schoolhouse, three general stores, a saloon, a post office, a boarding house or hotel, one blacksmith and one lawyer.

(Most people agree that there was no church in Bonito City.  The local minister, Rev. John Henry Skinner, was also a farmer and later a grain store merchant.  He and his wife built a church… but not in Bonito City.)

Martin Nelson, Amateur Thief

bonito-3The “ghost story” of Bonito City had its roots in 1885.  In a nutshell, it was a robbery that went sour.

Martin Nelson was like many young men who dreamed about getting rich overnight.  He claimed to be a miner, but no one recalls him actually working.

Some said that he’d been in Bonito City for four years.  Others claimed he’d drifted into town the night of the murders.  The truth is probably somewhere in between, and Nelson seems to have boarded with a couple of families including the Mayberrys.

Soon after Martin Nelson came to town, robberies were reported.  No one was sure who was responsible, and the thefts were generally small.

However, at about 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning, May 5th, 1885, the thief – Martin Nelson – made a fatal error.  He decided to steal a watch belonging to Dr. R. E. Flynn, who’d recently arrived from Boston and was staying with the Mayberrys.

Dr. Flynn woke up and raised the alarm, bringing the Mayberry family to his room.  Panicking, Nelson shot and killed the doctor, and then began shooting the Mayberry family.

John Mayberry, Sr. and his two sons, John Jr. and Eddie (alternately referred to as Robert), died instantly.

At first, Mrs. Mayberry was only wounded. She and her daughter, Nellie (about 14 years old), ran down the stairs of the boarding house, attempting to escape.  Nelson shot Mrs. Mayberry a second time, killing her, and the bullet also struck Nellie.

Nellie pleaded for her life, and Nelson agreed not to shoot her, as long as she promised to attend his hanging.  She promised, and he let her live.

(In another version of the story, Martin Nelson was secretly engaged to Nellie, and he was stealing the doctor’s watch so the young couple could afford to elope.)

Meanwhile, saloon owner Pete Nelson (no relation to Martin) heard the shots as he was cleaning up for the night.  As he entered Mayberry House, Martin Nelson killed him, too.

By then, a large number of people had gathered outside Mayberry House.  Nelson was trapped, and remained there until about 7 a.m. when he tried to escape out the back door of the building.

Unfortunately, grocer Herman Beck (reported as Herman Breck in some stories) was waiting for him.  Beck was killed instantly by a single shot from Martin Nelson’s rifle.

Martin Nelson got as far as the street when Charlie Berry, a Justice of the Peace, shot and killed the thief.

(Other versions of the story include a posse chasing Nelson to Littleton Canyon, where he was shot.  That seems more credible.  In 1933, the bodies were dug up and moved to another cemetery when the city was flooded.  Those who saw the remains of Martin Nelson said that his green felt hat was still preserved, and it had several bullet holes in it.)

Martin Nelson’s victims were buried in the town’s cemetery, atop a hill.  Nelson was buried outside the cemetery, in a flat area near where Bonito Lake is, today.

Nelson’s body was thrown into a rough pine box, face down, and buried with his body pointing to the west.  Some said that this was so he’d never rest.  Others said that it prevented him from haunting the town.

(The idea that he’d never rest is more likely.  In that era, bodies were usually buried facing up, and pointing toward the east so they could rise and join Christ at the Second Coming.)

Bonito City’s Decline

ghosttown-oldwest-illusBonito City’s population boom lasted less than about 20 years.  Some miners turned to farming or other work.  The majority rushed to find “easy money” in California and elsewhere.

By 1900, Bonito’s ore – what little there was – had played out.  The entire population of Lincoln County was just 1,065, and most of them were farmers and merchants building communities in towns like Carrizoza and Runnels.  Others worked for the railroad, which brought new people to New Mexico every day.

Bonito’s location was beautiful, but isolated.  Some records suggest that just two people lived in Bonito City (sometimes called Bonita City, or just Bonito) by 1910.  The town’s post office formally closed in 1911, and by 1920, Bonito City was just a store and seven or eight houses.

In the late 1920s, the Southern Pacific Railroad sought permission to dam Bonito Creek to create a reservoir.

Bonito City was the ideal location for the new lake.  Once the railroad negotiated ownership of the land, it hired workers to remove everything that remained of Bonito City.

One Final Journey for Martin Nelson

By 1933, the lake had filled and the water level was approaching the graves of Nelson and his victims.

Members of the Pfingsten family – long-time residents of Bonito City – helped to dig up the bodies for reinterment.

Dr. Flynn’s casket was moved to Texas, where his family lived.  The rest of Nelson’s victims were given new caskets and placed in a common grave in Angus, New Mexico, not far from Bonito Lake.

Martin Nelson was also reburied, east of the Angus Cemetery.  His body is in a grave at a hill, about 50 feet above the road.  The plot is overgrown, but it’s marked with a concrete tombstone.

By the 1950s, steam engines were dinosaurs in the railroad world.  Bonito Lake was sold and it is now a popular recreational site described in one travel guide as “a fisherman’s paradise.”

If You Visit Bonito City

spurs-illusBonito Lake covers about 60 acres at an elevation of 7300 feet.  According to the book, Fly Fishing in Southern New Mexico, it’s “one of the most heavily stocked lakes in the state,” and has “very high use by bait fishermen.”

The Rockhounds Guide to New Mexico recommends panning for gold along the nearby Rio Bonito.  You probably won’t find any gold nuggets, but most New Mexico rivers contain at least some gold dust, and the Bonito is one of the best for that.

If you’re interested in mountain biking, you’ll like Forest Road 107 near Bonito Lake.

Camping is available at the lake from April 1st through November 30th.  For more information, or to make reservations, call 575.336.4157.

The lake is open for fishing – but only from the shore – from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.  You can expect to catch rainbow and brook trout, as well as carp.

Remember that swimming, wading, and boating are not allowed in or on the lake.

For additional information about Bonito Lake and vicinity, check your library for books such as 100 Hikes in New Mexico, Frommer’s New Mexico, and New Mexico’s Wilderness Areas.

Ghost Hunting around Bonito City

Bonito Lake is about 12 miles northwest of Ruidoso.  Take NM highway 48 north to Angus, and turn left on NM 37.  After a mile, turn left again onto Forest Road (FR) 107 (County Rd. C-9). The lake is ahead about three miles.

You can camp at or near the lake; as of late 2009, campsite fees are $14/night, but there are no electrical hookups at campsites.  [Link] If you prefer a motel, you’ll find several around Ruidoso and Capitan.

If you watched the Extreme Paranormal episode at Bonito Lake, keep these points in mind:

  • Despite what you saw on TV, swimming, boating and wading are not permitted at Bonito Lake.  The water is a source of drinking water for nearby communities.
  • Never go diving alone in unfamiliar waters.  (Though it looked like the investigator was alone, at least one underwater cameraman was probably filming him.)  It’s particularly stupid to dive in unfamiliar waters, alone and after dark.
  • If you feel as if something might be pulling you underwater, it’s probably a plant, an old fishing line or other debris.  Get out of the water.  Don’t risk getting further entangled in it.  (And always carry a knife to cut yourself loose, if necessary.)
  • If you’re on the water and you see lightning, get to shore immediately.
  • The floating “circle” of candles looked like a Christmas display in Florida (without Mickey), but it had nothing to do with genuine ghost research.
  • Provoking the ghost of a murderer is not a good idea, especially in an isolated location.

The Real Ghosts of Lincoln County

If I was in Lincoln County, New Mexico, these are the potential haunts that I’d research.

  • The Bonito City area (not the lake) – Some or all of the town’s land belonged to the Mescalero Indian Reservation.  A former resident, Mrs. Pinkie Bourne Skinner, talked about Indians peering into her house.  I’d check to see if there had been a Native settlement somewhere near the lake; stolen lands are often very good for paranormal research.
  • bonito-torreonThe Lincoln County War – I’d check several sites of drama and tragedy, including: the Torreon (shown at right), Blazer’s Mill (including two cemeteries off Rte. 70) where Billy the Kid was among those involved in the shootout, and the site of the Fritz Ranch, which has additional reasons to be haunted.
  • Fritz Ranch – According to Wikipedia:After Brewer’s death, the Regulators elected McNab as their captain. On April 29, 1878, Sheriff Peppin was directing a posse that included the Jesse Evans Gang and the Seven Rivers Warriors. They engaged in a shootout with the Regulators McNab, Saunders, and Frank Coe at the Fritz Ranch. McNab died in the gunfire, Saunders was badly wounded, and Frank Coe captured.The next day, the Seven Rivers members Tom Green, Charles Marshall, Jim Patterson and John Galvin were killed in Lincoln, and although the Regulators were blamed, this was never proven. Frank Coe escaped custody some time after his capture, allegedly with the assistance of Deputy Sheriff Wallace Olinger, who gave him a pistol.The day after McNab’s death the Regulator known as the “iron clad” took up defensive positions in the town of Lincoln, trading shots with Dolan men as well as US Army cavalry. “Dutch Charley” Kruling, a Dolan man, was wounded by rifle fire by George Coe. By shooting at government troops, the Regulators gained a new set of enemies. On May 15, the Regulators tracked down and captured the Seven Rivers gang member Manuel Segovia, who is believed to have shot McNab. They shot him during an alleged escape. Around the time of Segovia’s death, the Regulator “iron clad” gained a new member, a young Texas cowpoke named Tom O’Folliard.
  • Angus Cemetery – Communal graves, such as where Martin Nelson’s victims are buried, are often active.  Rootsweb.com has a page listing the most important marked graves and where they are now: Bonito Cemetery webpage.  At Angus Cemetery, look for the following murder victims from the Bonito City tragedy: Peter Nelson, Herman Beck, John Mayberry (aged 17 years), Edward Mayberry (aged 7 years), and Mr. & Mrs. W. F. Mayberry.  See other graves — marked and unmarked — about two miles below where the dam is. In addition, there’s an extra name on the group headstone: R. F. Oswald.  (I’m fairly certain that’s the son of Leo & Alice J. Bragg Oswald, a child who died many years later in Bonita City.  His grave was probably moved when the others’ were, but it’s still odd that he’s in the same plot.)  And, of course, if I could find Martin Nelson’s grave, I’d check it for EMF, EVP, and so on.(I’m still amazed that the show didn’t include those locations.)
  • fortstanton-lynchingFort Stanton – This is the Lincoln County site that really interests me.  Besides being the first World War II internment camp, the fort — now open to the public — was the site of two lynchings:  In the spring of 1883,  13 men lynched a fellow soldier (an  alleged gunman).  However, according to the newspaper report (at right) just one soldier confessed and stood trial; his 12 accomplices deserted. The lynching of William S. Pearl wasn’t the first at Fort Stanton; on 10 July 1876, outlaw Jose Segura was also lynched at or near the fort.  When history seems to repeat itself, that can indicate residual energy.  It’s worth investigating.

It’s always fun to check locations with rumored ghosts.  The Martin Nelson story – while not especially unusual – is chilling. In addition, the lake setting presented something unusual for TV.

However, the victims’ graves – and the murderer’s – are just five miles away. Billy the Kid‘s two graves (yes, two of them) are just a daytrip from Bonito Lake.  And, since there are numerous other sites of violence and tragedy nearby, there seem to be far richer haunts than one town’s off-limits water supply.

Well… unless you’re filming a really campy, over-the-top TV show, that is. (Note: The guys filming the show in question weren’t responsible for the scripts or editing of the show. In fact, it sounds like a nightmarish experience for them.)

References (in addition to the links in this article)

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