The House of Restless Spirits (located at 1008 Euclid Street - Santa Monica, CA) is without a doubt our big yard haunt discovery of 2007. Of course, it's not really a "discovery" - the haunt has been around for several years - it's just the first time it has flown onto our radar. Shame on us for not stumbling upon it sooner.
Much as we love The House at Haunted Hill, House of Restless Spirits may be even more worthy of designation as the true heir to the shuttered Hallowed Haunting Grounds, which gave up the ghost back in 2005. Like the Haunting Grounds, House of Restless Spirits is a walk-around (not a walk-through) that carefully utilizes darkness and shadows to create an aura of mystery, puctuated at well-timed intervals with suddenly observable phenomena that were previously undisclosed to the eye. The effect is hypnotic and fascinating - at a few points even genuinely frightening.
On first approach, the House appears to be nothing much. It's dark and a little old-fashioned, but there seems to be little in the way of decoration to explain the crowd milling around out front. You see dancing fireflies and some nicely timed flashes of lightening, accompanied by deep rolling thunder, but that's about it.
Look closer, however, and you will see a burial mound in the front yard. Keep your eyes peeled until they adjust to the dim illumination from a lantern hanging on a shovel, and you will see the mound move as if something underneath is waking from its deathly slumber - and then the shovel and lantern tilt as if disturbed by the rumbling.
The caw of a crow catches your ears, and you can just barely make out a silhouetted form on a "condemned property" sign. Beady red eyes stare out of the darkness, and the head rolls with each new vocalization.
In the background, a floating candelabra is visible through a front window in the house. On the roof, a dark opening to a second storey or an attic sporadically exudes dimly visible ectoplasm - usually after the flashes of lightening.
Best of all, as a gush of fog wafts from the bushes toward the sidewalk, glowing footprints advance from the house toward the front gate - which suddenly rattles and creaks under the hand of an invisible spirit!
All this is seen as you move slowly along the sidewalk, parallel to the wooden fence around the yard. Last night, a "regulator" was guarding the driveway, allowing foolish mortals to pass in small groups so that they might walk around the house and examine its horrors more closely. As with the Haunting Grounds, the presence of a crowd is actually an advantage, forcing you to wait your turn - during which time you see the sights we have described, sights that you might have overlooked had you simply rushed through unobstructed.
Moving up the driveway, you're first stop is near the porch, where a sign relates the house's haunted history: during an influenza epidemic in the 1920s, a sea captain buried his dead family in the back yard, then boarded a ship during a storm and was never seen again.
In the flickering light you will find it hard to make out the written words, but no matter. Look at the barrel of water below the sign, and you will see the captain's ghostly, glowing face rising out of the water and disappearing back into the depths.
Next is a window into the house, where a doll's head turns as its former owner - a little girl - manifests as a ghost. Most eerie of all, her chalkboard displays a simple arithmetic problem - the chalky numerals suddenly rearrange themselves into the plaintive words, "I'm here" as the ghost tries to make contact with those looking in on her.
On the back porch, an empty rocking chair creaks. A baby's pram occasionally reveals a phantom inhabitant. Best of all, the mother's spirit can be seen exiting and entering the back door, visible only as a shadow on the wall.
The back yard is filled with tombstones of those who died in the epidemic. The darkness here - broken by sputtering candlelight - has a powerful effect, the flickering shadows creating the illusion of movement - until you realize it is no illusion. The restless spirits truly are shifting the stones above their graves.
A shed in the back has its door cracked open. Look in if you dare. If you see only blackness, wait and your patience will be rewarded: you will see the glowing ghost of a long-dead inhabitant.
A walk around the shed is filled with eerie sounds that will touch your tingling senses like a ghostly hand on the back of your neck. Around the back you will encounter a coffin whose boney occupant is apparently trying to get out. Again, the movements are so slow that you may miss them in the dancing candlelight, so take care to observe...
Looking over the back yard provides a clear view into a back window of the house. You have heard the notes of a harp floating on the air; now you will see the phantom musician appear and disappear at the instrument, while paintings on the wall rock back and forth and gossamer curtains billow in the ethereal breeze.
Keep a sharp watch as you begin return toward the front: you may catch a glimpse of a ghost in the upper back window. Passing along the side of the house, you will definitely see the old sea captain's face again - the same face you saw in the water barrel - this time fading in and out of a mirror seen through a side window.
After passing a growling black cat, you encounter the final supernatural manifestation. A side window offers a closer view of the floating candelabra you saw from out front. In the same room, a small statue opens its eyes and its voice recites a melancholy, morbid piece of poetry by Emily Dickinson:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.
With those words echoing in your mind, you return to the front sidewalk, and if you have not been sufficiently spooked by the experience to feel your blood run cold - well, then, there is simply no hope for you.
The effects are impressive, even amazing - by turns startling and subtle. The phantom footsteps and the ghostly chalkboard are technical marvels that we had not previously encountered. The rattling gate may not be a technical tour-de-force, but it is incredibly effective, especially because you assume that someone in the crowd is rattling the gate - until you are standing in front of it yourself and hear it rattle on its own.
Many of the other effects are more familiar, but they are all nicely arranged. In particular, the back yard cemetery will have your eyes squinting in the flickering candlelight while you wonder whether you really are seeing what you think you are seeing.
This elusive, mysterious quality helps set House of Restless Spirits apart from the competition. The haunt is not filled with spectacular, colorful effects that instantly dazzle the eye. It draws you in more slowly and subtly with its convincing depiction of a haunted house. Ghosts may or may not exist, but if they do, one suspects this is how they would manifest themselves to the living.
There are many fine yard haunts in Los Angeles. Some are fun; some are scary - but few are genuinely eerie. Without a single masked monster jumping out at you, the House of Restless Spirits manages to evoke a subtle chill on your spine: you may not be leaping out of your skin, but you will feel your flesh creep.
The House of Restless Spirits will be open from 7:00pm until 11:00pm on Halloween night.