A phantom carriage hurtling across the Mills College campus. A radio in an Alameda home that changes stations of its own accord. An empty military uniform wandering the Berkeley Marina at midnight.
Even when it's not almost Halloween, Karen Zimmerman is on the lookout for ghosts. All year, the Alameda resident visits the sites of alleged hauntings, bearing a digital recording device in hopes of capturing "EVP," or electronic voice phenomena, the apparent sounds of otherworldly voices. They're inaudible during the actual hunt, she says, but evident on playback.
She says the device she carried while touring the Pardee Home Museum (672 11th St., Oakland, Oakland) seemed to pick up voices saying "Stop it," "Get out," and "Go." Might it have been members of the Pardee family who inhabited this 1869 Victorian, the last of whom died in 1981? If so, which parts of them remain?
"Ghosts are earthbound spirits. ... A true spirit has crossed over and is just visiting. I feel that we are energy," Zimmerman said. "Energy can be created or transformed, but never destroyed. Ghosts and spirits are just people's energy in a different form. They are nothing to fear."
She should know. As revealed in her new book Ghost Stories and Legends of Alameda, Berkeley, and Oakland, Zimmerman had her first encounter with what she believes to be ghosts in a Pennsylvania attic at age four. She started a ghost-hunting club in high school, and while attending college, lived in a house where "weird balls of light" hovered and windows opened and shut by themselves.
The book details visits to such sites as the Claremont Resort and Spa, Alameda's New Zealander Restaurant and Pub, and the USS Hornet. For Zimmerman, the most haunting local ghost story — in more ways than one — involves Roberta "Bibi" Lee, a UC Berkeley undergrad slain in 1984. Lee and her boyfriend, who was convicted of the crime, lived at Cal's Lothlorien co-op, where residents told Zimmerman about mysterious music and mysterious lights in Lee's former room.
"The haunting starts after the murder of a coed," Zimmerman said. "The details of that murder, the killer's subsequent confession, and the lingering doubts about his guilt were fascinating. The murder happened in the Eighties, so there are people around who remember."
Finding Berkeley's ghosts wasn't easy. "Berkeley was a tough nut to crack. I couldn't get a call back from the historical society. ... People I tried to talk to claimed there are no haunted places in Berkeley. Berkeley people are into metaphysics, but seem to want no truck with ghosts. Oakland was a little tough, too. ... In Alameda, there are a lot of haunted locations and people will talk about them openly."
Zimmerman will discuss her work during the Pardee Home Museum's Halloween Gala on Sunday, October 31. (The museum is also planning a series of ghost tours; for information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.) So what do ghosts want? "Many just want some attention, to be acknowledged," Zimmerman said. 2 p.m.; $5, under 12 free. PardeeHome.org