Anatomy of an 'urban myth'.
( i )
“Are you okay down there?”
I called to Jeremy who had absailed down the steep incline beneath the road and was shining his flashlight through the gaping window frame of the wrecked school bus wedged nose first in the ravine below.
“This is really creepy, man. You'd better check it out for yourself.”
I glanced back at Miss Scarlett and the others who stood silently ringed in the darkened roadway behind me.
Miss Scarlett and Jeremy's wife, Melissa, shot a look between themselves as Yvette, Manny and Scott kept a safe distance, snapping photo's and peering nervously into the abyss. Down below Jeremy kept muttering the phrase 'seriously creepy' over and over to himself as the shadows of the branches leaped in his flashlight beam and I couldn't help wondering what had brought us here, grown adults one and all, to this desolate arroyo in the middle of the night.
“I'll go.” Melissa grabbed the rope with both hands. “If not, I'll never hear the end of it.”
Above: The wrecked bus - seen from the road.
( ii )
Anglo-Saxon history in the United States of America is little more than skin deep. All too often the locations with the most haunted reputations turn out to be drab tourist attractions like Southern California's 'Whaley House', whose ghostly atmosphere has long since been stripped away by the rigors of the commercial spook trade. In most small towns the 'haunted' houses are bland, derelicts containing nothing more gut wrenching than the occasional dead rat strung up by the older kids to scare and impress their friends and siblings. Few places come close to emulating the dark histories that cling to the gothic manses, ruined castles and houses of the damned of old Europe.
Accordingly I was disinclined to take the stories I'd heard about the canyon seriously. But the stories kept on coming and in the end I figured it was time to bust out my flashlight and find out what all the fuss was about. Black Star is located in an isolated, densely thicketed region of the Santa Ana mountains, an area closed to automobile traffic and beyond the reach of police, ambulances or rescue crews who refuse to go past the locked gate at the base of the valley. As there are explicit warnings posted on the net not to visit the zone without carrying a weapon or travelling in a group it made sense to call up a few old friends, a loosely knit posse of fellow esoteric thrill seekers affectionately known as the SoCal Demon Youth, arranging to rendezvous at the gate just before sundown to conduct a thorough investigation of the terrain by the light of a full Californian moon.
As above: Black Star Canyon - the way into the zone
So below: SoCal Demon Youth movement left to right - Jeremy, Melissa, Self, Scarlett, Manny and Yvette
As this seminal account spread across cyberspace the half glimpsed, hooded outlines were embroidered to become the ghosts of 'Spanish conquistadors' and conflated with rumours that the canyon had been a meeting place for a 'Satanic cult' back in the eighties. These tales of robed figures celebrating secret, moonlit rituals caused some to hint darkly at the presence of the Ku Klux Klan, a slander further fuelled by reports of hikers glimpsing distant bonfires blazing in the canyon. Wild yarns began to circulate concerning 'Texas Chainsaw' style cannibals predating on unwary members of the public, allegedly with the full knowledge and collusion of the authorities. The canyon came to be viewed by local UFO enthusiasts as a 'window area' with speculation over the curious nocturnal lights giving rise to fanciful notions that the site harboured a secret military installation and/or a subterranean extraterrestrial base. Others insisted the place was haunted by a demon named "Black Star" or that spectral lion headed figures roamed the hills while some believed the locale to be guarded by malevolent native American spirits
There is no doubt that in times gone by the canyon, referred to under Spanish and later Mexican rule as 'Cañada de los Indios', was a fertile picking ground for the Gabrielino - Tongva people who took shelter here during the long, sweltering summers. Numerous artefacts, including pothole grinding rocks have been found in the vicinity of their former settlement in the upper reaches of the canyon, an area known today as 'hidden ranch'. The steep gorge was comparatively safe from grizzly bears and mature oak trees provided a welcome source of shade as well as the acorns that formed a staple part of the Tongva diet. Unfortunately, according to an account by one of the early settlers, J.E. 'Judge' Pleasants, the Indians were also “very fond of horseflesh”, a habit that eventually lead to their undoing. In 1831, after a series of raids on local farmsteads, an armed conflict broke out between the Tongva rustlers and a party of fur trappers from New Mexico, a battle that has been described as one of the bloodiest clashes in the region's history. The trappers, lead by a certain William Wolfskill and armed with long rifles ringed the Indian settlement and picked off it's inhabitants with ease. How many died that day has not been recorded but it is clear that after this brutal incident the Tongva folk ceased to exert a significant presence in the mountains.
Following the massacre Wolfskill took control of the land, bringing his horticultural skills to bear on the arid terrain. After his passing the canyon fell into the hands of rancher James Irvine before being incorporated into the Cleveland National Forest in the late 1880s. The canyon owes its current name, not to some obscure demonic entity, but to the Black Star Coal Mining Company that was established in 1879 after deposits were found in the area. The mine's 900 foot tunnel produced a daily yield of up to ten tons of medium- to low-grade coal which was hauled to Anaheim or Los Angeles by mule team for a few years before the pit fell into disuse when a survey found the company was operating illegally on land belonging to the Irvine Ranch.
Beyond the locked gate abandoned shafts and corroded mining equipment bear testimony to the discontinued operation. Mounds of low-grade coal remain scattered on the canyon floor, only half hidden by the brush. After walking down the tar road for approximately one kilometer we struck off the trail towards the river. There were mountain lion tracks in the drying mud and further up the wash a place where the beast had made a kill.
As above, so below: The hunter and it's prey
( iv )
A hush hung over the gorge, the early evening stillness broken only by the occasional gust of wind. These sudden, violent breezes that blew themselves out as soon as they came seemed to be a natural feature of the canyon's topography but it was easy to see how they might give the impression of rushing, airy presences to those under the influence of illegal intoxicants. As we walked we began to recount episodes from the area's local lore to amuse ourselves. One of these yarns, probably the earliest ghost story linked to the canyon was familiar to Miss Scarlett and Manny who had heard it as a children. The tale, originating from the time of the first Spanish settlers, concerns a terrifying apparition known as "La Llorona" ( pronounced "la yo-ro-na") or”The Wailer” who was thought to live in the creek and have the head of a horse. This grotesque mythic being has been associated with dozens of different locations spread cross Southern California, New Mexico and the Southwest and has been used by Mexican mothers to scare their bambinos into submission since the time of the Aztecs.
The basic story is always the same. A beautiful but vain and selfish widow murders her own children by drowning them in a creek so that she might run away with her wealthy lover. When her lover subsequently rejects her she commits suicide only to find herself condemned to wander the earth for all eternity, horribly transformed, incapable of rest until she can retrieve the bones of her children that were borne away by the stream. Unable to find her own offspring, she is prone to stealing the souls of any kids she comes across. In a close parallel to the Irish Banshee tradition it is commonly believed that if you see “La Llorona” or hear her mournful cries, then you or someone close to you will die within the week.
As above: Moonrise in Black Star - Manny, Yvette, Melissa, Scott, Miss Scarlett and myself
( v )
A silvery effulgence grew along the eastern rim of the canyon as the moon made her presence felt, its wan light falling on the remains of the school bus that had found its final resting place at the base of the incline. Miss Scarlett shimmied down the rope after Melissa and I followed, switching on the camera's starlight filter. The bus lay in the dark heart of the canyon, at the centre of a web of conjecture and nascent urban folklore. According to various sources on the internet the accident happened during a school 'nature outing' but whether this is true or not is impossible to verify. It has the ring of myth about it and there are no names, dates or lists of casualties to confirm the oft-repeated claim that 'all the kids died'. Still, the crash site is an eerie enough location, especially in the dead of night and it was round about now that the 'orbs' began to show up. Those pesky li'l digital artefacts, beloved of amateur ghost busters the world over do have a habit of materializing on your memory card when the going gets weird and now they were out in force.
“Told you this place was creepy”, muttered Jeremy, reviewing the stills.
“Probably just the dust we kicked up abseiling down here,” I offered unhelpfully, taking in the interior of the wrecked vehicle, the gutted seats and cracked, grime encrusted windows. There were stories about folk seeing pale faces peering from these windows or even tiny, hands banging franticly against the glass but nothing quite so phantasmagorical presented itself to us now. Just a few stray blips of light on the digital camera that could be readily explained away.
“Let's get out of here, okay?” I glanced up to see Melissa peering in through a window on the opposite side. The girls had clambered down slightly before me and had had proportionately more time to get themselves spooked but there was no denying the atmosphere surrounding the wrecked vehicle was thick enough to cut with a buck knife.
Miss Scarlett appeared from the blackness behind her. “I get the feeling something doesn't want us here.”
What do you mean 'something'?”
Then a low rumble came from the darkened ravine below and we all froze. It took a moment to realize that it was just the reverberation of an aeroplane passing overhead, its roar distorted by the curious acoustics of the gorge. For a moment the spell was broken.
“Maybe you're right” Jeremy shrugged. “C'mon.”” He steadied the rope as Melissa started back up towards the road, tail lights twinkling through the leaves as the 747 came in to land on the far side of the mountains. Raising my flashlight to take a last look at the bus's interior I noticed a huge yellow spider suspended a hand's breadth from my face. Recoiling a little hastily I followed the others. Orbs I can handle but I still have a 'thing' about spiders, even after all these years.
So below: Black Star 'orbs'
“I think we're being watched,” murmured Yvette.
“I've been getting that too,” added Miss Scarlett as we started on down the trail. “Ever since we left the bus.”
“Like eyes on the back of one's neck,” Scott agreed, glancing about himself uneasily. The moon was out now but that only seemed to make the shadows between the trees deeper than before.
“Well, you know what they say? When you know you're being watched there's only one thing you can do...”
“What's that?” Miss Scarlett shot me a questioning look as I took off my hat and straightened my hair.
“Try to look your best.”
There were lights visible through the trees up ahead. At least one of the canyon's inscrutable residents seemed to be at home but I, for one, wasn't in any hurry to meet them.
As above, so below: Midnight at 'Hidden Ranch'
( vi )
“What the f**k?” Jeremy stopped in his tracks, staring wide-eyed into the dark.
“Ssshh. They'll hear you.” Melissa and the others paused beside him, gazing uncertainly through the trees.
“But what the f***k is that thing?”
“Looks like a mini-golf course.”
“Yeah. It does. But why would anyone build something like this all the way out here ?”
“I guess they just wanted to be able to play a few rounds in private. They obviously went to a whole lot of trouble to keep folk away.” I nodded towards the perimeter fence surrounding the curiously well appointed course.
“But that's ridiculous. If that's really all they're hiding. The least I was expecting was a marijuana plantation...” Jeremy cast about himself with the flashlight, searching in vain for something more incriminating.
“Maybe they play in the nude ?” suggested Miss Scarlett.
“Lord knows there are some pretty strange folk in this world.”
“Yeah. But mini-golf?”
“Best not to think about it too carefully.” Shaking my head I turned back towards the road which wound away into the foothills surrounding 'hidden ranch', still half hoping that there might be something more to this mystery after all.
As above, so below: The silo
The 'orbs' seemed to swirl more thickly about us as we approached an abandoned storage silo at the top of the road. I knew the 'orbs' were a purely photographic phenomenon yet their occurrence displayed troubling characteristics.
As above, so below: Orb city
They seemed more plentiful when the air was calm and the environment untouched, growing proportionately less frequent depending on how many human beings entered the frame, almost as if they were consciously fleeing us. Dust particles would surely behave in the opposite manner and digital artefacting doesn't explain why they showed up on our old fashioned analogue cameras too. Supernatural or otherwise, the curious blips of light seemed to follow us on the last leg of our journey across the rough hillside, keeping us company as we took a trail towards the very top of the canyon. The jet aircraft overflying us seemed more frequent too.
“John Wayne International Airport. I think,” ventured Miss Scarlett.
“No s**t! Really?”
She nodded. “It's on the map.”
“How come I didn't know that?”
“You didn't look.”
I nodded slowly as an awful thought occurred to me. “Nah. It can't be...”
I shook my head. “ You don't think they mistook the airport for an underground UFO base, do you? I mean. Folk aren't that dumb? Are they?” Yet it all made a kind of sense. The way the jet engines had reverberated in the bowels of the valley as if the sound were coming from the ground instead of the air. The way the lights had twinkled through the treetops before vanishing behind the mountaintops and then there were those erratic gusts of wind. Gazing up from the road, from the depths of the gorge, with the trees forming a natural diffusion pattern it was just possible that such a sight may have been misapprehended. I recalled how in one Britain's better known UFO cases, the Rendlesham forest episode, a squad of soldiers had seemed, based on evidence accrued during a similar walk through, to have mistaken a lighthouse beam intermittently flickering through the trees for the real thing. If trained soldiers could make such a cock up then why not kids? Especially kids on drugs.
( vii )
Realizing from the frequency of the planes that morning was fast approaching we decided to call it a night and started glumly back towards our cars. At least it was all downhill which was some consolation.
“Cheer up,” said Miss Scarlett. “Reality is only maintained by consensus, remember?”
“What's that got to do with anything?”
“I thought I saw a UFO when I was a kid. Me and my friends watched it hopping up and down and doing all kinds of weird, aerodynamically impossible manouvers. It got so out of order we ended up calling our science teacher and telling him to look out of his window..”
“And then what?”
Scarlett shrugged. “He told us it was Jupiter. After that it stopped moving and went back to being an ordinary planet again.”
“All in the mind of the beholder, I guess.”
“Still,” said Jeremy, “I can't help wishing this place had been hiding something a little more...well, dramatic...”
“I dunno. A polar bear or a space time portal or something.” Jeremy had just been catching up with 'LOST' on DVD and it had probably skewed his expectations. He shrugged, starting down the last stretch of road towards the locked gate and the zone perimeter.
“Well, that sure looks like a penguin,” offered Melissa, nodding towards one of the shadowy fence posts that marched along the verge beside us. And it did look like a penguin. Short and slightly hunched with one protruding edge resembling a beak. Or perhaps a cowl.
I glanced back at the wall of the canyon but it was unavoidable. The shadows of those fence posts cast by the lights of a car idling at the gate might well have resembled a row of tiny hooded figures walking in single file down the trail. And of course their movements would seem to speed up as the car turned and drove away.
“Game over. Case closed.”
“Pity,” Jeremy nodded. “I had such high hopes for this place.”
“Does that really explain everything?”piped Yvette. “It doesn't, does it?”
“It probably started with the fence posts. All the rest was Chinese whispers.”
“What about the cannibals. Y'know, the chainsaw guys?”
Just then the roar of an engine split the morning silence and a big, frightening looking pick up that had been parked outside the gate abruptly flicked on it's headlights along with a second blinding rack of overheads, stereo blasting Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man'.
“I wish you hadn't mentioned that.”
For a moment we stood like rabbits, caught dead bang in the beams.
“Hail , my redneck brethren.” Jeremy took a half step forward, raising one hand. Then the pick up's driver abruptly threw his vehicle into reverse.
“I think we scared him,”murmured Scott. And we had. Skidding hard about the truck sped away , burning rubber back towards the nearest town.
“I hope we haven't started something” mused Melissa.”We must've look pretty bad, coming down the path dressed in black like this. He probably didn't see us until he turned his lights on. Probably got the shock of his life.”
“Just doing our bit to perpetuate the cycle.”
I smiled. It's nice to know you're giving something back.