Discovering the “Ghosts” of Paramount Ranch
Let’s get this out of the way- the popular new ‘Ghosts’ of Paramount Ranch tour, a free hour-long tour offered by the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, is not particularly spooky. In fact, the scariest thing I encountered the evening I went was when Park Ranger Scott Sharaga, who spearheaded the event, asked the rambunctious crowd if they had ever had a ghostly encounter. A middle-aged man, who self-identified as a paranormal investigator, raised his hand and began to recount all the ghosts he had discovered during his investigations. He had even caught the elusive, internet-created Slender Man on camera! A little boy standing next to me tugged at his mother’s hand, his eyes wide with fright.
“Mom, Slender Man isn’t real, is he?”
“I don’t know, honey,” his mom replied.
And thus, a child’s nightmare was born!
While the tour was short on ghostly tales, it did offer a fascinating glimpse of the history of the lovely 326-acre Paramount Ranch. Famed for its “Western Town” set and hiking trails, the ranch is nestled in the mountains of Agoura Hills, just off the 101.
The ranch’s Hollywood history formally began in 1927, when Paramount Studios bought 2600 acres of the old Rancho Las Virgenes. “Ghost Towns of Filmdom to Rise Near Calabasas!” The Los Angeles Times proclaimed, as Paramount moved its old outdoor sets, hundreds of livestock, and resident ranch-hands and cowboys from their old ranch in North Hollywood to their new digs. By 1929, a reporter visiting for the New York Times marveled:
On its vast acreage are assembled many other things never seen before on a Western ranch. Swiss villages adjoin tropical hunting camps and hobnob with frontier trading posts. Trenches and barbed wire entanglements scar part of its brown earth. A Western village slumbers peacefully under the warm sun, and minarets of oriental palaces reach up for the blue of the sky… Main buildings, aside from those erected as film sets, are the ranch house, a big bunkhouse, shops for the electrical carpentering and painting equipment.
Over the next two and a half decades, dozens of classic movies were partially filmed at the ranch. These included The Virginian, starring Gary Cooper; Sign of the Cross, with Claudette Colbert; Blonde Venus, starring Marlene Dietrich; Klondike Annie, Nothing Sacred, Ball of Fire, The Island of Lost Souls, Bwana Devil, and countless Westerns.
Paramount sold the ranch in the 1950s, during the final decline of the old studio system. This allowed the evolution of the ranch’s most infamous period. In 1956, a two-mile race track was erected on the property, the outlines of which can still be seen today. Thousands of people attended its inaugural races, and the track became known for its hairpin turns and lack of safety precautions. These dangerous conditions culminated in one deadly weekend in 1957. According to Sharaga:
The final weekend had three serious crashes- two of them fatal. The first fatality happened on a Saturday when a driver lost control of his car going into turn 1 after the long straightaway. This, of course, shocked everyone that was there that weekend, but they decided to keep the races going. The next day, a driver was killed while exiting turn 3. His car fishtailed and instead of going under the straightaway bridge, slammed into the side of it and was ejected from his car. One racer recalled hearing the scraping sound of metal, and seeing a helmet rolling around afterward; it affected him for the rest of his life. Shortly thereafter, the track's insurance was canceled and it was closed to racing forever.
Over the next twenty years, the ranch went through several owners. A 300-odd acre parcel was still used for filmmaking, and the closed track was utilized for movies, including The Love Bug, Spinout, and the Devil’s Hairpin. Appropriately, the remaining Western Town was repurposed into the infamous Spahn Ranch for a TV movie about the Manson family. By 1979, ranch manager Dee Cooper explained that he had transformed the Western set into a ghost town. “I get more use out of it that way,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “The studios have Western streets, but they don’t have ghost towns.”
Sharaga was sure to take us to a clump of tall oaks called the “Witches’ Wood,” so called because of the witches and warlocks who populated the area during the residency of the annual Renaissance Pleasure Faire from 1965 to 1988. “The spirits that you would have encountered here in those days weren't the ghostly kind, if you know what I mean,” Sharaga joked.
The National Parks Service purchased the ranch in 1980. It was opened as a public park but also continues to be used for filming, notably serving as homebase for the creepily popular Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman from 1993-98.
After exploring Western Town at night- an inherently atmospheric experience- we wrapped up the night at a small country church built specifically for HBO’s Westworld, under a beautiful blanket of stars. There had been no ghost sightings or true ghost stories (although the crowd did gasp once at the neighing of a horse). Sharaga ended the night giving us an astronomy lesson, which scared me a bit, but only because I hate space.
Sharaga admits that the tour’s name is misleading. “Originally, the tour was in the morning and didn't really have an eerie theme to it,” he explains. “We launched it earlier this summer and had zero people attend (two weeks in a row!)” After rebranding it and moving it to the evening, attendance has boomed- the last ‘ghost’ tour drew 288 people. The ranch plans to continue leading these evening tours and will be holding a Halloween Scare-amount Ranch event the night of Oct 27th. They’ll supply the old Wild West atmosphere and fascinating Hollywood history, but you’ll have to supply the ghosts.