It all started with Nina.
As the story goes, Nina (pronounced Nigh-na) has been haunting Old Town Pizza for over 100 years. She's known for wandering the basement and watching customers eat dinner. In life, she was a prostitute found murdered at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
This macabre tale was related to me in the crypt-like basement of Old Town Pizza, the first stop on Portland Walking Tours' new Beyond Bizarre tour. Unlike the company's other tours—which focus only on historically accurate facts—the Beyond Bizarre tour delves into the world of the paranormal and is organized like a ghost-hunting expedition.
All of Portland Walking Tours' guides are now certified by the International Ghost Hunters Society—making me wonder, exactly how qualified does one have to be to become a professional ghost hunter?
"I paid $20 and was sent a certificate in the mail," explained David Schargel, tour guide and owner of Portland Walking Tours. "What does it take to be a ghost hunter? Money to buy the equipment."
As research for the tour, Schargel accompanied some professional ghost hunters on an investigation.
"Real investigations are boring as hell," Schargel confided.
To design the tour, he also hired Jefferson Davis, historian and author of six books about hauntings in the Pacific Northwest. Davis brought along Karen, his favorite clairvoyant—or as one customer called her, a "ghost whisperer."
They tested her psychic ability by providing misleading information about the locations of the hauntings (so she couldn't Google the buildings beforehand), and then took her downtown. After Karen's walkabout, Davis researched the history surrounding the buildings and the ghost stories to confirm what she'd sensed.
Even after seeing professional ghost hunters in action, Schargel admitted he didn't believe in ghosts—that is, until he had an encounter of his own.
"I felt a cold spot move up my arm," he explained. "Suddenly, I was not questioning what it was—I just knew it was a ghost."
After this shivering experience, Schargel astutely concluded, "the world of the paranormal is some pretty trippy shit."
GRAB YOUR PROTON PACK!
The night of our ghost hunt, Echo and the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" was stuck in my head—an appropriate musical choice for the activities that lurked ahead.
Schargel said the tour often attracts an unusual clientele, including eager professional ghost hunters pimped out in equipment. However, I was a bit disappointed by my tour companions, a crowd of dour thirtysomethings in windbreakers.
The tour began—after a free drink—in the dark, creepy basement of Old Town Pizza. There was a gaping hole in the grimy back wall and a short tunnel leading to a stairway—a slice of the abandoned Shanghai Tunnels.
We were armed with flashlights and hand-held electromagnetic field (EMF) meters, designed to pick up fluxations in electrical currents, AKA "ghost waves." Schargel instructed us to poke around and see if we could pick up any readings. I excitedly stuck my EMF meter in the aforementioned gaping hole, and... zilch. The real activity was happening in the middle of the room. Suddenly, the meters of my fellow ghost hunters were blinking excitedly—signaling a unusual electrical current in the air. Was it a ghost?!
"Nina, are you there?" Schargel asked in a calm voice as we quickly crowded around him. "Are you there, Nina? This is David. I visited you earlier today."
He continued carrying on the one-sided conversation until the EMF readings dropped to normal—apparently Nina had gotten bored with this particular line of questioning. Since she wasn't exactly enthralling either, we ditched Nina and left.
THE MAHJONG TONG HEEBIE JEEBIES
The next major haunting was at Mama Mia Trattoria, where we met Lisa Schroeder, owner of Mother's Bistro and Bar, Mama Mia, and apparently four ghosts.
Schroeder was quick to establish her sanity.
"It's not like I go around believing in ghosts or looking for them," she explained. But what she can't explain are dozens of bizarre occurrences.
Examples: People often say they feel "a presence" in the basement. A freak fire once broke out in the office. Files only a few people could access were completely rearranged. A book once inexplicably jumped off of a shelf, hitting Schroeder.
Like Old Town Pizza, the building has a sordid history. It was once a mahjong hall owned by an Asian gang—or tong—that probably dealt in opium and prostitution.
When Davis and Karen scoped out the joint, Karen tuned into some disturbing and frightening haunted activity. According to her, there are four ghosts at Mama Mia. Upstairs dwells the ghost of an old man who's been responsible for the office mischief, and the spirit of a young woman who feels she's being blamed for it.
However, in the basement dwells something more sinister—a malevolent male spirit that preys on feminine weakness, and could possibly overpower fragile, vulnerable people.
Along with this ghoul is a harmless spook Schroeder's staff calls Fred, who used to work in the Shanghai Tunnels and still lingers at the tunnel's entrance in the basement.
After Davis and Karen toured the building, Schroeder decided to give Mama Mia's ghost problems one last effort. She invited a Wiccan to the restaurant and together they built two altars for the dead in the basement. Schroeder also took the advice of some ghost-savvy friends from Louisiana, who suggested "feeding the ghosts."
"They said, 'Well, you feed humanity—why aren't you feeding the ghosts?' I brought down some chicken and dumplings right after that," said Schroeder. She didn't expect the food to disappear, and eventually she brought it back upstairs, but she hopes the gesture didn't go unnoticed.
She's still uncertain if these recent efforts have appeased her bothersome ghosts, but she remains hopeful they'll eventually leave Mama Mia in peace.
A GHOST BY ANY OTHER NAME
We left Mama Mia much too quickly and braved the MAX to head to N Russell and the White Eagle Saloon, which used to be a working-class bar and boarding house, featuring—you guessed it—prostitution.
"In the middle of the day this was one of the only places where you could drink yourself silly and then go upstairs and have a good time," Schargel told us. "It was the real happy hour. Otherwise you'd have to take the ferry to downtown."
As legend has it, one of the tenants was a guy named Sam, who was said to be "slow." He was also an alcoholic and murderer who stabbed a prostitute upstairs and blocked the entrance so no one could help her. Years later, her ghost was dubbed Rose.
According to supernatural historian Davis, "In every haunted brothel, there's a ghost named Rose."
Karen says that Rose and Sam still haunt the place—Sam prowling the upstairs and Rose hiding in the basement, still terrified of her murderer.
Since the White Eagle is also a working hotel, one of the perks of the tour was bumping into people in their pajamas, tousled and embarrassed. As they emerged from the hall toilet, obnoxious ghost hunters would shove their EMF meters into the tiny bathroom, shouting, "I think I've got some activity in here!"
It wasn't all fun and games though, because "Sam" was awake that night. In one area of the hall the EMF meters, including my own, started going crazy. It happened on the exact spot where Rose had been savagely killed.
"He stood here and completely let her bleed out," Schargel said. "It was a pretty gruesome murder."
Schargel started his one-sided conversation again, "Sam, are you here? Can we ask you some questions, Sam?" I was standing next to him, and felt a cold poof of air which had no apparent cause—was this Sam giving me a ghostly caress? I shuddered.
"Anybody here up for asking Sam a question?" Schargel asked the group. They stared back at him like mutes, so I volunteered.
"Sam, this is Jenny. Why do you remain here?"
I asked Schargel why we were talking with Sam, the retarded asshole murderer, instead of Rose hiding in the basement.
"We can't get down to the basement because we'd have to go through a food handling area," Schargel explained.
As we left the hotel, I grimly thought of Nina, Rose, and the un-named mahjong tong girl. It made me think that being a prostitute not only sucks in waking life, but might also doom you to an eternity of sadly wandering the whorehouse, wondering if you'll ever find lasting peace.
Certainly, having an EMF meter shoved in your face can't help.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.portlandwalkingtours.com. The Beyond Bizzare over-21 tour is on Fridays and Saturdays at 10 pm. There is also a family-friendly version that runs daily at 7 pm.