Haunted Lands in Southern California: The Santa Susana Mountains

Train Tunnel Near Chatsworth

I live in the heart of the old Santa Susana Pass area, just to the south on a one-lane road to nowhere. Never, in all my life, have I lived anywhere that so richly deserves the label “haunted”. I have a great deal to say about what that means, but there is no way to understand this particular haunting without some background. History first.

The Santa Susana Mountains were once home to several Native American tribes, including Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, the Kizh Nation and Barbareño, Ineseño, and Ventureño Chumash. Traces of their footpaths still run through this area, and there are protected pictographs in caves near Burro Flats, a site that no unauthorized person is allowed to view. Their location is a secret; they are somewhere near the old Santa Susana Field Laboratory, site of the worst nuclear disaster in United States history (1959).

Pictographs at the Burro Flats Painted Cave.png
Figures Celebrating the Solstice

The first Europeans to use the pass were members of the Spanish Portolà expedition (1769–1770), the first European land entry and exploration of the present-day state of California. The expedition traversed the pass on January 15, 1770, heading east to a campground that later became part of Mission San Fernando Rey de España.[6] After secularization of the mission in 1834, San Fernando Valley rancheros used the trail. A rough wagon road evolved. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Santa_Susana_Stage_Road)

A map of Gaspar de Portolá's route from San Diego to San Luis Obispo in  1769, projected on a modern map. | DPLA

From 1871 to the turn of the century, the stagecoaches followed a terrifying canyon road up from what is today Chatsworth Park all the way to Los Angeles Avenue in Simi Valley. You can still walk what was once the old stagecoach road and appreciate the sheer panic that travelers must have felt wrangling horses and coaches up and down the treacherous terrain. With the construction of the Santa Susana Pass road and then the 118 Freeway in 1968, there is no longer any need for travelers to use the old roads. Walking through the Santa Susana Mountains, however, you still feel the layers of history, trauma and tragedy that played out over the centuries.

Old Santa Susana Stage Rd Trail - Mountain Biking in Southern CA

The area that includes Topanga Canyon to the east, the 118 to the north, Bell Canyon to the south, and Madera Road in Simi to the west, radiates a peculiar energy–especially Box Canyon, a road and canyon named after the colloquial term for a coffin. I could write multiple posts on that area alone, but for the sake of this introduction to the most haunted land in Southern California, I will simply list some of the more bizarre and tragic aspects of its history:

  1. Charles Manson and his ‘family’ occupied Spahn Ranch, a tract of land just off the current Santa Susana Pass Road, for much of 1968 and 1969. It is here that he conceived of his “Helter Skelter” conspiracy theory and plan. Just off the side of Santa Susana Pass Road is the “Manson family cave”, where he took an infamous photo with his cursed ‘family’. I have explored that area and find it utterly unnerving. There is a tree next to the cave that is rumored to have served as a ‘hanging tree’ in the Old West days; in any case, the energy is dark and threatening. Several paranormal investigators have caught frightening electronic voices on digital recorders in that area.
Hiking Spahn Ranch and the Manson Family Cave | The Outdoor Types
  1. The nuclear meltdowns at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory: This is one of the biggest, buried stories in United States history. Read this from Wikipedia:

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory is a complex of industrial research and development facilities located on a 2,668-acre (1,080 ha)[1] portion of the Southern California Simi Hills in Simi Valley, California. It was used mainly for the development and testing of liquid-propellant rocket engines for the United States space program from 1949 to 2006,[1] nuclear reactors from 1953 to 1980 and the operation of a U.S. government-sponsored liquid metals research center from 1966 to 1998.[2] The site is located approximately 7 miles (11 km) northwest from the community of Canoga Park and approximately 30 miles (48 km) northwest of Downtown Los AngelesSage Ranch Park is adjacent on part of the northern boundary and the community of Bell Canyon along the entire southern boundary.[3]

Throughout the years, about ten low-power nuclear reactors operated at SSFL, in addition to several “critical facilities” that helped develop nuclear science and applications. At least four of the ten nuclear reactors had accidents during their operation. The reactors located on the grounds of SSFL were considered experimental, and therefore had no containment structures.

The site ceased research and development operations in 2006. The years of rocket testing, nuclear reactor testing, and liquid metal research have left the site “significantly contaminated”. Environmental cleanup is ongoing.

The public who live near the site have over the years strongly urged a thorough cleanup of the site, citing cases of long term illnesses, including cancer cases at rates they claim are higher than normal. On 30 March 2018, a 7-year-old girl living in Simi Valley died of neuroblastoma, prompting public urging to thoroughly clean up the site; despite the fact that there is insufficient evidence to identify an explicit link between cancer rates and radioactive contamination in the area.[4]

Did you not know about this? Most people do not. The radioactive gas from the partial meltdown of the Sodium Reactor covered a huge area of Simi Valley, the west San Fernando Valley, Bell Canyon, West Hills, and surrounding areas. Cancer rates, especially thyroid and blood cancers known to be related to exposure to nuclear contamination, are several times what would be expected in a ‘normal’ population. In my own extended family, there are multiple cases of blood and thyroid cancers that, we all suspect, have much to do with living near the SSFL for decades.

Families affected by cancer want state officials to lead cleanup of Santa  Susana

3. Multiple cults flourished in this area in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The “Fountain of the World” was founded in 1951 in Box Canyon, and the site remains today. In 1958, two ex-acolytes of the cult bombed the buildings. killing eight people. The old sign is still there, fallen on one side, a reminder of the blast. The cult lingered until the 1980’s, and is now just a tragic memory. For more on this, see: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/box-canyon

Stop Three: Krishna Venta and the Fountain of the World 1958 — Lee Souleles  Author of Avalon

4. Standard Airlines C-46 crashed into the Santa Susana Mountains (5 minutes walking from my house) in 1949. 35 people died in the crash. Among the survivors was Caren Marsh Doll, an actress who was interviewed afterwards.

There is more, much more, that I could write about about this area’s peculiar history. This is simply a brief introduction to an area that is a very odd and unsettling place to call home. Today, these mountains contain Chatsworth Park (North and South), the Santa Susana Pass State Historical Park, and a few, scattered neighborhoods that sprung up around canyon roads and passes. Of particular note is the Santa Susana Knolls area of Simi Valley, site of the old train station, and perilously near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (see above). I live on one of those streets that cuts into the mountains, a street that becomes a dirt road that is nearly impassible for those without big trucks with 4WD. When fire season comes along, there is only one escape route for us, and if that is blocked, we are in big trouble.

My street houses eclectic characters and houses. There are mobile homes in various states of disrepair, and enormous mansions that periodically hit the market for millions of dollars. There are abandoned homes, and new homes that spring up like mushrooms whenever the landowner is flush with cash. These days, that is one person who owns a contracting company, of course. There are misanthropes who want nothing to do with any of us, and there are social butterflies who walk their dogs in search of company–but mostly, people moved here to be alone. In the area by the plane crash, people live off the grid. You do not want to trespass, trust me–there are large dogs and plenty of guns to keep the curious at bay. Even now, years after we moved there, beat up trucks will slow down and eye me suspiciously, requiring me to explain why I am walking back there. The Moorpark sheriff’s vehicle makes frequent visits to clear out suspicious characters engaging in suspicious activities. There is always some kind of construction happening in the land around the plane crash site, almost all of it illegal and unpermitted. A giant yurt and campground was closed down, a housing development was halted, a drug ring was busted, and the list goes on.

The constant legal wrangling and the tension among the neighbors seem to mirror the area’s troubled past. Walking around the dirt streets, you always feel watched; both by the current inhabitants who don’t want you there, and by something else. The Native American energy up in the hills is so palpable that you find yourself constantly scanning the boulders and ravines to see who is keeping tabs on you. The plane crash site feels desolate, mysterious, and tragic. There are still some pieces of the place embedded in the dirt.

I have spent countless hours wandering those hills, and I never feel alone. Someone or something unseen is following me everywhere I go. Sometimes, this spiritual energy feels curious or watchful, but other times there is a distinct threat that permeates the environment, and expels me from my wanderings. Anyone who is even remotely sensitive to their environment feels the heaviness, the mysterious sense of having invaded someone else’s land, and the knowledge that you are an outsider. It is this ‘outsider’ feeling that makes it a challenge to live there. There is no community for someone like me, no welcoming band of happy neighbors; we respect each other’s privacy and keep our distance. There is also no natural connection to the place–I am not native to the area, not a long-time resident, and not someone who was invited in. In other words, I am another invader in a long line of invaders.

Of course, one could probably say the same about most of the United States. We occupied this land illegally, and our claim to it is based on violence and oppression. But there are places that are scarred more than others, places that have experienced multiple tragedies on a large scale. Those tragedies leave a deep wound that permeates the land and creates residual energies that never fade, never die. That is the perfect recipe for a haunting.

Paranormal investigators often think that they would love to live in a haunted house, or on the site of some horrific battle. What you discover when you actually occupy either a haunted house or haunted land is simply this: it’s exhausting, draining. Your mental, emotional, and spiritual energy is siphoned off in the very act of wandering through the hills and valleys, the dirt roads and the ruins of old settlements. The Santa Susana Mountains are both beautiful and harsh; mysterious and ominous. You don’t need to be “sensitive” to feel the oppressive and weird vibes emanating from the secret places in the hills that you avoid yet feel continuously drawn towards.

I’m tired even writing about it. If you want to visit one of the most haunted areas in California, start by parking your car in Chatsworth Park North. Walk past the circular jogging path and head into the hills. Keep going. Around sunset, pick a boulder and sit there. Observe. Meditate. Listen. The ghosts will find you.

–Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD

Published by thupancic

I received my Ph.D. from Yale University in Spanish Literature and Language. I am currently a professor a Southern California college. My current area of research and interest is survival of consciousness research. I live with an eccentric husband and an emotionally deranged green-cheeked conure. I am the founder of the International Society for Paranormal Research (2021), which for now is housed under soulbank.org until we get our own site. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in membership!

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