Scary movies have their roots not just in dreams, but also in reality. Santa Fe’s history and its spooky stories bubble up through buildings ancient and new. Ghosts of the past in Santa Fe pose an ever-present interest to those whose daydreams drift to the shadowy side. And with Halloween approaching, what better way to create your own mysterious quest than hunting out the haunts where the past still has a living presence. Get your spirits ready for a spine-tingling adventure in Santa Fe!

La Llorona, the Saddest Singer in Santa Fe

Every Santa Fe child has shivered and cuddled closer to the fire when regaled by a grandparent with tales of La Llorona, “the crying woman.” While there are various tellings of this folklore legend, the basics go like this: Local woman falls in love with soldier (heard that before?) and persuades him to marry. She drowns the kids, but instantly regrets it; chasing after them, she falls and fatally hits her head. Even now, you may run into her wandering the riverside, calling out for her lost children. Just searching for her can be spooky enough without even hearing those mournful cries.

La Llorona Adriana Lamar starred as "La Malinche" in the 1933 Mexican film La Llorona. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Haunted Halls of Government

As America’s oldest capital city, Santa Fe boasts some fairly elderly ghosts roving around. The Palace of the Governors is the oldest continuously occupied government building in the U.S. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Spanish settlers fought a bloody battle in and around the site. I’ve been told that when the building is empty and still, an observant listener might hear the doomed soldiers crying out in vain for help. Now part of the state's history museum, the Palace was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1960 and an American Treasure in 1999. The Palace is always worth a daytime visit for a glimpse of traditional architecture and Santa Fe history. The PERA Building (that’s the acronym for the Public Employees Retirement Association) is also said to have some sort of conduit to the deathless past, in that it was built atop a pauper’s cemetery. Rumor has it that no one, state employee or not, wants to be down in that basement alone. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, the city of Santa Fe chose the New Mexico State Penitentiary over the University of New Mexico when the government parceled out institutions. Perched outside of town on Route 14, on the Turquoise Trail, you’ll find a complex of modern correctional buildings. The old portion of the Pen, erected in the mid-1950’s, was closed and locked down tight after an uprising. With the liveliness of the burgeoning New Mexico film industry, the old building has found new life as a film setting. But if actors happen to find inmates invading their dreams, I’m afraid it goes with the territory.

The exterior of Old Main at the New Mexico State Penitentiary evokes a spooky feel.

The exterior of Old Main at the New Mexico State Penitentiary evokes a spooky feel.

Ghost Tales Are Older Than Dirt

Not only does Santa Fe have some of the oldest government buildings around, but we’re proud to be the home of the Oldest House. Yes, it’s made of dirt, or adobe, as we call it here. Given its age, it’s impossible to determine the authenticity of tales spun around this humble dwelling, but a ghostly presence is reputed to wander up and down the lane alongside. The story I’ve heard says the house was once occupied by a pair of sisters said to be witches, who were apparently tried and dispatched by the townspeople in summary fashion — beheaded, no less. I guess that explains the sightings of a head rolling down De Vargas Street. And if we’re talking local, there’s nothing quite like an old hospital to bring spooky fantasies to life. The old St. Vincent’s Hospital, right in the heart of downtown, opened in 1865 and ushered many a Santa Fean into and out of life. It may interest the haunt hunter to know that there was once an orphanage of the same name right behind the old hospital building. Crying babies … check. Call lights going on and off mysteriously … check. A basement wall oozing blood … spook fiends, this one’s for you! I prefer to remember St. Vincent’s for the fund-raising bed races the staff used to stage on Palace Avenue – a much happier thought.

Guests Check In but Their Ghosts Don’t Check Out

You’d expect a hotel that has entertained many a Western notable to have a haunted history, and La Fonda on the Plaza, long ago known as the Exchange Hotel, has hosted its share of spooky drama; that's probably why there's a ghostly package on tap. The lovely La Plazuela dining room, with its colorful painted glass and sky-lighted ceiling, was once an open courtyard with a well in its center. Legend has it that a foolish business man, drawn into a poker game by pros who picked him as a mark, lost the company's bankroll along with his own, and in desperation, threw himself headlong into the well. And who knows if Chief Justice John Slough still walks the halls after being shot at La Fonda by Col. William Rynerson in 1868 during the Lincoln County Wars? Apparently, Justice Slough drew his derringer as he accused Rynerson of being “a thief of the army, a thief out of the army, a coward, and an S.O.B.” When Rynerson pulled out his own gun, Slough rashly dared him to shoot, at which point, Rynerson obliged with a mortal wound to pay back Slough’s insult.

La Fonda Early 1900s

Julia, Julia, Wherefore Art Thou, Julia

Wouldn’t you want to return to visit your old home if it was like Julia Staab’s mansion? Now the sprawling complex of La Posada Resort and Spa, the Staab mansion on East Palace Avenue was once the grand home of wealthy business magnate Abraham Staab. He amassed his fortune by supplying the U.S. Army during the Civil War. His wife Julia gave birth to six children, but when the seventh died soon after birth, she fell into what we now know as post-partum depression. Her hair is said to have turned white overnight, and over time, she became a recluse, seldom seen outside of her second-story room, where she slipped into madness. Although she passed from this earth at age 52 in 1896, she is said to have loved her home so much she never permanently left room 256, now known as Suite 100. The sight of her elegant, translucent spirit has been reported by so many employees and guests that she became a topic on the television series Unsolved Mysteries.

The ghost of Julia Staab’s spirit is said to haunt La Posada Resort and Spa where she once lived, declined into madness and passed from this earth — or did she? The ghost of Julia Staab’s spirit is said to haunt La Posada Resort and Spa where she once lived, declined into madness and passed from this earth — or did she?

The hotel’s bar, aptly named the Staab House, is reported to be a favorite target for Julia. Glasses have been dashed to the floor unexpectedly and the gas fireplace turned on and off at will. The temperature inside her room is a noticeable 10 degrees cooler than that of the hallway outside, and camera lens are said to blur unaccountably. Ghost hunters are welcome to stay the night in her room, as long as they are prepared to see a moving object or two during the dark hours before dawn.

Dark Corners and Popular Haunts Welcome Even the Fe-int of Heart

Choosing to make Santa Fe our home has been an exciting tale of discovery for many of us locals over the years. Sometimes these discoveries make us clap with joy and wonderment, and at other times leave us with a shivering sense of the unknowable. The combination of the past and the present, truth and legend, has an ongoing appeal to those who love to wander the historic byways of our town with an eye to discerning fact from fiction. Bring your myth-busting eyes along on a 5:45 pm stroll around the city on a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday with Historic Walks of Santa Fe’s Ghostwalker Tour to let some offbeat adventures complement your City Different getaway. You’ll definitely be adding a hefty dose of history and mystery to the art and culture discussions you’ll have over dinner. And if you see Mrs. Staab, please be sure to bring out your 19th century manners – after all, she’s one of Santa Fe’s favorite famous fright-inducing characters.