In the late 1850s, the first inmates to occupy Alcatraz were military prisoners who were put to work building a new prison that later became known as “The Rock.” The U.S. Army used the island until 1933, at which time the Federal Government decided to open a maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary to deal with the most incorrigible inmates.
Alcatraz was designed to break rebellious prisoners by putting them in a structured, monotonous routine until their release.
Prisoners were given four basic things – food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Receiving anything beyond that had to be earned. Famous criminals, such as Al Capone, George “Machine-Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis and Arthur “Doc” Barker, spent time inAlcatraz. Mobsters in other prisons often managed to manipulate special privileges from guards, but not at Alcatraz.
The haunted history of Alcatraz
The history of Alcatraz Island is tangled and troubled. (1) From 1934 to 1963, the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary housed the most ruthless criminals in America, the killers and mobsters who proved too violent for other federal prisons to control. Prior to its tenure as the nation’s highest security prison, Alcatraz Island housed a Civil War penal institution. After it closed, a Native American occupation settled in for two years.
Over the three decades of its operation, many doomed escape attempts ended fatally in the frigid, treacherous waters of the San Francisco Bay, and the Battle of Alcatraz, a violent prisoner uprising, cost the lives of inmates and guards alike. Brutal assaults between inmates were unremarkable occurrences; there were 8 known murders in the complex. Long hours in solitary confinement ravaged the sanity and spirits of the convicts unfortunate enough to wind up in “the hole”.
But is Alcatraz haunted? According to writer E. Floyd, “almost every guard and official who served there […] experienced something out of the ordinary.” Indeed, there’s a veritable laundry list of supernatural red flags: chills, inexplicable cold spots, disembodied screams, untraceable music (mobster Al Capone’s banjo in particular), apparitions of Civil War-era and Native American gangs roving the cell blocks, and sightings of monstrous, inhuman forms. (2)
What makes a haunting?
It’s obvious why someplace like Alcatraz would be haunted. If life is a movie, a haunting is a photograph. Frozen in time and space, the dark energy of a tragedy manifests itself in ghostly ways. But how traumatic must history be for the supernatural to settle in? Battlefields, fortresses, and murder sites are obvious loci for ghosts, but what about a house once rented by a troubled drug addict or a boat owned by a chronically depressed widow? Can a farm host the spirits of pigs and cows long ago gone to slaughter?
The jury of psychics and paranormal investigators is still out on many of these questions. But there seem to be two universal ingredients for a haunting:
- Powerful distressing emotions. You’ve never heard of a wedding venue haunted by its happiest brides, have you? To trap a spirit, something truly devastating must occur—terror beyond words, inhuman cruelty, or cataclysmic rage. Often an unjust or untimely death meets the criteria; not far from Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge is known to be haunted by countless despairing suicide victims. But non-violent traumas of sufficient duration or intensity can result in a haunting, too.
- Lack of closure. If deep emotional anguish is the trigger for a lasting psychic bruise, why isn’t the supermarket checkout aisle haunted by the screams of four-year-olds denied Kit Kat bars? The answer is, closure. Shocking crimes leave a stigma that prevents the living from reclaiming the space. On Alcatraz Island, the psychic imprint of violence was trapped just like the prisoners, and to this day remains to be healed.
Can a haunted place be rescued?
So what do you do when you confront one of these frightful places? Good manners are often enough. You don’t need to make a fuss over a haunted hotel room, just request a different one at the front desk. But if you’re sensing something evil afoot in the office, your boss is unlikely to accept a haunting as an excuse not to use the copy room. And if you’re a haunted homeowner, there’s financial pressure to stay put. Sometimes, you need to confront that fear.
Not every spooky place is haunted, though, and it’s important to rule out earthly causes. The howls of a phantom infant have, on more than one occasion, been traced to a feral cat. Likewise, noxious mold odors, midnight refrigerator noises, and creaky construction are all unsettling, but hardly supernatural. It’s prudent to hold a preliminary investigation (in the daylight hours, of course) before thumbing the Yellow Pages exorcist list.
If you’re certain something otherworldly is making the hair of your arms stick up, there are remedies. First, you’ll have to learn what exactly went down. Municipal records, news clippings, and local lore can all shed light, and psychic advisors can attempt direct communication with the spirits for firsthand knowledge.
Then, like any trauma of the living, it’s up to you to heal the old wound. Channel understanding and compassion for the wounded souls trapped in your space. Remember, that’s what they are, trapped. There are also many ancient and modern rituals that revitalize a damaged environment. It’s up to you choose one that best suits your needs, or devise your own.
Finally, while being respectful of the spirits still working their way out, put your own touch on the space. Don’t raze your historic house to make room for a strip mall. Decorate it warmly and with love. Transform the space with comfortable and inviting colors, scents, and textures. When your friends and family make new, happier memories there, the energy landscape will change dramatically. The spirits you used to fear may even become helpful guardians.
A word of caution for spirit seekers
I can’t overstate how challenging reclaiming a traumatized space can be. When I think of that gut-twisting shudder I felt on Alcatraz Island, I’m reminded that a spiritual cleansing is no weekend project. The sheer number of tormented souls and acts of incalculable violence on The Rock would require the collective efforts of many individuals to heal. So I wouldn’t recommend buying the foreclosed home of a serial killer as a personal challenge. But I still hold out hope for these long-tormented places, that one day their trapped souls may find healing, freedom, and redemption.