Menehune, Hauntings and Choking Ghosts: 6 Beloved Ghost Stories From Hawai‘i’s Spooky Past
Hawai‘i loves its ghosts and ghost stories. A half-dozen Islanders share their most chicken-skin moments.
This story was originally published on Oct. 1, 2004.
"Eh, you guys heard da one about…"
Hawai'i residents love our ghost stories, don't we? And why shouldn't we? We've got some of the best around. Look at the recipe. First, we live in a place where folks love talking story-where a good tale is as treasured as the tastiest fish, the prettiest beaches, the most brilliant of sunsets. Add to this that we live on beautiful islands once solely occupied by proud, ancient people who believed in the power and spirit of the land. Toss in generations of different immigrant cultures, backgrounds and attitudes from all over the world. The result?
"One time, me and your uncle went fishing down Makapu'u side…"
As a boy growing up in Kalihi, I heard dozens of ghost stories that started just like that. It seemed like everyone I knew had either seen a ghost, or knew someone who had. Buddy Franklin said he lived next door to a haunted house in Kalihi Valley. One afternoon we worked up the guts to check the place out. The house was old, abandoned and broken down. We walked inside to find spider webs, weathered furniture and bees. We didn't see any ghosts that day, but it still was pretty spooky stuff.
My mother's friend, who lived several doors away, insisted she had seen the faceless lady at the old Wai'alae Drive In.
My Uncle Wally claimed he could not only see ghosts, but also photograph them. He said once on Kaua'i he was standing at the lookout overlooking Spouting Horn, holding his camera. All of a sudden, he felt a cold chill. Still, he managed to snap the picture. When he got the photograph back, there was a spray of salt water shooting into the sky-and a ghostly image. One day, when he was in a good mood, he even showed me the picture. Sure enough, I could see a woman's face in the burst of ocean water. Half-human, half-skull. Locked in an eternal scream. I wonder what ever happened to that picture.
One day at Kapälama Elementary School, all of us students were suddenly and unexpectedly led into the cafeteria. Even though it wasn't lunchtime. We watched as policemen, administrators and schoolteachers frantically ran through the campus. It was amazing to see grown-ups look so concerned and, yes, scared. Apparently, several people had spotted a menehune. They thought they had cornered him underneath one of the old, wooden classrooms.
They never caught the little guy.
As Junior Police Officers, about 50 of us traveled to the Big Island in the sixth grade. I remember the first time I stood at the edge of Halema'uma'u Crater, inhaling the smell of sulfur and feeling the warm steam on my face, awed by the power and beauty of the volcano. It was also the first time that I heard the powerful stories about Madame Pele, about unfortunate visitors who had taken lava rocks and mysterious hitchhikers appearing on dark roads in the dead of night.
It was also about this time that I spent several days at Camp Mokulë'ia. During the day, we hiked, rode horses, learned to square dance. At night, we sat on the beach and told ghost stories. I still remember the feeling of sitting around the campfire with my buddies, surrounded by total darkness, listening to the camp counselors tell us about the Seaweed Lady, the Night Marchers, sacred heiau and ghostly fireballs that lit up the night sky.
My love for these stories has remained ever since small-kid time. Back in the old Farrington High days, the boys and I spent Saturday nights at Morgan's Corner, challenging each other to get out of the car and climb the 13 steps. We dared ourselves to drive with pork over the Pali. There never were any takers. We shared chicken- skin stories about the Chinese cemetery in Mänoa, the H-3 Freeway, ghostly owls that forecast premature deaths and the dancing statue at the Diamond Head Cemetery.
When HONOLULU Magazine asked me to compile a handful of these stories, I agreed. I called on a bunch of folks. Sure enough, when these people started sharing their stories, their eyes began lighting up. Two things were clear. No. 1, they loved telling these stories. And No. 2-they loved the stories themselves.
It has been my intention to treat these stories with the same love and respect that the original tellers have displayed. As if the stories were my very own. I want to thank the teachers, police officers and office workers, who have trusted me with their stories. I hope I have somehow managed to capture at least some of the power in their tales of restless spirits, menehune, hauntings and choking ghosts.
Hawai'i is changing in a thousand different ways. But, thank goodness, we still have our ghost stories.
And, I suspect, we always will.
1. Ghostly Touch
Virginia Aipopo says ever since she was a little girl growing up on the Wai'anae Coast, she's had brushes with the unexplainable.
"I think it started in elementary school," she says. "As a little girl, I saw or heard things. Other times, I had these strange dreams about people. It lasted through my college years. It goes on still."
Virginia works for the state Department of Public Safety. Her office is located on Ala Moana Boulevard, near a row of car dealerships and a stone's throw from Fisherman's Wharf. Many know the structure as the former AAFES Building.
One night, in June 2000, Virginia would have her own brush with the unexplained in the old AAFES Building."I'd always heard strange stories about the building," says Virginia. "Employees here say they've seen paper clips fly through the air on their own. They've heard strange noises when no one was around. Once, when electricians were working here, they all came running out of the building afraid. They claimed they had seen a ghost."
Virginia had stayed late at work, imputing data into her computer, waiting for a ride home from her sister.
"I had put in a very long day," says Virginia. "Somehow, I'd fallen asleep at my desk. I recall looking at the computer screen. It was one in the morning."
Then Virginia recalls hearing someone call her name.
A woman's voice. Calm. Gentle.
Then a breeze filled the office. And a sweet smell of flowers.
"For a while, I didn't know where I was," says Virginia. "I thought I was at home."
But things quickly changed: Virginia knew she wasn't at home.
"I started feeling weird," she says. "Something made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up."
Next came a ghostly touch, a touch Virginia will remember for the rest of her life.
"I felt something lifting my hair up with its hands," says Virginia. "It felt like my hair was standing on end. But there was nobody around. I can't explain it."
At that point, says Virginia, it was time to call it a night.
"I called my sister and told her, 'Where the heck are you? Pick me up right now!' Then I left the office and waited outside for her!"
Virginia remembers another strange incident at work.
"This time, it was in broad daylight," she says, "with a lot of people in the office."
Virginia says she went to the photocopier. When she returned to her desk, she found that it had been messed up. Papers had been rearranged. The computer had been moved.
"I figured somebody was fooling around," says Virginia. "Playing with my stuff."
Until she saw the radio on her desk.
It kept changing stations-with no one around to turn the dial.
Virginia still manages to laugh.
"Sometimes, when people first meet me and they hear my stories, they think I'm some kind of kook," she says. "The people who know me well know better than that. I believe I have been blessed with a kind of gift. That's what I'd call it.
I'll never forget it."
Dee Kusumoto was a fourth grader at Ka'ewai Elementary School when she was introduced to the Filipino phenomenon known as maluganan.
"I saw it with my own eyes," says Dee. "I watched as a woman was possessed by a ghost."
It happened in 1973. Days before, a man had been shot on a Kalihi street. He died. At the time of the fatal shooting, the man's wife was in the Philippines. As soon as she received the horrible news, she flew to Hawai'i.
Immediately, friends and family members of the dead man-including Dee-gathered in an old Kalihi home near Dole Middle School. Together, they held a prayer session. The prayers were supposed to help the dead man's soul find its way to heaven.
"The prayer sessions are held for nine straight days, though they were held at night since people had to work," says Dee. "The older generations conducted the praying. I was just a kid. It was fascinating to watch."
Dee says the widow of the dead man had been praying, when the unexplained occurred.
"The Ilocano term of what I saw is maluganan," she says. "Or being ridden by a ghost."
The mother of the dead man placed a black cloth on the widow's face, to help her son's spirit to speak.
"They lay her down on her back," says Dee. "Then the parents of the dead man asked the woman a bunch of questions."
And then, through the woman, the dead man began to speak.
"She got real stiff and her body got straight as a rod," says Dee. "Then she started talking in a very weird voice that was low and hoarse. It was very similar to the ghost movies we've all seen. My oldest sister said when the widow talked, the voice was that of the husband. It definitely did not sound like her voice, that's for sure."
According to Ilocano tradition, the spirit has to be very strong or not yet ready to leave the world in order for the maluganan to occur.
Dee now teaches social studies to 11th- and 12th-grade students at Kapolei High School. She is also the mother of two children.
"It was definitely strange," says Dee, shaking her head. "To this day, I've never seen anything like that ever again."
At first glance, Ruben Mesinas may seem like a typical guy. A man with an easy smile, Ruben enjoys fishing, working out and playing an occasional round of golf with his buddies.
But, ever since he can remember, Ruben has always stumbled upon another way to pass the time.
"I don't know why," he says. "I've always seen ghosts. I guess ghosts, they like me."
Ruben says it began in the fourth grade, when his class at Honowai Elementary School went on a weekend camping trip to Camp Erdman in Mokulë'ia.
"At night, we were supposed to be asleep in the cabins," says Ruben. "But me and my friends, we snuck out and headed for the beach."
On the beach, Ruben and his friends tossed rocks into the surf and talked story. One guy even brought a fishing pole.
"It was pretty cool," says Ruben, "until we saw him."
Him, according to Ruben, was a man walking on the beach carrying an old lantern.
"He looked like a local guy," says Ruben. "He wasn't wearing a shirt. It looked like he was wearing shorts. Or a malo or a lava-lava."
Ruben and his buddies thought they'd spotted a fisherman.
"We thought maybe he was torching, or something," says Ruben.
The boys decided to follow the man, who walked along the water's edge.
"All of a sudden, he stopped and walked toward the ocean," says Ruben.
The man disappeared into the darkness. Ruben and his buddies thought maybe he was heading into the water to look for fish.
"We couldn't see jack," says Ruben. "But all of a sudden, we seen this light rise into the night sky. Thirty, 40 feet! Damn, we was scared! You should have seen how fast all of us ran back to our cabins!"
Ruben recalls another brush with the unexplainable. Once again, he was in grade school.
His friend's grandmother had died. Ruben went to visit his friend in Hale'iwa, to offer his condolences.
"I met him at his late grandma's house," says Ruben.
Ruben remembers the afternoon clearly. It began fairly typically. The boys ate chili dogs for lunch. Then they watched Checkers and Pogo on TV.
But things changed quickly.
Ruben had walked into the kitchen to get some Kool-Aid when something made him look out the window.
"I seen this old lady in the garden," says Ruben. "She had white hair. She wore a red mu'umu'u with white and yellow flowers. And she wore this straw hat. You know, the kind of straw hat a lot of tutus wear. But I couldn't see the lady's face. She was tending to her plants."
Ruben rushed back to the living room and told his friend that someone was in the yard.
"No act!" said his friend.
"I ain't acting!" said Ruben.
Ruben and his friend looked out the window. The woman was still there.
"I told you," said Ruben. "Who's that?"
"That looks like Grandma," said Ruben's friend, his face pale. "She always loved taking care of those flowers."
4. Living With a Ghost
Sarah Iverson has traveled a long way to live with a ghost. Originally from Minnesota, Sarah moved into a three-bedroom, three-bath 'Ewa Beach home with three roommates last June. Several weeks later, she began seeing a mysterious shadow repeatedly walking from her downstairs bedroom to the bathroom.
"I didn't believe it was really there and didn't want anyone to think I was crazy," says Sarah, who teaches science to eight-graders at Kapolei Middle School.
She didn't say a word. Until her roommates also began seeing the shadow.
"I kept seeing this dark shadow in the hallway," says Kelli Tarner, one of Sarah's roommates. "It looked like the figure of a man."
Like Sarah, Kelli had moved to Hawai'i from the Mainland to teach in O'ahu's public schools. "I'd heard tons of ghost stories at home in Pennsylvania," says Kelli. "But there is a completely different feel in Hawai'i. It's more spiritual here."
"After two of my roommates said something, I knew it would be OK to talk about it," says Sarah. "At first the ghost never really scared me. I would notice it almost daily. Although I felt strange about it, I never was scared"
Sarah says that, for some reason, the more she talked about the ghost with her roommates, the more prominent it seemed to get. Eventually, it showed up in her bedroom.
"I would be sleeping at night," says Sarah. "Something would wake me up. I'd see this figure. Often, I'd knock it off as my imagination playing tricks on me. I knew there was something in the house, but didn't want to believe that it was in my room."
Sarah says the ghost is of a man, about six feet tall. It wears a black hat, vest and a long-sleeved purple shirt. Sarah says she has never been able to see the ghost's face clearly.
"Throughout the weeks, the ghost would get closer and closer to me," says Sarah. "But it never touched me. One night, I woke up with it standing over me and it gave me the chills."
Sarah and her roommates decided to have the house blessed by a Christian minister.
That helped: The ghost disappeared. But, several weeks later, it returned.
"He never came inside," says Sarah. "But at night when I sat in the living room I could see him walk past the screen door and occasionally walk past our floor-to-ceiling windows. This freaked me and my roommates out. We ignored it for a couple of weeks hoping it would go away but it never did. Instead it came back in the house."
Sarah says the ghost had been spotted in the laundry room-and may have been photographed.
"Without telling me, my roommates went into my bedroom and took pictures in the dark with a digital camera," says Sarah. "When the pictures came out, they appeared normal on the surface. After zooming in, though, there was a reddish light that appeared in the mirror. And when you zoomed in on that, it looked like the outline of a man holding a baby. In another part of the mirror was the image of an older man. These images startled me, because this wasn't the figure I was seeing at night. Could this mean that there was more than one ghost?"
Why didn't Sarah and her roommates just move? "I didn't want to believe that a ghost could really haunt the house," says Sarah. "I did get some scares and some eerie feelings, but I never thought my life was being threatened."
Instead, Sarah's Bible-study group met at her home and prayed for the spirit to leave the house.
"I think it took a couple weeks before I realized that, yes, the spirit was really gone," says Sarah.
End of story? Not quite.
New roommates in the house have had ghostly sightings.
"I don't know if I'm psyching myself out, but I'm pretty sure we will have the house blessed again," says Sarah. "I never believed in ghosts or spirits, but had heard many people talk about them. Moving to Hawai'i has given me the experience of both seeing and feeling spirits. I have become a believer now that I've lived here."
Leinani Whitford is cutting potatoes, making a salad for a lü'au.
Recently retired from the Department of Education, Leinani taught hundreds of students at Nänäkuli High and Intermediate School for 31 years.
She will never forget one girl she met in the mid-1980s.
"She was 13 or 14 years old," says Leinani, pausing over her cutting board. "So I think she was in the eighth grade or so."
The girl spent a lot of time on Hawaiian Homestead land near lower Tantalus. She enjoyed the lush area and often wandered along the nearby mountain trails.
Leinani says the girl was an excellent student. She also had the ability to see menehune. During the day, she watched them at play in a Tantalus bamboo grove. At night, she saw them gather by a nearby stream.
One morning at school, the girl told Leinani she was tired and asked if it was OK to stay in her classroom and rest during recess.
Leinani said that was fine and left the room. When she returned to the classroom, she found her student shaking. "Then she ran out the door," says Leinani.
Leinani caught up with the girl and asked her what was wrong. The student said she had looked out of the classroom window, toward the mountains, and seen two menehune playing the ancient Hawaiian game of 'ulu maika.
"The girl said the menehune were rolling a lava rock between two wooden stakes," says Leinani. "All of a sudden, one of the menehune looked up from the game and spotted my student. Then their eyes met. It was the way the menehune looked at my student that terrified her."
The girl described the menehune as dark, ancient-looking men, wearing malo tied with ropes.
One evening, Leinani went to a party on 'Ähuimanu Road in Käne'ohe with some of her old classmates from the Kamehameha Schools.
"I was sitting in the living room looking out the window," says Leinani. "It was completely black outside. There was no moonlight, no nothing."
All of a sudden, says Leinani, she saw mysterious balls of light floating outside of the window.
"They moved from left to right, left to right," says Leinani. "Sometimes they formed columns and soared into the sky. Then they disappeared."
Leinani decided it was time to get some answers.
She paid a visit to the famous kahuna lapa'au Sam Lono in his Ha'ikü Valley home.
The medicinal kahuna told Leinani she had seen the sacred lights.
"He told me I'm a marked person," says Leinani. "Because the lights came to me. Only special people can see those lights. He told me when I saw the lights, I was supposed to ask for something. But only something good. If you ask for something bad, something bad will happen to you."
Then Leinani asked the kahuna lapa'au about her student, the girl who kept on seeing menehune.
"Uncle Sam said a lot of kids who live near mountains see menehune," says Leinani. "He said a lot of shaken parents bring these children to him. He gives them a Hawaiian blessing. It's funny. The children can see the menehune. But, for some reason, the adults can't."
Leinani smiles and returns to the potato salad she has been preparing. She says every now and then she'll run into the student who had seen the menehune.
"She's turned out to be a good person," says Leinani. "And a good mother."
6. The Lady in Waiting
During the 17 years he wore the badge of the Honolulu Police Department, Ray Duropan saw and heard many things. But, for him, it was a two-year stint at the Honolulu Airport in the early 1990s that raised some of the most intriguing questions.
"There's a lot of unexplainable stuff going on at the airport," says Ray.
Perhaps none is more unexplainable than the Lady in Waiting.
"When I was at the airport, part of my duties was to respond to calls," says Ray.
A call he'd get over and over again was about a lady standing at a gate, looking out a window at the runway. Callers said the woman looked like someone waiting for the arrival of a passenger. But all of the passengers were long gone. And many times, the planes were long gone. The woman was sometimes seen in secured areas where no one without proper authorization could go.
"She was blonde," says Ray, "and wearing a long white dress. People never saw her face. Just the back of her. One caller said she was transparent."
Ray says airport employees would call to her, ask her if she needed assistance, but receive no response. That's when they'd call the police.
When Ray or one of his fellow officers checked out the scene, they always found nothing.
"We'd get calls from all kinds of airport employees," says Ray. "From custodial staff to airline personnel. They all saw her." The calls almost always came at night, or just before the sun set. "The folks at the airport call her the Lady in Waiting."
Ray says many airport employees told the sad story of the Lady in Waiting.
The woman had fallen in love with a man, who had promised to marry her. Instead, the man took off on an international flight and never returned. The heart-broken woman eventually committed suicide. But she has returned from the grave, and now waits at the airport for the man of her dreams to return to her.
"Every time I got that call, I got the heebie-jeebies," says Ray, shaking his head. "You have this eerie feeling. Every time we checked it out, we never saw her. But, still, I respect stories like that one. You have to. You just respect them."
Ray says he's heard a number of stories about the unexplained events at the airport.
Custodians talk about cleaning empty restrooms in the middle of the night and watching in shock as rolls of toilet paper mysteriously unravel, toilets flush, toilet seats slam.
Drivers of the Wiki-Wiki shuttle talk about the solitary passenger who sits at the back of the bus in the middle of the night, then disappears with no warning.
Fellow police officers wonder about the banging sounds they hear in their locker room when no one is around. They wonder why the shower mysteriously turns on when they are in the locker room alone. Ray has been puzzled by the appearance of wet footprints on the floor of the locker room, when he swears no one has used the showers.
"Folks say the locker room the police used was once a morgue," says Ray. "That might have something to do with all the weird stuff going on in there."
Still, Ray says the ghosts at the airport mean no harm.
"The ghosts are usually described as playful ghosts," says Ray. "They don't hurt nobody."
Except the choking ghosts.
Ray says he knows several fellow HPD officers who swear they have been attacked by choking ghosts while working the airport beat.
"They won't tell you, but I will," says Ray. "They were in their cars, late at night, when, all of a sudden, they felt something sitting on their chests. They couldn't breathe. We're police officers. We're not supposed to be scared of anything. But let me tell you something. A choking ghost will get your attention."
Ray says there is even more.
"There is stuff going on at the airport that nobody can explain," says Ray, who has now retired from the force. "Ask anybody who's worked there for a long time. Ask the old timers. They'll tell you."
Author's Note: Cedric Yamanaka is an award-winning fiction writer and journalist. He is the author of a collection of short stories, In Good Company (UH Press). He is also host of Aloha Shorts, a half-hour program dedicated to local literature, Mondays 5 p.m., KIPO 89.3FM.