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Haunted Hawai‘i: My Personal Experience With the Supernatural and the Unexplained

Many say that Hawai‘i is full of ghosts and otherwordly beings–not just from one culture, but all of the cultures that live together in the islands. This is one writer’s experience with the supernatural.


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Many say that Pele appears in various forms along the Chain of Craters Road on the Big Island—as a beautiful young woman or a wizened, elderly woman.
Photo: Thinkstock 


I don’t like to retell my stories, fearing the more I say, the more I’ll experience, the less I’ll sleep. And I need my sleep.


It all started when I was in kindergarten at St. Anthony’s in Kalihi Valley. I befriended the ghost of a young boy who had died there when it was an orphanage. Except I didn’t know he was a ghost. I deemed him my imaginary friend, as you do when you’re 5, and never thought anything of it.


By the time I was in college, my sensitivity was at an all-time high. I would see my grandfather, who had died in 1949, standing in our front yard. Then, on a geology field trip to the Big Island, six of us jumped in a van and drove to the end of Chain of Craters Road in the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park in the middle of the night and witnessed the unexplained chanting of hula dancers moving in the eerie glow of the lava.


A white-haired Hawaiian woman dressed in a white kīhei approached our van and told us to leave. So we did. Quickly.


And when I told my manager at a mortgage company in downtown Honolulu about the unexplained stench of cigarette smoke, strange noises and mysterious occurrences on the abandoned fourth floor where I had been assembling gift baskets, she called in a kahu to bless the entire building. This Hawaiian priest was the first of several I would meet who said to me, “You have a gift.”


“It’s more a curse than a gift,” I recently told Lopaka Kapanui, who has for nearly 20 years shared ghost stories and conducted tours that stop at some of O‘ahu’s most haunted spots.


We were standing outside Mauna ‘Ala, the Royal Mausoleum, in Nu‘uanu, the burial site for the high chiefs of Hawai‘i. I thought it was a bad idea to meet there, not because of the proximity to the sacred iwi of Hawaiian ali‘i, but it had been raining all morning with no signs of letting up. Taking notes in the rain is never a good idea.


But as soon as we walked over to the stark obelisk standing guard outside the crypt for the Kalākaua family, the rain stopped and the dark clouds looming overhead parted.


Just a coincidence, I thought to myself, though I could tell from Kapanui’s smile he knew what I was thinking and disagreed.


He had brought me here to talk about the connection between culture and the supernatural, how those of us who grew up in the Islands have a deep respect for the dead and the spirits that remain with us.


“I get the heebies sometimes when I’m inside the chapel,” Kapanui admitted. “I get this very heavy feeling. One time it was so heavy, I was actually walking out hunched over.”


I had never been inside the chapel. It was the original mausoleum building that Queen Lili‘uokalani had converted into a chapel in 1865 after the caskets were moved into tombs and the crypts below ground. Nor had I been down the stairs into the crypts. These are not areas often open to the public.


But that morning, for some reason, the doors of the chapel were open. So, of course, we walked over. Emerging from the shadows of the dark chapel was my high school classmate, Kai Maioho, whose father, Bill, was the caretaker of Mauna ‘Ala until his death earlier this year. I hadn’t seen Maioho since we graduated and, after a quick recap of the last 20 years, he asked if I wanted to go into the crypts. Kapanui looked at me, his eyes wide, and I quickly responded yes. Maioho grabbed the eight-pound golden key—eight pounds representing the eight Hawaiian Islands—and led us into the underground tombs of the Kalākaua dynasty.


“All these things,” Kapanui says later, “mean something.” I knew what he meant. The rain stopping, my high school classmate opening the crypt for us, the timing of it all. It was enough to make me pause, chicken skin notwithstanding.


But what does it all mean?

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Honolulu Magazine July 2019