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.
This story originally appeared online in October 2015.
If you see a faceless obake on old pali road, keep driving.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino
Hawai‘i is one of the most isolated island chains on earth. Add to that a mix of Hawaiian and immigrant cultures, each with their own supernatural beliefs, and you have a potent recipe for eerie late-night stories. Look around with the right eyes, and the Islands are full of ghosts.
There are stories I never liked sharing.
About an overnight stay in an old dorm in Kalaupapa on Moloka‘i when I watched the manifestation of a nurse stand over the bed of my roommate, who had been coughing all night.
About the Japanese hiker who followed us down the Keālia Trail in Mokulē‘ia late one morning, then vanished on one of the switchbacks, and no one else saw him.
About the strange scratches around my ankles for a week after my best friend’s cat had died. (I hated that cat.)
And yet, we all have them. Stories about unaccounted for shadows or schizophrenic televisions. Stories about seeing the spirits of dead relatives or getting a strange chill when you walk down a dark hallway or into an empty elevator. Stories about Pele, fiery orbs of light in graveyards, the drumming of night marchers, faceless ghosts.
There’s a universal theme that runs through these tales, says Dennis Ogawa, professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa: “We all want to know what happens when we die. Where do we go? Do we still live on?”
These tales of the supernatural and the unexplained are as much a part of the culture of Hawai‘i as plate lunches and slack key music. They’re stories we share at potlucks, over hibachis and after a few drinks at pau hana. Everyone knows someone who’s seen or felt something, and we repeat these stories with gleeful abandon, recounting every chilling detail until it’s almost as if we’ve experienced it ourselves.
Except for me.
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.
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.
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?
To spiritually sensitive visitors, Mauna ‘Ala, the Royal Mausoleum, is heavy with the presence of the generations of Hawaiian ali‘i buried there.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino
The ghost sightings and paranormal activity in Hawai‘i, experts say, are almost always linked to our sharing of cultures, dating back to the plantation era. And there’s a lesson in these stories.
“I believe this is all meant to remind us to be respectful and cautious,” Kapanui says, now in the Mō‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery in front of the odd stone monument marking the grave of Myles Fukunaga, who, in 1928, kidnapped 10-year-old George Gill Jamieson, the son of the Hawaiian Trust Co. executive who was going to evict the Fukunaga family from the house they were renting. Fukunaga demanded and received a $10,000 ransom, but he bludgeoned the boy to death anyway. Fukunaga was hanged at O‘ahu Prison the following year and buried here.
Someone—Kapanui isn’t sure who—still leaves offerings at Fukunaga’s grave.
But he didn’t bring me here to talk about Fukunaga. He wanted to show me another grave nearby.
It had a small headstone engraved with kanji. In front of it was an aluminum can of POG, its label faded by the sun, and a pack of bubblegum.
This Mō‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery headsone is said to be haunted by a 7-year-old boy.
The story goes, that in the summer of 2008, Kapanui had taken a tour through this cemetery to see the gravesite of Fukunaga. As with the ghost tours led by his mentor, the late Glen Grant, Kapanui has always focused on sharing the culture and history of Hawai‘i through these spooky tales.
On this particular tour, he saw a young Japanese boy, about 7 years old, sitting at this grave, telling Kapanui that he was waiting for his mom who promised him guava juice and Bazooka bubble gum. Before Kapanui returned to his tour, the little boy asked him, “Why don’t you ever stop here and say hi?” And that’s when he realized this wasn’t a real boy. Ever since then, Kapanui pays his respects by stopping at this grave and saying hello—and people who have heard this story leave the boy guava juice and bubble gum.
It’s not just Japanese people who leave these token offerings.
Stories like these cross cultural and religious boundaries. Many ethnic groups have some kind of belief in the afterlife and their own supernatural lore. The Japanese have their obake and bakemono, preternatural creatures in Japanese folklore, and ghosts of faceless women said to haunt places like Kāhala Mall and Kapi‘olani Community College. The “choking ghost,” or kanashibari, is also a Japanese import, and one I’ve experienced firsthand dozens of times, most recently in a rental in Hawai‘i Kai. I would feel a heavy pressure on my chest as I slept, so oppressive I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t even open my eyes. I would claw and kick and gasp for air until, all at once, the pressure would disappear and I would wake up sweating and panting. Many say this is just sleep paralysis, a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations. I suppose that would explain the long-haired Japanese obachan who I would often seen lying next to me after an episode of paralysis.
Photos: Aaron Yoshino
The Filipinos brought with them the tales of the aswang, a vampirelike monster that’s been spotted in the ‘Ewa Plain and known to terrorize pregnant women. This creature, a shapeshifter, often appears in human form by day and a monster at night. Some say the aswang likes to suck the amniotic fluid from pregnant women through their belly buttons using their long, serpent-like tongues and feast on the fetus.
And the Hawaiians have their legends of mischievous menehune, powerful pōhaku, and the mana that remain in the iwi (bones) of ancestors.
“Hawai‘i is the only place where you don’t mess around with the bones,” professor Ogawa says. “It’s written into the laws what you can and cannot do. The spirits are still there, and you have to respect those spirits.”
The Na Huaka‘i o Ka Pō, or “Marchers of the Night,” are among the most respected supernatural entities in Hawai‘i, up there with Pele and menehune. Hawaiians believe spirits return to the places that were familiar to them when they were alive. These spirits of ancient Hawaiian warriors set out at sunset during certain lunar phases every month, marching from burial sites along ancient roads to battlefields, heiau or other sacred sites. They announce their arrival with the blowing of conch shells and the beating of drums. Legend warns that anyone looking at or seen by these warrior spirits would die. Kapanui says an uncle was trampled by such night marchers, leaving his face visibly disfigured.
Some people say that they hear the sound of laughter in Mākua Cave, supposedly from ghost of a murdered girl.
While night marchers are a common sight along the Wai‘anae Coast, other Hawaiian deities abound. Nanaue, the shark god, is said to live in Mākua (or Kaneana) Cave near Ka‘ena Point and wait for lonesome travelers to wander inside. The god, a shapeshifter, appears as a man, offering them food and ‘awa. When these travelers become lethargic, he changes into his shark form and kills them, letting their bodies rot first before he consumes them. Kapanui says when the cave smells of pungent līpoa, Nanaue is near and his kahu are supposed to come and feed him.
And, in the same way that foods and customs were swapped and mingled among the ethnic camps of Hawai‘i plantations, so were their ghosts and monsters and deities. You don’t have to be Japanese to experience kanashibari or Hawaiian to hear the drumming of night marchers.
“The great thing about our ghosts and gods in Hawai‘i,” Kapanui says, “is that they don’t discriminate.”
With more than 2,000 graves packed into a relatively small space, the Mō‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery is full of memories of previous generations.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino
Since 2009, Spooky Kine Investigations has helped families and companies with paranormal activity, approaching each case with an open mind and a sensitivity to the cultural differences of its clients. While these ghost hunters are armed with scientific equipment like audio recorders, full-spectrum cameras and Mel Meters, which measure both electromagnetic fields and temperature simultaneously, they also bring their own cultural and spiritual beliefs to each case, says Gabriel Del Aragon, the company’s cultural adviser.
“We try to use what we know and whatever information we can get from our equipment to figure out what’s going on that’s strange,” he says.
The calls are as varied as the people making them, with the lines between ethnic folklore blurring. They’ve visited military families with spirits lurking in their homes and gotten calls about a female apparition—some say it’s the spirit of Princess Ka‘iulani—wandering around Honolulu Hale. (Security guards have said they hear women laughing and singing and children playing in the building.)
And once, they took their equipment to Ulupō Heiau, a massive stone temple located on the eastern edge of Kawai Nui Marsh behind the YMCA in Kailua. Legend says this ancient heiau, which may have been used as a luakini (place for human or animal sacrifice) was built by menehune hundreds of years ago before being abandoned in the 1780s after O‘ahu was conquered.
“I remember hearing people talking. It sounded like little kids playing in the bushes,” Del Aragon says, adding the group heard a splash, as if something had jumped into the wet marsh. “When we listened to the audio after, you could definitely hear this slithering breathing. You could hear a voice say, ‘Stay back.’”
This heiau has long been a popular stop on ghost tours, partly because of its accessibility but mostly because of the dozens of stories about fireballs and night marchers encountered here. One story, published in Rick Carroll’s Hawai‘i’s Best Spooky Tales (Bess Press, 1997), centered on a woman who had recently moved to Hawai‘i from the Mainland and went on a ghost tour to the heiau. Skeptical of the sacredness of this site, she proceeded to stand in the middle of the stone platform, even kicking around some rocks. “What’s the big deal?” she asked the rest of the group, her horrified co-workers at an O‘ahu hotel. “It’s a big pile of rocks. Get over it.”
The next day, according to the story, the woman’s legs were red and swollen so badly she couldn’t walk. Her doctor told her the blood in her legs wasn’t circulating and he wasn’t sure why. But a Hawaiian kahu had a different explanation, telling her the redness and swelling was coming from the spirits that were clinging onto her legs so tightly they were cutting off blood circulation. After returning to the heiau with an offering and apology, her legs returned to normal and she never made the mistake of showing disrespect again.
It’s the same theme you’ll see in stories told by ghost-tour guides or storytellers: “It’s about respect for the dead or the dead won’t respect you,” Ogawa says. “And that’s always been there. It’s just stronger in our local culture. You don’t mess with the spirits.”
LOPAKA KAPANUI SHOWS OFF THE RUINS OF KANIAKAPŪPŪ, ALSO KNOWN AS KING KAMEHAMEHA III’S SUMMER HOME, IN NU‘UANU VALLEY.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino
In the midmorning daylight, the collection of plantation homes in Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village in Waipahu looks innocuous, almost inviting. This outside museum is a time warp back to life on sugar plantations in Hawai‘i from 1850 to 1950. The 50-acre village features restored buildings and replicas of plantation structures including a plantation store, an infirmary, a community bathhouse and homes of families from various ethnic groups.
These 25 plantation homes are filled with artifacts from real families who lived on Island plantations: framed photos, dolls in glass cases, copper pots, teakettles, quilts, crocheted doilies, crucifixes and statues of Jesus.
About half of these homes are haunted, say those most familiar with their history. The Portuguese house is said to be haunted by the ghost of a playful young girl. The Japanese doll encased in glass is often found outside its case in the Puerto Rican home. And one worker claims a choking ghost from the Okinawan house followed him home.
These tales have made the village a perfect location for a Halloween attraction.
In its 10th year, Haunted Plantation takes thrill-seekers on a tour of the village at night, slightly transformed with the help of a fog machine, spooky music and at least 50 costumed actors hiding in dark corners in the houses.
But, honestly, it doesn’t need the special effects.
“We don’t build haunted houses,” says Noa Laporga, the Haunted Plantation creator. “Our houses are already haunted.”
While that’s good for business—the village attracts between 300 and 1,000 people a night during its 10-night run—Laporga has had actors quit because of the hauntings. At least two have complained about feeling choked while working in the Okinawan home and others, including his mother, have experienced the kolohe spirit of a young Portuguese girl in the village. “My mom felt something in her pocket, her keys moving,” Laporga says, as we stand outside the Portuguese home with a cross hanging above the front door. “She was pulling out the Hello Kitty (keychain) in her pocket. It was kind of cute.”
These anecdotal spooky tales have only fueled the growing interest in Laporga’s Haunted Plantation. People are here to see the real ghosts, not to be spooked by actors in costumes.
“It’s a mystery for people, things that are unseen,” Laporga says. “It’s that curiosity. People are always going to be curious.”
Not everyone is curious. I’m definitely not. I would rather go through life without ever seeing a strange reflection in the mirror or a shadowy figure leaning over me as
Even as I write this, I’m acutely aware of everything around me. A soft breath against my ear, a whiff of perfume, the front door suddenly slamming shut on a still afternoon.
I wonder if I’ve confessed too much.
The rest of the night, as I pored over notes and flipped through books about ghost stories and Hawaiian folklore, I could sense the unrest. I snapped on every single light in the house, changed the channel on the TV to some innocuous cooking show, and kept my three dogs and burly husband close.
At the very least, I was going to survive the night. The rest of the week, though, would be a mystery.
Here are some common superstitions you’ll hear:
NEVER walk over a body on the floor
DON’T SPIT in the kitchen sink
WHEN YOU GIVE someone a knife as a gift, be sure to include money
NEVER POINT at a grave
DON’T BRING an empty box to someone’s house
DON’T CUT hair or nails at night
NEVER STICK chopsticks straight into a bowl of rice
SALT wards off evil spirits
DON’T WHISTLE at night or the spirits will follow you
DON’T POINT at the moon
WHEN YOU LEAVE a funeral, throw salt over your shoulder so the spirits won’t follow you home
A MOTH OR BUTTERFLY is a family ancestor visiting
Need more chicken skin in your life? Try these resources.
VISIT THE Haunted Plantation, where you walk through a collection of plantation homes already known to be haunted.
October 9, 10, 16–18, 23–25, 30 and 31, $15 general admission, $20 fast pass, $30 VIP front-of-the-line access, 7 to 11:30 p.m., Hawai‘i Plantation Village, 94-695 Waipahu St., Waipahu, hawaiihauntedplantation.com.
Photo: David Croxford
READ Obake Files: Ghostly Encounters in Supernatural Hawai‘i by Glen Grant (Mutual Publishing, 2000), the quintessential collection of modern Hawai‘i ghost stories.
TAKE A TOUR of spooky sites with master storyteller Lopaka Kapanui with Mysteries of Hawai‘i, O‘ahu’s original ghost tour. He offers a variety of tours, including two-hour walking tours of downtown Honolulu and Waikīkī.
Most tours cost $40 per person. 673-9099, mysteries-of-hawaii.com.
About the Author
Throughout her entire life on O‘ahu, Catherine Toth Fox has been spooked by spirits, some of which follow her home. Until this story, she has never written about her personal supernatural experiences—and probably won’t again. (Too stressful.) Instead, this former newspaper reporter will stick to writing about food, travel and other experiences for local and national magazines, newspapers and websites from the comfort of her home. Which isn’t haunted (anymore).