Old saloons collect ghost stories like they collect stale beer smell – when enough people drink enough rye, eventually, someone’s going to see something strange – but at West Hollywood’s historic Barney’s Beanery, the ghosts don’t just come from the bottom of bottles. They’re everywhere.
Like any establishment that sticks around long enough, Barney’s has come into a sort of rough-around-the-edges gentility now, but there was a time when the place was known for fistfights, bikers and slumming Hollywood elite – the perfect setting for an L.A. ghost story.
When word got around the place that FEARnet was looking into the stories of Barney’s ghosts, the bar’s employees lined up to tell their stories. The busboys see phantasmos in the kitchen. The waitresses see specters by the bar. The managers see strange shadows late at night. At Barney’s, everyone sees dead people.
“People feel like someone is watching over them,” Barney’s waitress Roxanne Folsom said. “You feel weird chills. So many people have told me about it.”
Employees reporting hauntings is one thing, but we wanted to see the ghosts firsthand, so we talked Barney’s management into locking us in the place overnight to conduct a paranormal investigation. With this many ghosts, it was perhaps tall order for novice investigators, but with the courage of the foolhardy, we said goodbye to the manager at 3 AM (the "Soul’s Midnight") and began our hunt.
As the door locked behind us, a strange calm came over the rowdy bar. The chatter of the patrons and barmaids was replaced with the forlorn buzzing of neon beer signs, and the memorabilia on the walls begins to seem somehow sinister. Spooky pictures of long-ago Halloween parties, yellowing newspapers from the 1940s, hundreds of old license plates, and ancient graffiti give the place an unnerving ambience at 3 AM.
Along with the marks of nearly a century’s worth of uncouth rummies, there’s evidence of the restaurants more famous former patrons too. Pictures of Marilyn Monroe, who used to go slumming here in the 1950s, a plaque on the bar commemorating the time Doors lead singer Jim Morrison whipped it out and relieved himself right on the bar, and even a table with “Janis” scratched in it – a “gift” from Janis Joplin, a frequent guest who spent some of her last day on earth at Barney’s.
And there’s the glass eye over the billiards table.
Legend has it, a drunken pool game got out of hands sometimes in the 1970s, and the stakes got very high indeed.
“They were betting cash, and the guy who lost didn’t have any,” Explained long-time Barney’s waitress and manager Dominique Kadison. “The winner said, ‘If you can’t pay up, I’ll take your eye,’ and he gave it up. There it is, right up there.”
Does the spirit of a one-eyed billiards player haunt the place, searching for his missing ocular prosthetic? It could be him, or could be any of the other countless drunks and cads who passed through this place. At least three murders have taken place at Barney’s, so perhaps the dead return to avenge some long-forgotten barroom slight.
After our initial sweep of the eerie dining room and bar, we descended a narrow set of stairs into Barney’s refrigerated basement – the location of many employee-reported ghost encounters.
“Most of the sighting takes place down in the cooler,” explained Kadison, “It was dug in 1995, and there was nothing below the surface, so who knows what is down below ground?”
The gray, industrial rooms of Barney’s cooler carry such strong negative energy, many employees are afraid to set foot in there at all.
“There was a time, for weeks, where I just would not go down there by myself,” waitress Roxanne Folsom said. “I always felt like I was going to see something, and I didn’t want to."
Ashway Lawver, another Barney’s waitress, did see something in the basement. She reports a sighting of an off-white, amoeba-like blob... a blob that that wanted to look up her skirt. “I went down to the basement to grab some pickles, and I was wearing a little jean miniskirt,” Lawver said. “I leaned over to get some pickles from the bucket, and just felt like, woosh across the back of my skirt. I thought someone was behind me, lifting my skirt, but I turned around and no one was there.”
Employees have reported a tall man, dressed in 1800s evening clothes, complete with top hat, skulking through the walk-in refrigerator before disappearing into a solid wall, as well as floating orbs, and ghostly children.
“We have two cooks who won’t come back to the store,” Dominique said. “At closing one night, they saw two little boys with really long teeth, long fingernails, and long hair. The little boys looked at the cooking knives on the wall and the knives started to spin. They both saw it, ran out of there, and never came back.”
Upon entering the freezer, we felt instantly chilled (possibly because it was a cooler, but possibly because of ghosts!), but we started our investigation. Our many photos of the freezer showed no evidence of orbs or other anomalies, and our experiments with EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) proved inconclusive. I asked many questions of the open air, and upon playing back the tape, was only able to discern the hum of a freezer as a response. My electromagnetic field device registered nothing but normal background magnetism in the basement, and the knives on the wall refused to spin. I guess Barney’s basement apparitions didn’t feel like playing this night.
While we didn’t see any top-hatted specters or long-toothed feral children, both Todd and I felt an unnerving sense of foreboding and dread among the canned food, kegs and industrial refrigeration equipment. Before long, we felt a strong urge return to the surface.
Stepping out of the claustrophobic basement, I mused as to whether some of the reported translucent orbs could be a result of eyeglasses fogging over from condensation. Perhaps. Or perhaps there’s a darker explanation.
Next, we swept the upstairs office and roof, where managers had reported seeing spectral shapes that sometimes set off the motion detectors. Again, no ghosts, no EMF activity and no EVP activity on my tape recorder.
Our final stop was a return to the main room and the bar. After a negative EMF sweep, we sat down at the table where Janis Joplin had carved her name. We broke out the Ouija board, and I convinced my somewhat skeptical photographer to lightly put his fingers on the board with me.
“Spirits! I call upon you to reveal yourself!” I said to no one, feeling increasingly silly as my experiments continued to fail. We concentrated on the Ouija board’s planchette, tuned to any movement of the needle... but there was not even a nudge.
I started to grow impatient. “Come on, guys. It’s late, we’re tired. What else do you have to do tonight?” I whined. But no matter what questions I asked, the spirit world remained resolutely silent.
It looked as if the entire investigation would result in no paranormal activity at all; a disappointing result for our first investigation. We started to pack up our gear to await the morning crew coming to let us out. Out of sheer boredom, Todd took a few more photographs of the booths. Including this one:
Neither of us saw the handprints in the background at the time. It wasn’t until later, when we processed the photo, that we noticed it. It could be a smudge on the glass... or it could be something else? Perhaps the mark of the ghostly children spotted in the basement?
Moments after this shot was taken, at around 4:30 AM, the EMF detector suddenly began shrilly beeping, indicating a sudden rise in the ambient electromagnetic fields in the room. The needle went crazy. It wasn’t just the meter, though; my internal ghost meter was off the charts too – the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and, for the first time all night, I felt real fear. Something was in that darkened bar with us. I could feel its presence, appraising us, coolly watching.
The shrill beeping got louder as the reading got higher, and I followed it around the building, mapping out a rough area in the middle of the dining room where the EMF was strongest.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, the gauge went silent. My hackles fell. It was like a candle blowing out: there and gone. As if whatever haunts Barney’s wanted to make sure we knew it was there, but wouldn’t respect our amateurish attempts at contact with anything more than a greeting… or a warning.
When the morning crew let us out of the building, dawn was breaking in West Hollywood, and the city was slowly coming back to life. The decorations seemed less eerie and dark shadows faded, as the workers prepared Barney’s for another day of serving chili and beer. Tourists and drinkers would soon fill the booths and barstools here, unaware of the ghostly presences that may walk among them, until someone spots a strange shadow from the corner of their eye or sees a form in the mirror behind the bar... waiting.