Julio's brown eyes open wide as he points to a dark cluster of banyan trees in Peacock Park. "I got a real evil feeling," the 22-year-old says, "when I was walking right over there!"
From the safety of a metal picnic table, a motley group of ten squints toward the trees. They tilt their heads like nervous teacup Chihuahuas.
Next Julio howls, "I heard footsteps! Then I saw it — a dark figure, a man! Squatting like this!" He places his hands over the hems of his navy-blue nylon knee-length shorts.
Coconut Grove ghost tour
"All I heard were footsteps," adds Misty, Julio's 21-year-old, Olive Oyl-look-alike wife. "I didn't see anything."
"That's because you don't believe it," Julio snaps.
We're on the Original Ghost Tour of Coconut Grove (ghostgrove.com). It's a half-mile walking excursion during which Sandy Walker — a curvy woman wearing a black sun hat and an electric-blue sash — shuffles patrons to a few of the Grove's spookiest spots. Sandy, who appears to be in her 40s, has been leading the $26 tour for about five years. She claims to have had a paranormal experience at the beautiful stone-adorned Plymouth Congregational Church in her early 20s.
"I had brought two of my girlfriends to the church to check it out. I remember thinking it was so lovely and romantic and that one day I'd like to be married in it." As they admired the layout, a dark female figure appeared. "She wasn't very attractive, and she was short, but because she was levitating about four feet off the ground, she rose above us. She was wearing heavy robes, had a serious look on her face, and her hair was slicked back into a tight bun. She floated from the back of the room to the front, twice, and then disappeared."
Sandy started the Grove tour after working on the famous Key West ghost tours. This day, she begins with a caveat: "We're going to a location with a high level of paranormal activity. A woman from a previous tour contacted me recently because she keeps on getting a date from the 1800s texted to her phone at the same time very late at night."
Our first stop, about 7:45 p.m., is the Coconut Grove Playhouse. On the cobblestone sidewalk, Sandy provides historical factoids: The place opened as a movie theater in 1927. And it had a 15-foot-tall basement, which led parts of the building to sink into the ground. A dressing room, known as Apartment #5, is haunted with a "vortex of energy."
Then we are told to open our palms next to the glass panels on the closed theater's heavy front door. "Do any of you feel anything?"
A girl rocking Bettie Page bangs and a Twilight T-shirt says she feels a little warmth.
"Interesting," says Sandy. "See, the world is covered with lines of energy. Think of fishnet stockings stretched over a beach ball, all of those lines are energy. And one of those lines goes right through this door."
A sultry redhead with curious brown eyes and a flowing, boho style places her ringed fingers over the same area. She explains she's a high priestess with the magical name Valkyrie Algiz and then reports, "It's kind of cold."
"Do you feel little sparks on your fingers?" Julio asks.
"Yes!" she replies.
Then a mousy brunette in gray drawstring sweatpants puts her hand over the special spot. "I don't feel shit," she says.
We cross Main Highway and head north to the Barnacle State Historic Park. Sandy gives us the down-low on Ralph and Amelia Munroe: In the late 19th Century, Ralph fell in love with the property during a sailing trip. Shortly thereafter, his bride, Amelia, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He used her illness as an excuse to buy the Biscayne Bay property. She died 18 months later. Her grave, among the oldest in Miami-Dade County, sits directly outside the Coconut Grove Branch Library.
We head to Fuller Street, where we stop in front of Aruj Salon & Spa. Sandy tells us about Sarah, a girl who was hit by a car in the Grove 27 years ago. Apparently, she still haunts drivers by randomly jumping out in front of speeding vehicles on Main Highway. And she likes to hang out inside the salon because it makes her feel "carefree and beautiful." Maybe this ghost is also the salon's PR person.
Sandy then advises us to bust out our digital cameras. Seems it's easier to catch paranormal activity in photos than with the naked eye. So we all begin snapping away.
Then two frat guys drinking cans of Coors Light stumble over from Sandbar Sports Grill and slur, "What the hell are you freaks doing?"
We ignore them and walk toward Grand Avenue, where we pass the scariest thing I've seen all night — a shop window featuring six white, bikini-clad mannequins with plastic jack-o'-lanterns as heads. We stop at Maya Hatcha, a hippie-dippy ethnic clothing store where a kind phantasm once saved an employee from falling by grabbing her elbow.
Next it's Peacock Park, the final and most paranormal locale. On the way, Julio lays out a metaphor to explain the difference between God and Satan. "See, God is like your father. He wants to protect you and keep you away from harm. But Satan is like your drunk uncle who's always trying to get you to go to the strip club."
He then says, between puffs of two chain-smoked cigarettes, he one day would like to slay Satan — with God's permission, of course. Up in Connecticut, he adds, a female spirit stalked him and eventually followed him home.
Once in the park, we sit on a metal picnic bench near a skating ramp, basketball court, and playground. Our guide gestures toward a wall about 100 yards away that connects to the Barnacle. She says she's going to stroll throughout the area and that we should take pictures of her as she walks. She embarks and we click. About two minutes later, she returns, and Julio heads into the darkness with his wife. We snap more pictures. Next up is Valkyrie.
Sandy points out that Valkyrie's energy is flowing from her fingertips and that she's shape-shifting.
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I see nothing.
Then, as I walk into the blackness, I feel my palms begin to sweat. My knees quiver. But, alas, I don't hear, smell, see, or sense anything out of the ordinary.
When I return, Julio's girl squeals and pushes her digital camera at me. "Oh my God!" she says. "Look! There's a huge orb right by you in this pic!"
I stare down at it. She's right. Near me is a large, white, floating ball. Weird thing is, all the lights are out in the park. But maybe it was the flash on someone else's camera or a glitch. Then again, I really don't know.