A Ghost-Lover’s Guide to Haunted Malibu
There’s nothing like a good ghost story, especially one rooted in local lore. From its legacy as a trendy hub on the California coast to its Hollywood connections, Malibu boasts a rich past with its fair share of hair-raising tales.
For visitors of the paranormal persuasion, four of the region’s spookiest sites are easily accessible from the (ghost-free) sanctuary of Malibu Beach Inn. Here’s where to explore the haunted history of Malibu — or shall we say, Mali-boo.
Saddle Peak Lodge
Outside of business hours, there’s a certain quiet surrounding this iconic Calabasas establishment that’s hard to describe. Deep in Malibu’s rugged foothills, it’s the type of weighted silence that flows with the layered history of a place.
Its history dates as far back as the 1880s, when the lodge (then a one-room eatery and general store) attracted sportsmen, cowboys, miners, and oil riggers who stopped to restock provisions, imbibe on locally brewed “Hillbilly Punch,” and trade stories under the shadow of Saddle Peak. As the area evolved into a summer resort called Crater Camp, and later a beloved Hollywood hangout, colorful tales of life and death accrued into the 20th century.
Today, Saddle Peak Lodge (now an award-winning restaurant) looks deceivingly small from its shrub-shrouded façade, but those who enter will discover an unfolding arrangement of chambers that reveal a century’s-worth of structural expansions. Dominated by timbers and native stone, the rustic interior brims with bygone artifacts, mysterious paintings, glassy-eyed taxidermy, and, according to witnesses, regular paranormal occurrences.
There’s Table 41, which sometimes seats a ghostly woman with long black hair. Or the spirit of a burly, booze-loving poker player, who reportedly shuffles bottles of alcohol around as he roams. In the women’s restroom, some think the mirror is actually a portal trapping a particularly nasty former patron, and others swear the lobby is an epicenter for supernatural energy.
While visitors to this region of the Santa Monica Mountains should come to Saddle Peak Lodge for the Michelin-starred wild game selections, they should stay for a potentially otherworldly experience. Lucky nighttime guests might even hear the reported rowdy laughter of Richard Burton and the Hollywood Rat Pack as they toss bones to coyotes from the restaurant’s rear terraces.
A century ago, Malibu’s coastal stretch was considered L.A.’s unincorporated and sometimes lawless “west side.” Wedged between the PCH and the sea, Duke’s foundation is awash with some of the city’s wilder history — and loaded with ghost stories to match. The coastal bluff was originally home to the Las Flores Inn restaurant and a neighboring brothel that teemed with gambling and various other vices for the illicit pleasure of visiting “east siders.”
That was until 1944, when a Greek immigrant named Chris “The Captain” Polos purchased Las Flores Inn and built it into his own legacy, The Sea Lion. Never missing a day of work, The Captain helmed the establishment for 40 years until he sold it to the current owners of Duke’s Malibu, under the condition he could continue as head manager. The Captain stayed until his death in 1986 at the age of 99, but plenty believe that not even the afterlife could keep him from his prized institution.
While modern day Duke’s mostly purveys the spirit of aloha, its staff will likely recant their own dealings with the restaurant’s other spirits — including regular encounters with The Captain fussing over operations — just like he did in the flesh. Another presence, this one decidedly female, can sometimes be seen drifting along the dining room’s 300-foot oceanfront window or guarding the ladies’ room to ensure no men are admitted.
Keeping with the establishment’s repertoire for customer service, the ghosts who allegedly haunt it are said to be friendly. Lone diners sometimes report waiter-like apparitions asking if there’s anything else they need to satisfy their meal.
Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café
Perhaps Malibu’s best-known ghost is Thelma Todd, an entrepreneur and Hollywood star known as “The Ice Cream Blonde” who starred in 120 feature and short films between 1926 and 1935. In the summer of 1934, she opened a sidewalk café on the PCH which quickly became a quintessential spot for tourists and fellow Hollywood celebrities.
In December 1935, at the age of 29, Todd was found dead in her car under suspicious conditions, inside a garage only a block from her restaurant. While her death was ruled as self-inflicted carbon monoxide poisoning, Todd’s closest friends remained skeptical.
Despite the passing of over eight decades, the circumstances around the actor’s death remain a mystery, although theories of murder persist. Sometimes regarded as her era’s equivalent of Marilyn Monroe, Todd may have become a target for criminals seeking to use her fame as a means to their own lucrative ends. One theory posits that she defied the infamous Lucky Luciano, who was in L.A. trying to establish a gambling syndicate and may have sought the celebrity-stocked café as an ideal venue for an illegal casino.
Given her untimely demise before the peak of her career, it is thought that Todd has unfinished business in Malibu. Observers claim to commonly spot her immaculately dressed ghost wandering around the vicinity of her titular café (now a mixed-use commercial building), and on an outdoor staircase leading to her former apartment above.
Photo: National Park Service via Flickr / CC BY
One of Malibu’s most celebrated hiking areas is also home to one of its most eerie and enduring ghost stories. Before 1,000 privately owned acres in Solstice Canyon were opened to the public in 1988, they served as the family ranch of successful Santa Monica grocer Fred Roberts. On this ranch in 1952, Fred and his wife Florence commissioned their “Tropical Terrace,” an immaculate mansion designed by famed architect Paul Williams and built into a breathtaking landscape of lush vegetation and waterfalls.
The businessman passed away in 1976, and six years later, the Santa Ana winds fanned a raging wildfire that destroyed his architectural marvel, leaving only stone and brick in its ashy wake. Many who have hiked the area since believe that Fred himself also lingered. Around the mansion’s remains, his moaning spirit is sometimes said to materialize in a spontaneous burst of flame.
Unexplained pockets of cold air, creepy voices drifting through shivering leaves, and other skin-prickling encounters have also been reported along the Solstice Canyon Trail. A favorite story among ghost-seekers is that of the “burned spirit.” Possibly a victim of one of the region’s wildfires, or the flames of Tropical Terrace, she is said to invoke the smell of something burning in anyone nearby.