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Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Haunted Movie Star

    Surely we all remember Elke Sommer, the blond German bombshell whose curves and pretty face graced many a Hollywood comedy in the 1960s and later! She was, in the words of her then husband, journalist and screen writer, Joe Hyams, "a girl who once killed a rattlesnake in our backyard with a pair of garden shears, and who fears only spiders and critics." No doubt that was a good thing, because their home was different from the average Beverley Hills residence. It was haunted.
    On 6 July 1964, a few days after they moved in (I believe the address was 2633 Benedict Canyon), Elke was having afternoon coffee with her friend, Edith Dahlfeld, when the latter asked her if she were going to introduce her to the man who had just walked into the dining room from the hall. Thinking it was her husband, Elke entered the dining room, and then the kitchen. Both were empty. But Mrs Dahlfeld insisted she had seen a husky, broad-shouldered, 50-something man, thinning on top, and with a "potato" nose. He had been wearing dark slacks, a white shirt, and black tie.
    Two weeks later, Elke's mother was sleeping in the downstairs bedroom when she suddenly woke to find a man standing at the foot of her bed, staring at her. Just as she was about to scream for help, he vanished.
    Interestingly, neither Joe nor Elke ever saw the apparition, but about that time they started to hear noises from the dining room at night as if the chairs were being pushed back by a group of dinner guests in the process of departing. But the chairs themselves were never moved.
    Then, on 8 August, Elke left for filming in Yugoslavia. Alone in the house, Joe always had the uncanny feeling he was not alone - especially at night. Invariably, he would lock the downstairs bedroom window, but on three occasions it came open. Twice, he heard the front door open and shut, although it was always found bolted in the morning. And the noise of rearranging of furniture continued.
    So one day, he rigged up a system of microphones, radios, and tape recorder to the driveway, the front door, and the dining room, and he marked the position of the chairs on the floor with chalk. Then he retired to the upstairs bedroom and waited. Soon, the familiar noises began. A .38 calibre pistol in his hand, and silence in his tread, he sneaked downstairs and abruptly switched on the dining room light. Nothing. The sounds immediately stopped. The chairs were still within their chalk marks. But -
Upstairs later [he reported], I listened to the tape recording. The noises had stopped when I went downstairs. The sound of the switch snapping on, and even my nervous cough, had come through clearly - and so had the sound of chairs being moved after I left the room again.
    Somewhat unnerved, he invited a friend, George Mueller to stay with him, but made no mention of the ghost. Obligingly, the ghost stayed away. But once Joe went to Yugoslavia, and left George in the house alone, the latter found that every time he went into the dining room, the hairs would stand up on the back of his neck. He kept hearing strange noises, and the downstairs bedroom window came open.
    Mr Mueller always locked up the house at night, but the private detective hired to check up on it found the windows open on several occasions, although nothing was missing. Once, when Mueller was absent, the private eye kept it under 24 hour surveillance. At 2.30 am, all the lights suddenly went on, only to go off just before he reached the house. An electrician was unable to explain it. And, once the owners were back, the same old noises reoccurred.
    While they were away in 1965, a friend was asked to check on their house every now and then. But no matter how often he locked the house, a door would always come open. The man who cleaned the swimming pool asked who was staying in the house. No-one. But he saw a man in the dining room, and when he went to ask when the Hyams were coming back, the man evaporated in front of his eyes. The figure was of a big, heavy-set man about six feet tall, with a white shirt and a black tie. Just like the one Mrs Dahlfeld had seen.
    In September 1965, their friend, John Sherlock asked to stay overnight while they were away. But the next day, he cleared out. It turned out that he had entered about 11 pm, and had the strong feeling that someone was watching him. He left a light on in the hallway and went to bed in the downstairs bedroom about 12.45, but:
"Just as I started to climb into bed with my back to the hallway I felt certain someone was near and turned around. In the doorway I saw the figure of a man, almost six feet tall, staring at me. He was wearing dark trousers, a white shirt and a dark tie. I have never had such a feeling of menace."
    He got dressed and hurried into the hallway, but the spectre was gone. Nevertheless, Sherlock could feel his presence.
    What about the previous owners of the house? The people from whom they had bought it lived there only a year and a half. They never saw anything, but heard quite a bit. Then, when the wife was home alone, she was awakened about 11 am by footsteps in the dining room below. She called a friend and asked to stay with her. Then she locked herself in the bedroom and called a taxi. The taxi stopped in the driveway, and she waited for the driver to ring the bell. When he didn't, she called out from the upstairs window. When she finally got into the car, the driver told her that he had assumed the man standing by the door was the fare, but he simply vanished when she shouted from the window.
    The second owner told them they had stayed there only a year, because the wife was convinced it was haunted.
    By now, a lot of investigations had been completed.
The termite inspectors, private detectives and electronics experts say that no human being could have secret access to the house, and a thorough search of the premises proved that we don't have squirrels in the eaves, branches rubbing across windows, or reflecting areas that produce ghostly images. A geologist reported that the land is not shifting, and a construction man stated that the house is completely solid.
    It was time to bring in the A.S.P.R. : the American Society for Psychical Research. I always thought of psychic researchers as setting up infrared cameras, microphones, and fine threads and powder to detect physical intruders, but instead, the A.S.P.R. led through the house a long line of psychics or sensitives, all when the householders were absent, to ensure that the vibes they picked up were from the ethereal residents and not from the minds of the physical ones.
   The first one detected a heavy-set European man with a moustache, who was fond of music and spent his earthly life giving of himself. The one detected by the second psychic, on the contrary, was a real "monster": big, untidy, full of hate, and drunk. Psychic number three, however, discovered a 17-year-old blond girl who died three years before in Europe, and whose house had burned down in the interval. Elke was startled; the description precisely matched a woman she knew. But when two other psychics independently identified a 58-year-old doctor who died of a heart attack, Joe recognised a man he knew, and Elke recognised her father (who had been a Lutheran pastor).
    In fact, Elke felt strongly that the ghost was her father, but she was still concerned, so, after two years, they decided on an exorcism. Alas! They couldn't get a clergyman, so they settled for one of the psychics. Although she actually invoked the name of Jesus, it was obvious that, like the sons of Sceva (Acts 19:14-17), it was being treated as a magic word. The ghost was not impressed. You can't trade on the King's authority unless you have the King's commission. The phenomena returned that very night.
    And that is how far the article I am citing takes us. Joe Hyams insisted that he wouldn't allow a living person to drive him out of their house, and he wasn't going to let a dead one do so either. However, another website informs me that they changed their mind when forced to flee through the window from a mysterious fire. They had been awakened by a ghostly knocking on the bedroom door, so the ghost couldn't have been too bad. Hyams wrote a book about it called, The Day I Gave Up the Ghost. It is said that the house had changed hands seventeen times since they left it; that's an average of less than three years per owner. Something in that house discourages residents. I wonder if anyone is living there now and, if so, whether they would like to add to the story.
Reference: "A big man's ghost haunts us, says Elke's husband", by Joe Hyams, Pix, July 23, 1966, pp 2-4, 6-61. (This was an Australian weekly. The article was obviously syndicated, and would have appeared in a number of magazines. One was them was certainly Post (U.S.) of July 2, 1966, and I believe another was the Saturday Evening Post of June 3, 1967.)
Comments: This story illustrates a number of features of "ghosts", to which I shall return in later posts.
1. The apparition visible to some people but not others - which suggests some sort of psychic projection.
2.  The apparently pointless, obsessive repetition of simple activities, such as the opening of windows and the sound - but not the physical movement - of chairs. This suggests some sort of psychic tape played over and over again - except for the occasional deviation, such as the cessation of the sounds when the householder turned on the light, which suggests the presence of some sort of intelligence, however stunted and obsessive.
3. The unreliability of so-called "sensitives". Even if there were a whole tribe of lost souls inhabiting the house, it was amazing none of them detected any more than one. It is far more likely they were just communicating with their imaginative subconscious.


  1. Wow!!! I read this story in Readers Digest when I was a child, it scares and fascinated me, I read the article many times, thanks for your post!!!

    1. I also read this in Reader's Digest as a child! My grandmother gave me the November 1966 edition with the Elke Sommer ghost story, as well as the July 1967 edition that featured the story of Sukie, the English ghost at the George and Dragon Inn. Both stories scared the you-know-what out of me.

    2. I am glad to find this post. My family subscribed to Reader's Digest when I was young, and apparently I had confused these two articles, thinking they were one story. I would do a search now and then to see if I could find any information, as apparently some of the content of both stories stayed with me for many years. At least now I know they are two separate articles.