TAMPA — A journalist and a filmmaker set out to spend the night at one of the nation’s most haunted buildings to investigate.
What could go wrong?
According to horror movies, everything.
We did not make it through the night.
Something might have spoken to us.
Something might have touched us.
Was it real or our imagination?
Cuban Club’s hauntings
Patrick Manteiga, president of the Cuban Club Foundation, has never seen a ghost there, but doesn’t doubt the claim.
“I know several credible people who say they have been touched by something or heard something,” he said. “They say they’ve seen the elevator moving floors on its own and heard people singing and a piano playing when no one is there. I have no reason to disbelieve them.”
The Cuban Club has hundreds of ghosts, said Steve Stamberger, a tour guide with The Official Ybor City Ghost Tour, but it is primarily haunted by four people who died there.
There is a boy who drowned in a pool once located in the basement, an actor who died by suicide in the theater, a member of the board of directors who was shot in the face and a woman in a white gown and red shoes who was pushed from a balcony onto the road when she refused to dance with a man.
In 1934, according to news archives, board member Bellarmino Vallejo was shot and killed inside the club. But archives indicate that it was a stomach wound. The Tampa Bay Times could not verify the other deaths.
Stamberger said he and others on his tours have seen the woman in white.
“I’ve seen a woman fall down crying, screaming that Rosalita was walking toward her,” he said.
As a child, I swore I lived in a haunted house.
On multiple occasions, I woke to a tall man standing over me. He didn’t look like a ghost. He looked like a person.
He was always jovial until he realized I was catatonic from fear. “Speak up, boy,” he would then scream repeatedly until I dove under my covers and buried my ears between pillows.
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On one occasion, I woke to a woman next to my bed. She looked like a ghost — white and floating.
Another time, as I was in bed, I saw black dashes appearing on my bedroom wall as though being drawn by an invisible person with an invisible Sharpie. My parents blamed me for the marks the next morning.
It all seemed so real. But, as I grew older, it became less real, especially when I gravitated toward a career as a journalist who works with facts. I decided it was a figment of my imagination.
Still, I was not brave enough to go on my own when I decided to spend the night at the Cuban Club, from 10 p.m. until sunrise.
I asked Joe Davison to come because he is a horror movie writer, director, producer and actor best known for making 100 Tears, about a killer clown, and for being devoured by a Demogorgon in Season 2 of Stranger Things.
I figured he knew the rules for survival if something horrific happened.
“There are rules?” he asked without a hint of levity.
But I’m faster than Davison and he forgot a flashlight. I remained confident that I could escape a horror scene at his expense.
Cuban Club history
The Cuban Club was founded as a social and social services organization for Cuban immigrants. Today, the club’s primary focus is to share Ybor City’s Cuban history. It’s also working to restore the building, which serves as an events venue.
The building itself looks like it was built to appear haunted and maintained to continue that illusion.
Why else would the founders have wanted soulless-eyed cherubs to line the ceiling above the theater stage? Why else would the dressing room be furnished with a withering card table adorned with a single chair facing the wall as though it is awaiting a victim of the Blair Witch? And, why else, on the floor behind the card table, would there be an old mirror with “Help me” scribbled in the dust?
I wondered if that creepy atmosphere was responsible for the alleged ghost sightings.
“In my experience, there is usually a reason other than a ghost,” said paranormal investigator Miki Strange — her real last name. “Drafts from old or poor windows, floors creaking, a frog, an owl, you name it. But when you are on high alert, everything seems paranormal.”
Creeping through the building, engulfed in darkness and silence, I jumped at a booming noise. A ghost? No. It was the air conditioner turning on.
There was something in the theater’s projection booth. A ghost? No, it was my flashlight reflecting off the spotlight.
The building’s salon had no smell one moment and then a perfumelike fragrance the next. A ghost? No, it was a plug-in air freshener doing its job.
Then my pen went missing moments after I put it on the basement bar. It was probably blown to the floor by the air conditioning, I figured. A second pen went missing after I placed it on the stage. Again, I figured, it probably rolled away. I began to wonder if someone or something was messing with me when a third pen went missing in the ballroom.
Davison swore it wasn’t him.
“Ghosts can move things,” Strange said. “Things go missing and show up in bizarre places. But you could also have just lost the pens in the dark.”
In the theater, Davison paced the stage asking if anyone was with us while recording with his phone. After the sixth or so time he posed that question, we both heard what sounded like a man clearing his throat nearby. The sound was on Davison’s recording, too.
So, Davison again paced the stage, again asking if anyone was with us. Davison and I both heard what sounded like a woman replying, “Ya, ya, ya.”
We rewound the audio for a second listen.
We heard Davison asking if anyone was with us.
The tape muted just before the spot where we should have heard the woman’s voice. There wasn’t even background noise. It was as though the sound was sucked from the recording. Moments later, we heard the audio of us discussing the voice. Only the ghostly portion was missing.
Stamberger claims to have experienced similar occurrences at the Cuban Club. Tour members have captured clear photographs of ghosts, he said, but the images later became too distorted to make out.
Ghosts can manipulate sound waves, Strange said, so they could possibly steal audio evidence, or maybe Davison accidentally messed up the recording.
“I’d suggest going back again during the day and looking for reasons for the noises,” said Strange, who has not investigated the Cuban Club. She believes it is haunted, but remained neutral about what Davison and I experienced. “Stick around that night and ask the same thing at the same place.”
Pressed on whether he thinks ghosts spoke to us, Davison said he did not know, “but I think that ballroom is haunted.”
During our third visit to the ballroom, I got chills and goosebumps as I stepped from the wooden floor onto a carpet in the back corner, but there was no air conditioning vent nearby.
The air felt heavier in that spot.
I was also overcome with extreme sadness. I was neither sad, nor had reason to be, but felt like I wanted to drop to the floor and sob.
I repeatedly stepped from that spot, was fine, stepped back onto it and had the same experience.
Strange said that has happened to her during investigations. Transferring their “emotion is an easy way for ghosts to communicate with us, to let us know they are there.”
But it was also 2 a.m. and I am a lame 45-year-old father of four who usually goes to bed by 10:30 p.m.
Either a ghost was haunting me, or I was so tired that I was hallucinating.
I’ve seen too many horror movies about similar investigations to take a risk. I was in no mood to battle a demon or team with Whoopi Goldberg to help a spirit find peace.
“I’m done,” I told Davison. “I am totally done with this place. I’m going home to sleep in my house that is not creepy.”
I may also have been shaking and screaming four-letter words. But, like the existence of ghosts, you can’t prove that.