Pamela Hallan-Gibson, who is leading a "ghost walk" of San Juan Capistrano tonight, is not surprised that the Orange County Public Library-sponsored tour through the Los Rios Historic District has been booked for weeks.
"Last year I think we ended up with about six nights' worth of tours, ranging from either one to four tours on each of those nights," Gibson said. "The reason they did it again this year is because they had a waiting list. They had no idea it was going to be so popular."
So what's the assistant city manager of La Palma doing leading a "ghost walk" through the old mission town anyway?
The San Juan Capistrano native, it turns out, is something of a home-grown expert on the subject of ghosts and things that go bump in the night.
Gibson, 45, is the author of "Ghosts and Legends of San Juan Capistrano," which she self-published in 1983.
The 55-page illustrated volume is one of five Orange County history books Gibson, a former newspaper reporter who received her master's degree in public administration in 1980, has written over the past 14 years. Her latest book, "The Bench and the Bar: A Centennial View of Orange County Legal History" (Windsor), will be in bookstores in December.
"Ghosts and Legends" grew out of a brief chapter in Gibson's first book, "Dos Cientos Anos en San Juan Capistrano," an historical overview of the community sponsored by the city's Bicentennial Committee in 1976. (Copies of "Ghosts and Legends," $5, will be on sale tonight at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library.)
Although "Ghosts and Legends" deals with various local folk tales and legendary characters, Gibson said the book's major feature is the ghost stories.
"Many of them came from stories that were told in the community that I happened to hear and write down over the years," Gibson said. "Some came from people who believe in ghosts and felt they had a haunted house and asked me what historical event occurred there. And some of the stories were ones I heard after my first book came out. People said, 'Gee, you didn't include this story, and it's been in my family a long time.' "
The most prominent ghost stories in San Juan Capistrano, according to Gibson, involve the so-called White Lady.
"There are multiple versions and they seem to be associated with different areas of town," she said. "The basic story involves the materialization of a female ghost who appears out of a swirling mist in a long white dress with long black hair. She's young and pretty. I have have never heard of an ugly White Lady."
The appearance of the White Lady, Gibson said, causes various things to happen:
"Some people believe that if you follow her, that the spot where she disappears is the location of a buried treasure. Other people feel that she's a poltergeist doing little mischievous damage. Others have just seen her, followed her or had her appear in various locations, but she hasn't really done anything but pass by."
Just as she has never heard of an ugly White Lady, Gibson said, "I've never heard of anything evil associated with the lady."
Gibson said she was able to trace the mysterious White Lady back to only one event. According to an account in an 1890s newspaper, Gibson said, "a terrible tragedy" occurred on what is now called Los Rios Street.
"The gist of the tragedy," she said, "was that a pretty young girl, despondent over the loss of her love, had taken her life on the front porch of her lover's home by taking strychnine."
And the description of the young woman, Gibson said, was that she had long dark hair and was wearing a white dress. "Whether or not this incident triggered ghost stories or not thereafter I'm not sure, but it certainly is a possibility," she said.
Gibson said there is a good chance that the house where the young woman killed herself is still standing in the historic district near the train depot.
The White Lady, naturally, will be the main story Gibson and three assistant tour guides will relate to the 100 people who signed up for the 12-block "ghost walk" tonight.
Gibson acknowledged that a lot of people believe in ghosts. Does she?
"It's hard for me to say I do or don't," she said. "I've never experienced anything I would call an encounter with a ghost, but I've met too many people who swear they have seen them, and they sound very credible and intelligent and"--she laughed--"I can't really look them in the eye and say you might have made them up.
"I believe that they believe that they have had these experiences. I've no reason to doubt them."
In fact, she said, the most interesting thing that happened to her on the "ghost walk" last year occurred when she was telling one of the White Lady stories.