When Rob Spoor was developing his ghost tours of San Francisco City Hall, he sat alone in the building's airy halls until 3am, balancing a small shred of paper on his knee. He waited patiently for the paper to jiggle, to float, to quiver -- to somehow indicate a supernatural disturbance. Sadly, no ghosts came, and Rob felt sleepy during the day. Grinning, he admitted to realizing he "didn't really want to pursue that course of research." Instead, he continued to interview the many City Hall workers who had experienced better luck with late-night spirits.
And Rob was content to tell the stories of others on his tours for nearly ten years. But last year, to Rob's delight, a ghost finally poked him in the back. His whole tour can prove there was no one standing behind him. When I asked if he thinks it will happen again this year, he laughed. "If I could only figure out how to summon them."
Attendance at Rob's ghost tours has tripled in the past three years. When the non-profit San Francisco City Guides -- which runs the tours free of charge -- posted a list of their ten most popular tours, the ghosts quickly invaded all the slots. The annual tours take place this weekend, Saturday at the Palace Hotel and Monday at City Hall, both at 6:30pm
Before retiring young, Rob taught novice technologists how to use new computer programs. Now he's a docent at City Hall, a tour guide with City Guides and the State Department, and a volunteer for the San Francisco Symphony, the Asian Art Museum, and the San Francisco Library. Grasping one of the multiple lanyards fastened around his neck, Rob smiled. "Some people wear many hats, but I wear many badges."
At our lunch interview, Rob ordered strawberry lemonade -- although, if he'd had his druthers, it would've been raspberry. His lighthearted civility seems to have set a positive example for the spectral inhabitants of City Hall and the Palace Hotel -- as ghosts go, they're pretty civil. They rustle unsuspecting locks of hair, politely shush loud children, extinguish lights, and emit pleasant, fleeting smells. We're lucky, explained Rob, to have no reports of phantom malevolence.
Good tour guides remain excited about their material long after they've learned it, and Rob's approach is steadily enthusiastic and theatrical. When a ghost steps to the left, he steps to the left. When a sheriff's deputy cranes his neck around the corner to catch a second glimpse of a fleeting apparition, Rob does the same.
To develop the ghost tour of the Palace Hotel, Rob started with a booklet of ghost stories originally published for VIP guests (an impressive list -- everyone from Oscar Wilde to Rupert Murdoch has stayed at the Palace). He built the event slowly, interviewing hotel workers individually, adding dry ice one year, spooky music the next.
When I asked Rob about the ingredients in the Palace Paranormal Punch the hotel serves on the night of his tour, Rob shrugged, raising his eyebrows in delight and mischief. "The ingredients are secret." While visitors wait for their tour, they'll drink the mystery concoction and watch a projection of the 1922 German silent film Nosferatu in one of the Palace's opulent rooms. "There's just no other movie with so many spooky scenes," Rob explains.
Although he's a fan of old horror movies and ghost folklore, Rob says he can't help but consider natural explanations for seemingly supernatural happenings. He acknowledges that his long-awaited ghostly poke in the back could have been just a muscle spasm. When he develops a tour -- ghostly, historical, or architectural -- Rob is a careful researcher. So maybe when it comes to ghost tours, the mystery is just part of the history. We may not have evidence of ghosts, but we have evidence that people say they've seen ghosts. And this seems like Rob's tack. If I ever looked skeptical during our interview, Rob smiled and pointed to the ghost stories he's compiled over the last ten years: "It's right here."
Rob described City Hall as "spook central. And matrimony central." On our tour -- apparently accidentally -- he introduced the grand staircase as the grand scare-case. Gasping mildly, he said, "I've got to write that one down."
As we left, we ran into the head of City Hall media services, who gushed about Rob's tours. He joked that he once disappointed Rob by failing to produce thunder and lightning. "So I made it myself -- with PowerPoint!" said Rob, grinning. "This is the people's palace. We're here to have fun."
San Francisco City Guides' annual ghost tours will be held at the Palace Hotel on Saturday, October 29, 2011 at 6:30pm, and at City Hall on Monday, October 31 at 6:30pm For more information visit sfcityguides.org.