I was raised in a southern California town known for its steady weather and the presumed location for the hospital that the Eagle’s song, Hotel California, was based on. (Naturally, I will be listening to the song on repeat as I type) The massive Camarillo State Hospital was tucked into the hills just minutes from the PCH. From my understanding, it was a living nightmare for its patients during the 60ish years it was open and continued to be nightmarish long after it closed. In 2002 Cal State Channel Islands was founded, and renovations have been made throughout the years. My friends often spoke about their unexplainable experiences on campus, but that was several years after my own paranormal experience just down the road at a place we call Scary Dairy. To this day, there are those on the campus of CSUCI who still experience unexplainable and probably paranormal activity.
The History of Camarillo State Hospital
The hospital, founded in 1936, was known for its “groundbreaking medical experiments and cures for insanity,” which should probably make you shudder. Human experimentation lasted decades under the guise of science. According to my grandmother, people escaped often, and it wasn’t considered “concerning” because Camarillo State Hospital was pretty far away from Camarillo proper. That comment struck me; the staff blew this off without a worry for the welfare of the patients. This was a time when mental health issues and addiction were treated disrespectfully, with disdain and disgust rather than patience, respect, and empathy. While we still struggle with mental health care and addiction today, there has been a change in the climate.
The hospital was forced to close in 1997 after repeated accusations of patient abuse, negligent deaths, and disappearances. Many of the hospital’s “treatments” were found to be inhumane and are not legal anymore. Considering the abhorrent treatment of patients for such a long period of time, it is no surprise that the energy on this campus is tumultuous.
In the late 90s, just a year or two after the hospital was closed, our ballet studio practiced at the former hospital before recitals. On our breaks, we explored the mostly deserted campus. It was exactly as you would imagine an abandoned psychiatric hospital to look. Dirty, with scattered equipment and random debris, rooms with bars on the windows, underground rooms that never saw the light of day, and giant cages – people cages. There was a locked hall; even years later, after major remodeled when I visited the campus, that hall was still locked tight. What really struck me was that it hadn’t been remodeled; in fact, it looked like it had not even been touched.
My step-children’s grandma, who worked at the hospital in the years before it closed, believed without a doubt that the hospital and its grounds were haunted. She described walking down hallways and into rooms where parts were extremely, chillingly cold, as though a spirit was close. She had patients who swore that someone had been in their rooms the night before, and in the beginning, she blew these stories off, knowing these patients had psychological problems. But over time, her view changed. She began to believe that there were disgruntled, interactive spirits. Most of the people I interviewed had similar experiences with cold spots and overwhelming feelings of dread or fear for their safety.
Several of my friends have shared their unexplainable personal experiences with me. It was just as common when I was in high school to sneak into the abandoned buildings located on and around the campus as it is today. There is a locked abandoned building on the edge of the campus with a broken window about four feet off the ground on the outside and two feet off the ground on the inside. My friend Jane and her friends snuck inside one day to explore. There was a lot of rubble and random items strewn all over. The main floor has a room that looks like it was once a classroom, complete with desks and chairs. It was eerie to walk into this room, as if one day, everyone had left for the day and never returned. The room wasn’t quite untouched; it was clear that others had explored before them. There were chairs stacked on top of desks, broken furniture, and miscellaneous supplies scattered about. Within seconds of entering this room, a chair that had been stacked upside down on a desk fell to the ground. Everyone jumped; they had all seen this and could not explain why the chair would have fallen; no one was anywhere near it. This did not, however, deter the group from continuing their exploration.
The group continued to a stairwell that led down into pitch darkness, the kind of darkness that feels infinite; it’s disorienting and blinds you completely. They used their phone flashlights which sliced into the dark as they walked down the hallway. Jane described the energy in the first room; she called it “depressing and horrifying” they moved quickly through that room and continued from room to room. Other than the darkness and feelings of unease, nothing else notable happened until they turned to head back. They had to reenter the first room in order to reach the hall which led to the staircase; as they made their way through, they heard an unintelligible yell, they ran as fast as they could, and as they did, lights behind them began flickering on and off all the way down the hall to the staircase. Reaching the top of the stairs and seeing daylight once more, they began to calm down. They settled in another room, close to the window they would be used to exit, lit cigarettes, and looked through their phones at pictures they had taken while they were in the dark. As they sat in a circle, they heard clear as day, “Can I bum a cigarette?” They jumped up and threw themselves through the broken window and ran as fast as they could.
More than one person reached out to me regarding a second-floor restroom in The Bell Tower. The history of the bell tower itself is disconcerting. “The Bell Tower probably is the worst traumatic historically.”, according to Andra, a former student. This is where the majority of medical “experimentation” occurred. Andra recalled the one and only time she was in this particular restroom alone, “One restroom in particular on the second floor had a lot of activity. Many girls didn’t like being in there alone. My most intense experience was while I was in there alone when the toilet paper in another stall started to move. I could hear the squeaking sound of it rolling; then I heard thuds and bangs from the other stall. I asked it to stop, and it became really quiet. I felt a lump in my throat and never used that restroom alone from that point on.” Andra is not the only former student or faculty member who had a similar experience in the same restroom.
My Trip to The Scary Dairy
In its prime, Camarillo State Hospital, which stood on 1,670 acres, was proud of its agricultural self sufficiently. At the time, it was not unusual for state hospitals to also be “farm colonies.” Set in a prime location for agriculture, the hospital once grew its own food, and farming was considered part of the patient’s “treatment plan.” The patients didn’t only care for fruits and vegetables; there was also a dairy farm where the patients cared for cows and presumably enjoyed fresh milk. The dairy was abandoned when the hospital closed in 1997, and rumor has it that the patients often killed each other with the heavy equipment. We call this place “Scary Dairy.” It is dilapidated, graffiti-filled, and creepy. While I have been to CSUCI several times, the only time I personally had an experience worth retelling was when I was seventeen, and a group of friends trekked out to Scary Dairy with flashlights, video cameras, and recording devices in hand.
My friends and I had grown up hearing about the hauntings at Scary Dairy. We had our own spooky legend, which appears to be very far from accurate; however, I have come across numerous articles that mention murders and other crimes that have occurred both before the hospital closed and after at the site. It’s clear there was a fire, but it turns out that the local fire department used to practice firefighting at the old dairy because it was already destroyed and secluded. The more research I have done, the less “scary” the dairy seems. Except I will never forget my first bone-chilling experience.
You can’t just drive your car up to the dairy. In fact, it’s not entirely legal to visit the site. These days, there are chainlink fences surrounding the ruins, but at the time, the only thing between you and Scary Dairy was a short hike. In our case, it was a short hike in the not quite full moonlight, passing reflective eyes in the bushes, and the rustling of disturbed nightlife.
Before long, we saw the outline of the would-be barn, all that was left was the outer metal structure and the cement foundation. Most of the wood had since been burned down. Hanging from a rafter was what looked like a small animal, maybe a squirrel. Beyond the barn, we could just make out another building, the old dairy. This is the first time I noted seeing orbs, at first just here and there, but throughout our adventure, they became more frequent. My friends and I wandered through the ruins, curious and nervous.
There is something so exciting about exploring abandoned buildings, especially at night. The layout of the dairy doesn’t make much sense, probably because I have never been to a working dairy, so the seemingly random openings and doorways that lead nowhere and the rooms that fed to other rooms seemed nonsensical. There are places where you’d expect a wall, only to be met with a four or five-foot drop. The one main hallway was flooded, which added to the curious layout as we navigated the dairy. A big metal box with a circular opening stood in one of the larger rooms. Someone said it was the old incinerator and that it was particularly haunted.
Because I was the smallest and could fit through the small opening, I was chosen to climb inside with a tape recorder (this was 2003, or 2004, cassette tapes were not extinct yet). Looking back, I cannot believe I voluntarily climbed into that dark hole; my adult self is cringing to expose myself to spiders and tetanus. I crawled through the beer cans and trash, then balanced myself in a squat while I turned on the recorder. I began to introduce myself and ask if there were any spirits near me. I paused for a while, then asked another question as my friend used a digital camera to take photos of me inside the incinerator. Suddenly I heard a deep voice right behind my left ear growl, “GET OUT!” I threw the recorder and myself out of that hole before I even comprehended what happened. No one else had heard anything, although they saw that I was visibly shaken. I did not want to be there anymore. I felt dread and dirty, and I wished the walk wasn’t so long to get back to the car. I saw orbs all around as we hiked away, but they didn’t feel magical anymore. Everything felt heavy.
Later that evening, we all sat together listening to the recording, but all we heard was my voice. I felt like they all must have thought I was crazy, but I KNEW what I heard. It’s been nearly 20 years, and I remember that voice like it just happened yesterday. I think the only reason they all believed me was because, in one of the photos of me in the incinerator, there was a red face directly behind me, to my left.
What really gets to me all these years later is what happened to each of us from that group. It could mean nothing… But it is a bit odd… For anonymity, I will use initials:
J. overdosed speed-balling in 2011 and was in a coma for a week. He nearly died.
G. accidentally overdosed in 2021.
D. fell into the Grand Canyon in 2016 and happened to be caught by a precarious bush that clung to the edge of a 300-foot drop. She spent weeks in the hospital.
I don’t know if M. has had any near-death experiences in the last 20 years.
I was attacked by two men in 2007, and I thought for sure I would die that day.
Nevertheless, last week I ventured out to CSUCI and Scary Dairy with my 13-year-old to take updated photos. In all honesty, other than feeling uncomfortable, I did not note anything worth sharing. The abandoned wings of the old hospital are locked up, and the chainlink fences are still guarding the old dairy. However- it felt like a figment of our imagination; we saw five kids hanging out on bikes and scooters on the dirt path in front of the dairy. I wondered what they were doing so far from the road without any adults; I would not let my nine or 10-year-olds venture to Scary Dairy without supervision. I asked them if there was a way to get in, and one girl said there was, and she led us to a hole that had been cut into the fence. After our exploration, the kids were gone, and I never did ask them what they were doing out there alone.
Tell us about your last visit to a haunted location.
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Justine Lieberman, or “JustineTheWitch” (she/her), is a practicing eclectic witch who specializes in shadow work and Tarot reading; she refers to herself as a “Tarotpist” and “Word Witch.” Her love for writing and passion for healing spiritual abuse has been the catalyst for her activism and her Craft.