Austin’s Scott A. Johnson is the author of Cold Spots: The Ghosts of San Antonio, a book chronicling the varied and interesting spirits haunting our fair city. His book isn’t the only tome attempting to chronicle San Antonio’s creepy side, but with a 2008 publication date, it’s the most recent we’ve found — and has the attraction of being penned by a real-life ghost hunter.
That’s right, in addition to being an author of nonfiction books on ghosts and numerous horror novels, Johnson is a paranormal investigator. He also is a regular contributor to the website Dread Central, chronicling his encounters with things that go bump in the night.
We caught up with Scott recently to find out what attracted him to San Antonio ghosts and how he manages to juggle the writing profession and his supernatural obsession.
As an Alamo City-based blog, we were thrilled to stumble across Cold Spots: The Ghosts of San Antonio. Tell us how that book came about. What was it about San Antonio’s ghosts that attracted you to write and research the book?
San Antonio is the birthplace of so many Texas legends that it seemed like a great place to start. Everyone knows the Alamo ghost stories and the train tracks story, and I’m always interested in finding out the truth behind stories like those. So that got me interested in finding out about some of the lesser known stories like the Emily Morgan Hotel, the Black Swan Inn, and other haunted hotspots.
Tell us about some of your favorite San Antonio ghosts and haunted sites.
The Menger Hotel is probably my favorite, but the Witte Museum and the Institute for Texan Cultures have to be right up there at the top of the list. The Menger, simply for the sheer number of hauntings, and the weirdness of a few of them. The Witte because of who is haunting it, and the fact that it’s just such a fascinating place. And the Institute for the same reasons.
Cold Spots also has an Austin companion tome. Which of those two Texas cities is more haunted? Which has more interesting ghosts?
San Antonio is more haunted, but they’re on an even playing field with “most interesting” ghosts. I mean, on one hand you have the most famous massacre in the history of Texas, and on the other you have the United States’ first serial killer. You’ve got haunted hotels in both cities and haunted theaters in both. You really can’t pick one over the other.
What is the San Antonio ghost story you absolutely believe is true?
I believe, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the stories (ALL of them) about the Menger are true, including the stories about Teddy Roosevelt’s rough riders haunting the bar.
What San Antonio ghost story are you convinced is absolutely not true?
The “Ghost Tracks.” See, the story that everyone’s heard never happened. Go back as far as you like, but you’ll never find an incident of a bus full of kids getting hit on those tracks. The names of the streets? They’re the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews of the guy who laid out that part of the city. Put a carpenter’s level on the tracks and you’ll see that your car is actually rolling downhill. It’s an optical illusion.
Who would win a fight between the Donkey Lady and the Railroad Track Kids?
Santa Clause. The person that people should be most concerned about is La Llorona. She’s one that could be real. The other two…not so much.
You’re a part-time ghost hunter and the paranormal editor for Dread Central. How did you get into researching and writing about the paranormal?
I grew up around it. My home town is covered in ghost stories, a few of which are about my own family. I was always that creepy kid, and those things always fascinated me.
You obviously believe in ghosts. Has your field work reinforced that belief or made you more skeptical?
During the course of my field work, I’ve captured voices on recorders from empty rooms. My wife’s been scratched by hands that weren’t there. I’ve seen objects move unassisted… I guess you could say it’s made me more of a willing believer. I’m still skeptical about EVERY haunting, mainly because there’s usually something that’s the cause for the supposed phenomena. What one person hears as breathing, I hear as the air-conditioning coming on. What one person senses as a threatening presence, I find is actually the vapors from noxious chemicals they keep in their closet. But occasionally something happens for which there’s no explanation. That’s when things get interesting.
In addition to nonfiction work, you write horror. Tell us about some of your recent publications.
I’m currently working on book three of the Stanley Cooper Chronicles, which is about a fellow who died for three minutes and was brought back, only to discover that his untimely demise lets him now see ghosts and energy patterns. This is what I like to call “horror-noir,” and it’s got a bit of dark urban fantasy thrown in for good measure. I’ve actually had eleven books to date published, and only three of them are non-fiction. The other eight deal with serial killers, zombies, and, of course, ghosts. My agent currently has two novels of mine that are also ghost stories.
Does it help or hinder your imagination as a horror writer to have a background in paranormal investigation?
I find it helps because I want my fiction to be as real as possible. I want people to be sucked into that creepy moment without being pulled out by a Hollywood ghost story. I want them to hear creaking footsteps and breathing from under their beds. And being in some genuinely creepy situations has really helped me convey that.
What is it about ghosts and ghosts stories that continues to capture our imaginations?
Ghost stories are modern-day parables. They teach lessons, remind us of our humanity, and remind us why we’re afraid of the dark. People say they don’t believe in ghosts, but you show me the strongest man in the world, put him in the right creepy setting, and let him lay in bed with the blankets pulled up tight while the sound of footsteps cross the room and the sound of breathing comes from beneath his bed, and you discover something. In the dark, everyone believes.
And now the request with which we conclude most of our interviews: Name your five favorite books, movies and comic books.
Thirty Days of Night
Secret Wars (the original, not the crappy sequel!)
Hell House by Richard Matheson
The Damnation Game by Clive Barker
The Shining by Stephen King
The Collected Works of H.P. Lovecraft
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
In the Mouth of Madness