I traveled to three of the Hawaiian islands to learn more about local superstitions. And just scratched the surface.
The Kona Surf is not your typical Hawaiian resort hotel. Its pools and creeks are dry. The greenhouse-humid grounds roil with shaggy plants and untrimmed trees, as if the island has reclaimed itself back from the humans. For nearly a year [May 2000] this hotel has remained abandoned. Most locals say it’s because it’s haunted.
Hawaiians are famously superstitious. White haoles such as myself aren’t as receptive to such things, but nearly every native will tell you they’ve witnessed some form of phenomena. The volcano goddess Pele protects people from danger. The “choking ghosts” attack people while they’re sleeping. Little leprechaun-like Menehune creatures sneak out of the forest at night and build things. Mysterious hitchhikers disappear from inside a moving car. Old women without feet wander the streets. Torch-bearing “night marchers” tromp through walls of houses. And on and on. After a recent visit, I vowed to return to the Islands and attempt to answer the question: Why can’t you walk down the street without tripping over a Menehune?
All of this has brought me, perhaps stupidly, to creep past security guards, climb a tree, hop a fence, and trespass onto private property. Kona Surf sits on the Big Island’s west coast, on Keauhou Bay. Twenty years ago it was considered the “Pride of the Pacific.” Today, birds chatter in the trees, and insects buzz overhead. I peek in the chapel windows, recalling the stories of mysterious basement floodings, and “smart-thinking” hotel guests, swearing they saw Polynesian warriors walking down the hallways. Rather than deal with all the problems, real or imagined, Tokyo-based Otaka Inc. just said forget it, laid off all the employees and walked away. To locals, it’s obvious: the Kona Surf was built on an ancient battleground, and the ghosts are dead warriors.
Bones and dirt are crucial, especially here on Hawaii, the first settled island which was home to warring kings. After battles, the dead were interred in unmarked burial caves. Construction crews frequently come upon human bones, and are required by law to stop work and call in archeologists and Burial Council officials to inspect the remains. A priest may come in to give a blessing. Apparently, this didn’t happen with the Kona Surf.
I hop back across the fence and stumble around the jagged cove, hoping to beat the rising tide. A miniscule crab perched on a rock senses my presence, and suddenly shoots twin streams of water out through its eyes. I think of what a local told me, that there are no coincidences, and quickly get back to my rental car.
I continue down the coast to the City of Refuge (Pu’uhonua o Honaunau), a sparse, holy place built on black lava that every Hawaiian schoolchild visits on a field trip. The water is calm, with a light wind. A few tourists stroll around, but it’s deathly quiet. I strike up conversation with a Hawaiian park ranger named Len, who explains kapu, the ancient island code of social behavior. Women could never eat in the same room as men, for instance. Those who broke kapu were sentenced to death, but if they swam here to the City of Refuge, they could be cleansed. The Kamehameha II government outraged traditionalists by abolishing the old kapu system in 1819. Bloody battles erupted up and down the coast, including the Kona Surf area, and so that’s why it’s haunted.
I return to my ridiculously large suite at the luxurious Mauna Lani Orchid Hotel, which like many of these all-inclusive citadels of leisure, sprawls along the water’s edge, two or three miles from the actual highway. Where ancient kings once fought and died is now the province of the new khaki-pants kings from Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The only restless spirits at the Orchid, however, are obsessive business people attempting to relax. I mean, if it’s Sunday morning at 8 am, do you really need to hold a corporate meeting in the lobby, with everyone nodding and referring to three-ring binders? You’re in Hawaii! Good god, grab a drink, have a swim, eat some fish!
The Hilo area is apparently rife with spirits, as are the active volcanos, but an incredible storm has shut down many of the roads east. I therefore head north to the dramatic cliffs of Waipio Valley.
Hawaiians believed that a person’s soul, called ‘uhane, would leave the body during sleep, go have adventures or ask advice from elders, and return when you awoke. When you died, your ‘uhane would then come here to Waipio Valley, the leina or leaping off place to the next dimension. But sometimes the ‘uhane couldn’t find the leina, and were cursed to roam the island as spirits (lapu) for eternity. So the valley is sort of like a clogged drain for ghosts.
Immense cliffs covered in vegetation rise from the Waipio shore, interrupted by an occasional waterfall tumbling out of the sides. The lush valley is completely pristine except for taro fields and a house here and there. Hiking the 25 percent grade road down to the ocean is not recommended if you’re a panting smoker with a notepad. Halfway down I stop and meet a rancher with missing teeth on horseback. He says he lives on the next ridge, and is training his horse for tourist trail rides. Sure, it’s a spiritual place, he grins. No big deal.
A road off the highway leads to Hawaii’s oldest macadamia nut factory, a combination tourist shop and glass blowing studio. The kid working the counter suggests if I’m curious about superstitions, I should talk to Keno. I wander around the rear of the building, where a tattooed American Indian named Keno Bruce sits on a stool, carving a huge tiki statue.
After a youth spent on Arizona reservations, Bruce ran light shows for rock bands like Jethro Tull, and then moved to Hawaii 30 years ago, operating a tree moving business. On the side he dabbled in carving wooden statues. His life changed two years ago, he says, when he received a spiritual awakening after a bolt of lightning hit him in the chest. He took the Hawaiian name Kelino Akiwai, started carving full-time, and now his pieces can be found all over the islands.
We chat for a long time about politics, spirituality, art, the ultimate concern of man beyond material gains, and he asks if I’d like to go check out more of his art. I follow his truck into the hills and we end up at a house in the trees, bristling with noisy pets—56 cats, three chickens, and a basset hound/rottweiler mutt—the names of which he’s committed to memory. Nobody ever comes here, he says, and I believe him. My presence immediately agitates the animals. He boots up his website to show me examples of his work, and we scroll through the images, smoking cigars, the surly cats eyeing me with disdain.
There’s 400,000 deities in Hawaiian culture, with 4,000 faces of each, Bruce says. In the old days, artisans were told to finish their carvings in 24 hours, or they were put to death. When the early Baptist missionaries arrived, they burned all the ancient deities. As he closes in on completing 600 carvings, he seems to be doing his best to replenish the supply.
In Hawaiian, mana means divine power. Bruce calls his pieces mana missiles, creating them with the purpose that they’ll sit in someone’s home and emanate a sense of spiritual responsibility. One carving titled “Greed” sports a grimacing face, as if in pain. “If they know what greed looks like,” he smiles, “then they know what they’re doing.”
We look at a beautiful, intricate totem pole he created for a hotel lobby on the Big Island. He says one day a concierge called and said he’d better come down to the hotel, because two people were on their knees, praying in front of his sculpture. Bruce arrived, and discovered the two were Lakota Sioux Indians, spiritually moved by the piece. It was meant to be, he figured, and gave them the totem.
He seems to both enlighten and irritate. Old holy men think he blasphemes the traditional ways, yet people will ask him to bless their homes, and fans beg him to attend art festivals in Europe. I think, how is it that this person is so in touch with the Hawaiian culture, yet is not Hawaiian by birth? I want to ask him about this irony, but he starts describing the night he was attacked by a Menehune.
“He had an orange face, just about as tall as you.” And then he adds, “but a lot skinnier.”
I nod, but inside I’m thinking, come on pal, we could all stand to lose a few pounds—you’re sporting a bit of a gut yourself.
The Menehune apparently just wanted to let him know he was there, and then left. But the experience has clearly left him traumatized, haunted by nightmares. He turns away, his eyes tearing up with the memory. And I think, this isn’t really that funny at all. He promises to make me a little statue, and I leave, taking care not to run down the cats sitting in the driveway.
I return to the Mauna Lani Orchid, grab a glass of wine, and walk out to the beach and stand in the spot where Bruce says he was hit by lightning. The moonlight dances off the waves, the palms woosh in the breeze. This is a very unfamiliar Hawaii. The state appears to be filled with dead soldiers and ghosts and holy tiki carvers and unfriendly cats. I get the feeling that by looking into this stuff, I’m breaking some kind of law.
In recent years, tourism has shifted from Waikiki to Maui, bringing along celebrities like Joe Eszterhas, Sammy Hagar, and Alice Cooper. Another newish Maui resident, circus sideshow leader Jim Rose, has agreed to show me what he’s discovered on the island—solid evidence of Menehunes.
These ugly little Hobbit-like creatures supposedly lived in Hawaii before the Polynesians, and possessed superhuman strength, furiously building dams and temples during the night. They’re most popular on Kauai, but throughout the islands, you’ll find Menehune cookies and candy bars, Menehune bottled water and gift boxes, a Menehune condo complex, even Menehune organic mulch.
Jim Rose and I met just before the first Lollapalooza rock concert tour, when his merry band of circus freaks turned heads with stunts like eating live crickets, electrocuting themselves, and drinking their own stomach bile. We’ve been friends ever since. He’s tied up with business today, so his wife, Bebe the Circus Queen, will drive me up to Maui’s uppermost bulge, or “egg,” where a local has told them is positive documentation of Menehune.
The road winds precariously around the top portion of the egg, zigging and zagging along extraordinary steep cliffs. You have to admire the resolve of someone who lives up here, because it’s a long drive back to the store if you forget something. Eventually the highway reaches the summit, and the craggy landscape flattens into green grass. And throughout the field rise little piles of rocks, each pebble carefully stacked in place. Even with the precarious placement of a large rock balanced on top of a tiny one, the ocean breeze doesn’t budge them. This is presumably the work of the Menehune.
We pull over the car and start walking, marveling at the precision it took to create such pilings. I pull out a camera, and notice that Bebe has lagged behind, pointing to a fresh puddle of manure.
“They’re bigger than I thought,” she exclaims.
Someone tells me later that Maui’s stacked rocks are most likely done by tourists, not locals or Menehune. Of course, that’s what they tell you.
We continue around the egg, and stop at the dynamic green cliffs and valleys that make up the Iao Valley State Monument, one of the islands’ most sacred places. In 1790, Kamehameha’s army defeated Maui soldiers here in the valley, in a battle so fierce that corpses plugged up the Iao Stream, giving names to the town of Wailuku (“bloody river”) and the Kepaniwai Park and Heritage Gardens (“damming of the waters”). Although tourists stumble around the trails, it’s still amazingly tranquil. If I were a ghost, it’s a nice place to hang out.
The Roses take me for lunch to a favorite local joint called Maui Tacos, which features framed photos of Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas and Alice Cooper (which coincidentally are exactly the same photos that hang on the walls of other Maui Taco outlets). We end the day playing Petanque, a French version of Bocce, in a baseball field on the coast, tossing the metal balls and watching the sunset turn the sky a brilliant orange. Forget the aloha shirts and timeshares. This is what Hawaii has always been about.
Other islands are gaining popularity as destinations, but Oahu offers the classic dose of old-school cheeseball tourism. Some people despise Waikiki’s trashy spectacle of bad restaurants and lame knick-knack stores. I kind of like it, because it’s the logical result of a century of relentless vacation marketing. Hawaii has nobody to blame but itself. Where else can you purchase an carved-penis ashtray, wearing a hula skirt? You can actually rent a .357 magnum pistol at the Magic Bullet Shooting Club and empty a few clips after lunch (“An experience of a lifetime! Japanese speaking instructors!”).
Tourists amble down Waikiki’s Kalakaua Avenue like confused cows, poking into shops and markets, not knowing what they’re looking for, a shuffling herd of old white folks from the mainland, a healthy influx of Japanese, and according to one local, lots of Germans. When I asked him why, he replied that Germans are ideal tourists—they do their homework beforehand, and know exactly what they want to see.
I wander through Waikiki’s grand old hotels, the Sheraton Moana Surfrider and the Pepto Bismol-pink Royal Hawaiian, both built in an era when the islands were accessible only by sea. Then as now, they’re both hideously expensive, but worth a stroll for the opulent architecture. As the darkening sky fills with stars, I head over to Honolulu’s old downtown district for a thorough indoctrination in the folklore of supernatural Hawaii.
Tonight’s walking tour is led by Glen Grant, a jolly, greying college professor who has spent the past 30 years compiling “Chicken Skin” stories, i.e. Hawaiian tales intended to give the listener goose pimples. He’s published several books, hosts a weekly radio show, and last year opened a horror/mystery bookstore in Honolulu called The Haunt. About 50 of us follow him through the Palace Grounds, as he points out sacred stones and burial mounds, doling out fascinating stories along the way. Every building here is haunted in some way: Iolani Palace, the Capitol Building, the Federal Building. Underneath where we’re walking, he says, the area is catacombed with caves, secret tunnels, and burial sites.
According to Grant, there’s a couple of basic rules about the supernatural. First, don’t disturb graves if you can help it. As he puts it, “Never let your ancestors’ bones see the light of day.” And the other, is don’t disturb rocks, because so many of them possess mana. An old proverb translates to, “There is life in rock. There is death in rock.”
Grant illustrates this with an anecdote about an Oahu construction crew who unearthed a monstrous rock during excavation. They thought the rock was pretty cool, mounted it vertically in the dirt, and continued working. But stories soon spread about mysterious accidents on the site. Workers arriving in the morning would discover the huge rock had somehow been moved during the night. A priest was finally called in to assess what was going on, and the holy man told the crew not only did the rock have mana, there was actually a man inside it. They had inadvertently flipped it—and the stowaway—upside down. Once the rock was turned rightside up, the problems disappeared.
If you see a ghost, says Grant, “the worst thing you can do is scream. The ghost will attach itself to you and go home with you.” The trick is never to show fear, and apparently it helps if you swear at the ghost. Which makes you wonder about people who swear a lot. Just potty-mouthed, or secretly tormented by spirits?
As the tour ends, Grant offers a final piece of advice. Unlike female ghosts, male spirits almost always return to their former place of work, to haunt it. “So guys, find a job you like,” he says. “You’re going to do it a lot longer than you think.”
The next day I point my rent-a-blob toward Oahu’s North Shore, home to legendary surf spots like Banzai Pipeline and the big-wave scene at Waimea. I pull over for lunch at a beat-up van covered in graffiti. Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck serves only two things—excellent scampi, and really spicy excellent scampi. Judging from the amount of garlic they use, Giovanni might do well to add an Altoids counter.
I drive into the Waimea Falls Park, a popular tourist attraction featuring a restored Polynesian village, kayaking and horseback riding, and diving and hula demonstrations. Also considered Oahu’s biggest burial ground, this valley is rife with history of human sacrifice. Many locals avoid the area after dark because it’s so creepy. The Waihe’e Falls and pond, in particular, is the location of one of Hawaii’s strangest ongoing mysteries.
According to Glen Grant, in 1792 a prominent chief sacrificed four men here, one of them a British soldier. Since then, the pond at the falls has seen several unexplained drownings, where the body disappears and then resurfaces after three days. In each case, the victim was a white male, 18 to 21 years old, and a member of the military—the exact demographics of the British soldier.
In 1952, a young Merchant Marine from Seattle jumped from the falls at night, broke his neck and died. His friends searched in vain for his body, but it vanished, and so they vowed to camp out overnight, in case the corpse floated up. The soldiers later told police early the next morning they heard horrible noises, freaked out, and ran down the trail and out of the valley. A police rescue team reached the falls to discover the waterfall was nearly dried out. They located the body and as they prepared to pull it up, the pond unexpectedly erupted into a boiling, swirling mass. The team headed down the valley, and suddenly the pond completely emptied itself, creating an eight-foot tidal wave of water that roared down the hill, destroying everything and carring the police and the body all the way down to the beach. Nobody knew why. There were no earthquakes, no rain, no reports of flash floods. A wise Hawaiian elder later told police that they had removed the body too soon, before it could be used for a ritual, and the resident spirit was forced to empty the pond, rinse off his altar, so to speak.
Saddled with all this background, I hike up to the falls and pond. It’s very beautiful and scenic, with no signage about human sacrifice whatsoever. As a guy plays Hawaiian music on a guitar, a big woman in a lei leads a tourist crowd in hula lessons. Two males then climb up to the top of the 40-foot falls, and dive gracefully into the pool. One of the divers is a haole, so I morbidly wait for him to suddenly drown right there in front of everyone, which would add some zest to this story—but nothing happens.
The park’s brochure advises visitors not to disturb any rocks in the valley. After all this business about ghosts and rituals, I wonder how far does this go? What was that pebble I just kicked walking down the trail? Will the car start?
I return to Honolulu for a guided ghost tour of the entire island, which starts at Glen Grant’s bookstore on South King Street. Before the bus leaves, he says in the past five years, he’s seeing more residents interested in ghosts and chicken skin, whether they believe or not. I ask him why.
“Local people are awakening to their cultural uniqueness, as well as seeking to touch their deep culture,” says Grant. “I truly believe that although the popularity of these stories has never stopped or waned, the public appreciation of them increased as Hawaii has become modernized and ‘Californized.’ Residents are feeling the comfort in getting in touch with their supernatural heritage, their spiritual connections to the past.”
He says he’s never solicited stories from people, they always approach him on their own. He has admitted to personally witnessing a few physical manifestations, but prefers to keep the focus on the larger idea of chicken skin as a vital addition to Hawaii’s cultural history. It doesn’t matter if science can or cannot explain everything. What’s most important is that the process of sharing these tales, “telling story,” is as much Hawaiian as the volcanic forces which created the islands.
An enthusiastic Hawaiian guide named Lopaka Kapanui hops in the bus and we spend the next five hours visiting Oahu’s haunted sights. He takes a poll on the bus, and almost everyone has seen something they cannot explain. Not only have I not, I’m the only haole on board. The guy next to me confesses he once saw a fireball: “It was blue.”
It would take pages to describe the tour—the Chinese cemetary full of feral cats, the spooky Morgan’s Corner, the elementary school which boasts both ghosts and Menehune—so I’ll just say that this drive, and Grant’s walking stroll, are both very worthwhile if you want to learn about the real Hawaii in general, or ghosts in particular.
The next morning, I’ve got a few hours before my flight, and figure that Pearl Harbor’s memorial to the USS Arizona probably has a few ghosts left, so I squeeze into a packed tour boat for the journey out to the wreck. On the trip, we pass another fully loaded boat on the return leg, and for a brief moment there are 300 sightseers in one spot, pointing their cameras and ignoring their loudmouthed children. It occurs to me that this wouldn’t be a bad time to drop a few more bombs. We arrive at the memorial and listen to a crew-cut navy boy who delivers a little speech about the attack and the men who perished. I take him aside and ask if people ever speak of ghosts or unexplained phenomena here at the Arizona.
“Oh, all the time,” smirks the sailor. “People say they see strange things out here in the middle of the night. But they’re officers—what do they know?”
Hawaii’s respect for the dead obviously comes in varying degrees.
(A version first appeared in Travelocity magazine. Since this story was published, the Kona Surf hotel has reopened as a Sheraton resort and spa. Waimea Falls Park was purchased by the city in 2002, and is now managed by the Audubon Society. Glen Grant has sadly passed away from cancer. And Keno Bruce mailed me a tiki statue he carved, representing a god of humor, which now sits on my bookcase.)