Mair MacKinnon is perfectly happy living with the dead.
"I have a ghost. His name is Henry," the naturopathic practitioner says from her cozy and quirky Craftsman bungalow on Mozart Street in Alameda. She sits on an overstuffed sofa amid babbling fountain fixtures with her gregarious black cat, Monster.
"I saw Henry the day I moved in," MacKinnon says. "I've seen many ghosts in my life, so it didn't shock me. But I was going around calling him George for quite a while, and I got the clear message one day -- I heard him say, 'My name is Henry.'
"I said, 'Whoops, sorry about that!' "
MacKinnon and other Bay Area residents believe they're hosting company of the can't-see kind. The not-so-entirely departed apparently like to hang around in their familiar haunts, which often means they're home (disem-) bodies, sharing space with the living, chilling out in cold spots in the kitchen, sending chandeliers swaying and lights blinking.
Many folks think these occurrences are indeed the work of ghosts. Others think they're psychic experiences or merely anomalies in the environment. But all agree something unusual is happening, and for MacKinnon that unusual something has been quite commonplace in the 27 years she's lived in her cottage. Henry's been a pleasant companion who sometimes goes squeak in the night.
"He's friendly. Extremely beneficial," she says. "I've seen him many times, usually just in a flash. He's this older man, maybe in his 60s, in casual clothing that looks like it's from around the 1920s with his pants pulled high up at the waist like they used to do. He was probably the original owner, and he's still looking after the place."
Henry has played with the multicolored cycling light on one of MacKinnon's fountains, turning it on and off when no one (living) has touched it. He will blink table lamps and make knocking noises when her friends visit. And he will wake MacKinnon at night if there's something that needs her attention.
"If there's someone outside or something, Henry creaks my closet door," she says. "That door is shut tight and there's stuff in front of it, so there's no way it should creak. But Henry creaks the door, and I wake up and turn on my light. If I turn the light off too soon, he creaks it again and again until I get up and turn on all the lights in the house and look around. Then it stops.
"I feel like he's looking out for me and the house."
Not so happy
Spirit activity has been a part of Carrie Meehan's life for many years.
"We are no strangers to spirit activity in homes," says Meehan, who works with nonprofit organizations. "(Activity) has been present in every home we've lived in, including the one we're in now in Lafayette. Most often, the activity is loving and positive. But I lived in a haunted condo in Moraga four years ago, which was not a positive experience.
"In fact, it was so bad that it's the reason we moved only eight months later."
Meehan and her daughter, who was 14 at the time, would frequently wake up in the night with vivid and very gory nightmares. One was an unusually clear, memorable dream with a man in his late 30s or early 40s who described to Meehan exactly how he had died on that very spot -- he said he'd been buried alive.
"I did some research, but didn't find anything having happened like that," she says. "Then one night, at 10 minutes past 3 in the morning, my husband and I both woke up to a sound emanating from one corner of the bedroom. It was an otherworldly, shrieking, horrible sound. The next morning, we decided to move."
Now, in Meehan's Lafayette home, she's felt nothing but "beautiful energies," she says. "They're of the husband and wife who once lived here. She was a baker, and I often smell cookies baking when nothing like that is going on anywhere around. And the husband smoked Marlboros, and I sometimes smell that tobacco and no one is smoking. These are more pleasant energies, and I'm happy to have them here."
All in the family
Ken Gilliland isn't even mildly fraught with fright when the chandelier sways from the high ceiling of the historic Cohen-Bray House on 29th Avenue in East Oakland. After all, any ghosts residing there likely are related to him -- he's the great-grandson of Emma Bray and Alfred H. Cohen, the original couple for whom the home was built as a wedding present in 1884.
"I figure they're happy to have me keeping an eye on the family home," he says, after opening the front door to a shadowy foyer, walls and ceiling clad in dark redwood milled from a single log.
Gilliland lives in an upstairs apartment in the three-story, 17-room Victorian house. In 1993, his family formed a nonprofit, the Victorian Preservation Center of Oakland, to preserve the building and grounds as a historic landmark. It is open limited hours for tours, but it needs a lot of restoration -- the exterior cries out for paint, the front porch sags and squeaks underfoot, and the cobwebs laced over the doorbell are not Halloween decorations.
But it's a gem of a mansion, the only remnant of the grand estates and sprawling orchards of the socially prominent, well-to-do families who once populated the Fruitvale district.
"I can't claim I've seen a ghost, but stuff does move around here a lot -- doors swinging, chandeliers swaying back and forth," Gilliland says. "This is a drafty old house, and things move. But sometimes things move more than they should in a given situation. There have been times I've been sitting in that red chair," he says, pointing to velvet chair next to a fireplace in the parlor, "and I'll watch the chandelier go, voom, voom, back and forth. No earthquake. No breeze could do that."
The "best ghost story," Gilliland tells with glee, involves the occasion of his parents' wedding anniversary in the mid-1990s when the family was living in the home. A tall glass vase with a dozen red roses was placed prominently on the corner of the massive mahogany dining table. After a little party, everyone went to bed leaving the roses in place. But the next morning, Gilliland came downstairs and walked past the dining room through the foyer to pick up the morning paper. Something "different" caught his eye, he says.
"I came in here," he says, moving into the dining room and pointing to the original table. "Here was the vase, all the stems standing perfectly upright, but all the petals of the roses had been stripped off. Poof! They were gone into thin air. No water spilled, no petals anywhere. No one had touched them. Everything else perfectly, just the way it was."
He has no human explanation. But he might be able to find out a little more about his "roommates" this weekend when paranormal researcher Karen Zimmerman, author of "Ghost Stories and Legends of Alameda, Berkeley, and Oakland," leads a public ghost investigation Saturday night.
"I'm hoping the whole family is residing here," Gilliland says, smiling. "The house has an energy about it. Not spooky. It's a fun house. A good energy."
Follow Angela Hill at Twitter.com/giveemhill.
Bay Area paranormal researcher Karen Zimmerman will lead a public ghost investigation of the historic Cohen-Bray House in East Oakland as a fundraiser for the 1884 Victorian.
When: 6:45 p.m. Nov. 2.
Where: 1440 29th Ave., Oakland.
Cost: $50; group is limited to 15 adults; event includes a brief tour of the house followed by up to five hours to observe and record paranormal activity.
Info and tickets: www.cohenbrayhouse.info/ghost_event.html