Hawaii’s living ghosts: Retelling of lives at Hawaii cemeteries

In Hawai`i, everything in nature-trees, rocks, wind, rain-evokes a chicken-skin ghost story. It’s in the air, our blood, and retold on dark winter nights. The hair on the back of your neck will rise and prickle when you visit these spots.

Nuuanu Pali Lookout and the Old Pali Road

I grew up in Nu`uanu, the luxuriant valley that leads up to one of the best views of O`ahu, the Nu`uanu Pali Lookout. In 1795, King Kamehameha I united the Hawaiian Islands and drove O`ahu’s defending warriors up our valley. Rather than surrender, O`ahu’s warriors leapt 1000 feet from the Pali to their death. When the Pali Road was constructed in 1897, crews found the skulls and bones of over 800 men at the base of the Ko`olau Mountains.

During World War II, a few servicemen emboldened by alcohol leapt off the Pali. Powerful gale-force winds pushed the drunks back to safety. Lucky, they said. Our ghosts and gods, locals said.

Since ancient days the Old Pali Road was the only land route between Honolulu and the Windward side of the island. It was, and still is, a spooky road. Eerie winds whistle through the tree tunnel, waving vines drape from arching branches of the jungle forest, and leaves dart in the darkness like nervous fingers. At night we hush our voices and hold our breath until we emerge into the lights of Honolulu.

hawaiiMy grandparents warned us, “Never carry pork on the Old Pali Road.” The unwise who did told how their car would die. Attempts to restart were futile. Sometimes an old woman or man would appear at the side of the road. If one offered them a ride, their passenger, and the pork, would disappear before they got to town.

When I was in college my boyfriend and I returned from a party in Kailua via the Old Pali Road. The police stopped us so they could carry up from the ravine below the bodies of four young Hawaiian men whose skin shone unusually pale in the moonlight, victims of an accident. At a beach bonfire with fellow students a year later, two brothers, Harvard medical students, told us they had just returned to Honolulu along the Old Pali Road and at a certain curve they heard knocking on their windshield, as if someone wanted to get in. The brothers immediately backed up. Unnerved, they slowly started forward but each time they reached that spot in the road, they heard knocking, and retreated. The fifth time, the younger brother shouted, “Just drive! No matter what, don’t stop! Go!” His older brother floored it back to Honolulu.

“Where exactly did you hear that knocking?” I asked. They were athletes and fraternity men, not easily frightened. They described the curve in the Old Pali Road and the ravine below, the exact spot where the four boys had crashed the year before. We Hawaiians gasped; the dead youths were looking for someone to take their place.

Hours: Daily during daylight hours; no entrance fee. $3 parking; portable toilets; trash cans; food concession; interpretive signage; no drinking water.

O`ahu Cemetery

O’ahu Cemetery offers one of the finest collections of 19th century graveyard art in Hawaii and is one of the known ghost haunts. Through the Sailor’s Home Society, seamen from New England, Australia, Scotland, Peru, and even Iowa were buried here in the 1800s alongside the most distinguished and powerful landowning families such as the Campbells, Castles, and Dillinghams. The only full-sized statue, of Maria Kahanamoku, sister of Olympian Duke Kahanamoku, looks gently down among the palm trees lining the interior road.

Take one of the occasional tours. Step back into Hawaii‘s culture and history marked by marble statuary, granite obelisks, sarcophagi, ornate Celtic crosses and cryptic symbols. These landscaped grounds from are one of the most important historic sites in the islands and at night, alive with voices.

In the early 1900s, my grandmother’s uncle told of returning to Honolulu after his round of deliveries on the Windward side. Whenever his horse and cart passed O`ahu Cemetery late at night he encountered ghost seamen, probably from the 1800s whaling days, playing cards right outside the cemetery wall on the corner of Judd Street and Nu`uanu Avenue. The salty spirits, furious at being disturbed, would yell at him. “Go away! Leave us alone! Begone!” Leaves whistled through their bodies when they rose and chased after my great-grand uncle, hurling stones and curses as he urged his horse, ‘Faster!”

To this day, my aunts and uncles drive out of their way to avoid this corner which is on their direct route home. www.O`ahuCemetery.org 2162 Nu`uanu Avenue, Honolulu, HI. Phone 808-538-1538

oahu hawaii

Pu`u o Mahuka Heiau

High above the beach where surfers flock to surf the legendary 30 to 60 foot waves on the North Shore sits Pu`u o Mahuka Heiau, the largest religious site and temple on O`ahu. It covers almost 2 acres. As you drive up Pupukea Homestead Road off Kamehameha Highway you head up into the mountains through wild shrubbery. Nothing prepares you for what you are about to see.

Constructed in the 1600s, stacked lava rock walls from 3 to 6 feet in height define three walled enclosures. Within the walls were thatch and wood structures. It is conjectured this heiau was used as a sacrificial temple, perhaps for success in war. Situated on a ridge with a commanding view of Waimea Valley and the northern shoreline of O`ahu, signal fires from here could be seen as far as Kaua`i.

Stay outside the walls to avoid further damage to the site. You will see offerings of stones wrapped in ti leaves on the wall.

I’ve noted that at these Hawaiian heiaus, the air feels unusually still and no birds sing, as if it is still imbued with the sacredness of long ago. Everyone I bring here gets chicken-skin; the hairs on their neck and arms prickle as if the spirits of those who died here still roam. This is the ancient side of Hawaii, a layer most tourists miss.

More information here. Hours: Daily during daylight hours; no entrance fee; trash cans, interpretive signage & walkway; no drinking water.

Pam Chun’s award-winning first novel, The Money Dragon, was named one of 2002’s Best Books in Hawaii. Born and raised in Hawaii, she has been featured on NPR and has spoken at the Smithsonian. Read her blog on Red Room.