The Haunted California Toys "R" Us That Hosted a Séance

According to one medium, the toy store was haunted by the spirit of a lovelorn farmhand.
According to one medium, the toy store was haunted by the spirit of a lovelorn farmhand. / ZikG (toy aisle) // Shutterstock; Maria Sannikova (smoke), XiXinXing (figure) // iStock via Getty Images Plus

The haunted houses depicted in horror movies tend to fit a certain mold. They're often old mansions sitting on top of secluded hills, with walls covered in cobwebs and winding staircases that creak on their own. But believers in the paranormal will tell you that ghosts aren't picky about the locations they frequent. The story of a now-defunct Toy "R" Us in Sunnyvale, California, is the perfect example of a haunting where you'd least expect one.

Reports of ghostly activity began shortly after the Bay Area store was constructed in 1970. Employees claimed to see dolls flying off the shelves and balls bouncing down the aisles. When they were alone, they would feel a cold breeze on their back or hear a disembodied voice call their name. Some witnesses reported being touched by an invisible hand.

The phenomena became common enough to warrant a visit from a medium. Sylvia Browne brought her supposed psychic abilities to a variety of cases throughout her lifetime, but the séance she held in the Toys "R" Us in the late 1970s was likely a career-first. During the ritual, she claimed to sense the spirit of a Swedish preacher named Johnny Johnson who had worked on the land that became the city of Sunnyvale. While helping out on the Murphy farm in the 1880s, he fell in love with the family's daughter, Elizabeth. She didn't return his affections, however, and ran off with a lawyer from the East Coast. Johnson's sad story met a tragic end when he injured his leg chopping trees. He was unable to get help and slowly bled out alone.

Browne repeatedly went back to the Toys "R" Us to communicate with Johnson, whom she called "the most stubborn, ornery, argumentative ghost I've met" in her book The Other Side and Back: A Psychic's Guide to Our World and Beyond. "I've tried many times to explain to him that his lifetime as Johnny Johnson has ended," she wrote. "He finally got so tired of my nagging him about it that he gave me an ultimatum: 'If you tell me I'm dead one more time, I'm not going to talk to you anymore." Browne let the matter drop; she and the ghost supposedly had a "quasi-friendship" in which they found "other things to chat about," including the annoying and noisy kids who frequented the store.

But while the Murphys and their farm were real, other details of Browne's account don't add up. SFGate reports that Elizabeth didn't elope with a lawyer: She married the son of a wealthy businessman in an elaborate ceremony in 1863. She died in 1875, several years before Johnson is said to have worked on her family's farm. And Johnny Johnson may have never existed in the first place—there's no record of him in California's census data.

Regardless of their validity, ghost stories surrounding the Sunnyvale Toys "R" Us have persisted. The business was thrust into the national spotlight when it was featured on the reality show That's Incredible! in the 1980s. The episode included a séance with Browne and the most compelling piece of evidence in the case yet: A shadowy figure looming in an infrared photograph. When investigators looked at the high-speed film captured at the same time and place, the figure was missing. You can watch a clip from the episode above.

Despite its reputation, the Sunnyvale Toys "R" Us continued operating for decades before closing permanently in 2018. The next year, the building hosted a business that better fits its dark history: Spirit Halloween. (It's now an REI.) Believers think the site could still be haunted after the change in scenery—though perhaps it was just the board games and Barbie dolls the ghosts were interested in.