Friday, January 6, 2012

Haunted toy store from 'That's Incredible' still incredible?

I don't want to grow up, I'm a Toys "R" Us ... ghost?

Back in the days of big hair and bad fashion - that's right, the '80s - there was a documentary-style human interest show on called That's Incredible which was a hybrid of Real People and Leonard Nimoy's In Search Of ... Hosted by John Davidson, Fran Tarkenton and Cathy Lee Crosby (right), and produced by Alan Landsburg - who also created In Search Of ... - the show would explore fantastic feats of humans and paranormal phenomena.

In a way that sums up most of the decade, the show was cheesy and topped with awesome sauce.

Anyhow, in one of the show's more memorable episodes - which Paranormal Pop Culture has pinned down to probably airing in Sept. 1981, episode #44 and in the show's third season using the Encyclopedia of Television Series, Pilots and Specials: 1974-1984 by Vincent Terrace - there was a segment featuring psychic Sylvia Browne at a supposedly haunted Toys "R" Us store in Sunnyvale, Calif.


According to the voiceover and recreation that involves a Godzilla doll, a ghost plays with the toys after closing time. Research turned up that the store was built on the grounds where the house of settler Martin Murphy once stood in the late 1800s, and that a preacher name John/Yonny Johnson who sometimes lived on the property had fallen in love with Murphy's daughter Elizabeth. Johnson apparently accidentally hacked his leg while chopping wood, and bled to death. Brown says this is the man who haunts the store, and she goes on to host a seance in the store.

Brown and photographer Bill Tidwell had already caught what they claimed was photographic evidence of the haunting in the store in 1978, and That's Incredible brought them back together for another seance. Using a combination of the psychic's abilities and an infrared camera, the show reports that it caught an image of a ghostly figure in the aisle of the toy store at the precise moment that Brown was holding a seance and with Johnson - and it was a photo that didn't show up in the images from the normal high-speed camera shooting during the same time.

What do you think about that? OK, say it with us now ... "That's incredible!"

Whether or not the footage really was paranormal, or even incredible, is up for debate. And lingering questions remain (yeah, like why a ghost who chopped off his own leg would be feeling so darned playful?). Still, the episode was a great example of paranormal pop culture in the 80s, and the segment was set up in a way that doesn't look too far off from today's ghost hunting shows.

Plus, it made the Sunnyvale Toys "R" Us a paranormal landmark. Store manager Charles A., who has only been at the store for three months, says the store is still known as the haunted Toys "R" Us. He says people ask about it and inquire whether he's ever seen a ghost, but that he knows of no recent reports of activity.

"As far as I've seen, I don't think they still see anything," he says. "It's just the stories we've heard, which keep getting passed on."

"If it's here, it hasn't done me any harm; I don't really believe in that stuff anyhow."

Charles adds that, as far as he knows, no ghost hunting shows have inquired about filming there.

In a bit of Hollywood irony, even though That's Incredible was inspired by In Search Of..., the 1991 miniseries Haunted Lives directed by Tobe Hooper, took on the Toys "R" Us ghost (with a much higher production value, more violent backstory and Poltergeist-style re-enactmets) and was narrated by Leonard Nimoy.



Best lines from the That's Incredible segment:

Sylvia Brown: Bleeding to death is - I've talked to doctors I do work with - and that's really not that painful. It's sort of a slow tiredness. So he probably doesn't even realize he is dead. (Editor's note: The chopping off of one's leg might be a good clue, though.)

John Davidson: We have several letters on file from medical doctors and professors attesting to Sylvia Brown's psychic ability. (Editor's note: Medical doctors and professors?? Then it must be true.)

Fran Tarkenton: Now remember, Sylvia had no way of knowing what pictures the camera was taking (Editor's note: ... Unless you told her?)
Fun fact: Sunnyvale is likely the inspiration for Sunnydale in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and shares the ZIP code 94086), and is also the location of Cyberdyne Corporation.
Special thanks to Stacey Jones for tipping us off to this footage.

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