The Murder House

The Murder House
Illustration by Janée Meadows

It looked even scarier than she had hoped. Jennifer Clay stared up at the Spanish-style house from the bottom of a crumbling flight of concrete steps. In this hillside neighborhood of manicured homes, the mansion with peeling white paint stood out like a broken tooth. Jennifer’s mom and cousin had agreed to join her in climbing up to the old house, but as soon as they saw it, they changed their minds. Two arched windows stared down like hollow eyes over the bourgeois community of Los Feliz. The peephole in its tired wooden door was boarded up, and a “no trespassing” sign poked out from the dirt-pile yard. Jennifer started the climb alone.

The 31-year-old blogger had become hooked on Internet speculation about the property. She’d read how Dr. Harold Perelson attacked his wife while their three children slept nearby. She’d read breathless accounts of how this million-dollar home had remained empty ever since, becoming a creepy time capsule from 1959. When neighbors reported paranormal happenings, the house became a macabre tourist attraction. Jennifer couldn’t get the rumors out of her mind. Were the evil doctor’s Christmas presents really still wrapped under the tree? What clues inside might explain what possessed him to destroy everything he loved?

During that summer of 2012, Jennifer chronicled her adventures on her blog, My LA Bucket List. She recalls that her mom and cousin “kinda freaked out in fear,” but agreed to take a photo as she posed on the stairs (and a male commenter would later compliment her legs). Jennifer was just the sort of girl who would pull back a section of broken fence and simply slip into a property considered among California’s creepiest, alongside the sites of the Manson Family murders.

“The place was pretty much a shit show of paranormal proportions,” Jennifer would write, noticing through a window “two nasty mustard sitting chairs that creeped me the eff out.” But nothing was more sinister than the house gargoyle, a broken statue in a dried-up fountain. Recalls Jennifer: “It was smiling.”

Jennifer bravely circled the estate, removed the window screens and took pictures through the grimy windows. She saw dust particles dancing under fractured sunbeams that illuminated a glamorous spiral staircase. She saw vintage packets of Spaghetti O’s in the kitchen, old Vanish stain remover boxes and antique copies of Life. Jennifer was left breathless by these ephemera of family life interrupted one night during the Eisenhower presidency. “It’s similar to the feeling you get when you go to a haunted house, but it’s, like, a real one,” Jennifer explains. As she peered into the 1950s, she saw clothes, left out to dry, private letters, books. And there in the living room, she saw the fabled Christmas presents. As promised by visitors before her, their ribbons were still tied. Just then, Jennifer felt “something ominous.”

Maybe it was the same feeling that drove away the homeless, who once tried to shelter there many years ago, but fled citing unsettling chills, mystery footsteps, unholy noises at night. Maybe it was the feeling described by neighbors in a newspaper that they were being “followed.” Adrenaline squirted in her veins now. She found the concrete steps again. Her footsteps retraced the escape route taken by one of the doctor’s daughters, who fled the house soaked in blood. “I imagined her running away from her crazy dad,” Jennifer says, “and just how awful that must have been…I almost got the same feeling.” She was running now, her hands covered in decades of black dust. She cared no longer for answers, for adventure, or her bucket list. “Oh my gosh,” she thought, “I can’t get away from this house fast enough.”

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Jamie Larson