21 Aug 2013
Earth: the haunted cinema of Washington Square, Tigard, Oregon.
Above is a Google Earth satellite photo of the Washington Square Cinema, which stood for about 35 years on this spot across from Washington Square Mall in Tigard, Oregon. I lived for a long time in this area and remember this theater in its heyday–which was a long time ago. For at least 15 years it sat empty, abandoned and mysterious. The other day when I thought, “Hey, what happened to that place?” and I Googled it, I discovered that the Washington Square Cinema is believed to be one of the most haunted (literally) places in all of Oregon.
First, a word of explanation. I do have a blog category for “Haunted Places” and I tag posts that, but, as I do not believe in ghosts, I don’t literally mean that a place is haunted. (Some readers do seem to take it that way, however). I mean “haunted” in the sense of a dark or shadowy history hanging over a place. For much of its history, however, many people believed the Washington Square cinema was actually haunted by supernatural manifestations. As I said I don’t believe that, but it’s an interesting story anyway.
Let’s start with what we know about this place in the literal world. Washington Square Mall was built in 1973 not long after Highway 217 was completed. It was the perfect location, because Washington Square became a cash cow almost beyond belief. It remains to this day something like the second or third most profitable mall in the entire United States. Twenty years ago I worked at Meier & Frank, a department store in this mall (long since converted into a Macy’s), and while I was working there, the Washington Square location was routinely the second most profitable store in the May Department Store company’s empire, ranking only behind the Lord & Taylor in Manhattan. Naturally, if you’ve got a mall you’d better have a movie theater, right?
The cinema was constructed, I believe, no later than 1980. For about a decade it was as profitable as the rest of the mall was. I remember seeing movies there in high school; one of my best friends worked there. In 1990 its fortunes changed as the Tigard Cinemas multiplex opened not far away. Always considered a little trashy, Washington Square began to decline. The last movie I saw there was Home Alone which came out at Christmas 1990. I went away to college in 1991. By the time I returned a few years later the theater was closed.
It was always a very mysterious place. Dark and brooding, colonies of algae crawled up its faux stucco walls and its windows remained dusty. You can see in the various photos a building with distinctive red and white striped awnings next to it–that’s T.G.I. Friday’s, which itself declined in the 1990s. I could never figure out why, with as profitable as the Washington Square location was, the owners didn’t fall all over themselves to tear down the building and construct something that would get paying retail tenants back on the roll. But they didn’t. Indeed, Washington Square Cinema remained where it was, for nearly 20 years after it sold its last movie ticket. According to the date on the Google Earth imagery, it was torn down between October 2010 and October 2011.
Here’s what the site of Washington Square Cinemas looked like in 2011 from the ground–still nothing has been built there.
But what about the hauntings? Here’s an excerpt from a website about various haunted places in the Portland metro area:
Why a building that is only a couple decades old is a good question, but there is a prevailing legend of a young man committing suicide in an upstairs storage room early in its history. The local police department was unable to confirm the legend, but the story continues to persist. Even if they had records of such a death, it only would explain one presence in the building. According to the book, Encyclopedia of Haunted Places, the old theater is not host to just one, but rather five different ghosts throughout the structure. These include a young girl dressed in clothing from a bygone era, a 30-something woman, a 20-something man, an old man dressed all in black whom the staff dubbed “Lurch,” and even the spectral presence of a cat. Combined, the spirits were said to account for strange, muddy handprints appearing on the screens in the theater that appeared to originate from a child, doors opening and closing on their own, and the disembodied sounds of a music box playing somewhere in the theater. Perhaps most distressing to the theater’s past employees (and annoyed audience members) were the reports of film reels suddenly becoming dislodged from their projectors and thrown at its operator.
Given its stories, the facility seemed to be the perfect place to host an annual Halloween haunted attraction and the spirits apparently did not disappoint. Lataki would later recount how customers raved about his special effects after reporting being pursued through the haunt by “wisps of white.” As it turned out, there were no such effects and his only conclusion was that the resident ghosts were joining in on the fun. Of course, the alleged haunting also had its drawbacks, as several of the The 13th Door’s employees would refuse to return and even threatened to quit after working one night in the building’s Theater One – a reported hotbed of activity.
I offer no opinion on supernatural matters, but you have to admit it’s an interesting story. We’re used to “haunted” structures being old, with lots of colorful history, and usually residences, hospitals, prisons or places where things of great emotional import are expected to have happened. But this was a commercial building, a movie theater at that–how does a place like that get to be haunted?