The Real-Life Haunting That Inspired The Changeling
Soon after moving into a sprawling Denver mansion, Russell Hunter sensed he wasn't alone.
Chances are you’re familiar with the 1980 ghost movie classic The Changeling, even if you’ve never seen it. That’s because the film’s iconic scene of a red rubber ball bouncing down the stairs has been referenced in numerous horror flicks throughout the years.
In fact, the sequence came in at #54 on Bravo’s list of 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and Martin Scorsese listed The Changeling as one of the 11 scariest films of all time. More recently, Guillermo del Toro made numerous nods to the ghost flick in his horror Gothic romance Crimson Peak.
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What you may not know about The Changeling, however, is that its tale of a malevolent spirit haunting a gloomy mansion is based on a true story.
In 1968 composer Russell Hunter moved from New York into the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion near Cheesman Park in Denver, Colorado (pictured at top). He would later claim in an interview that he rented the estate for the “unbelievable price of $200 per month, because no one else wanted to live there.”
In February of 1969, Hunter began experiencing strange phenomena in the house. It started with an “unbelievable banging and crashing” every morning at 6am, that stopped whenever Hunter would get out of bed. Doors opened and closed by themselves, faucets turned off and on, and walls vibrated so violently that they knocked paintings to the floor.
As he investigated these strange disturbances, Hunter claimed to have found a hidden staircase in the back of an upstairs closet. The narrow passageway led to a secret room where Hunter found the belongings—including a journal—of a young boy who had lived in the house “a century ago.” Hunter pored through the journal’s contents and conducted a séance to piece together the paranormal puzzle. He discerned the resident ghost was a sickly child who once lived in the home, and had been the heir to a fortune from his grandmother before succumbing to his infirmity.
The boy’s parents were worried his inheritance might pass to another family member if word got out about his death. So the scrupulous couple buried their dead son in an unmarked grave in a field southeast of Denver. They then adopted a boy from a local orphanage to pose as their child, who accepted the inheritance and later went on to great wealth and success.
According to Hunter, the ghost of the sickly boy directed him to the aforementioned unmarked grave, which was now located beneath a house on South Dahlia Street in Denver. The spirit reportedly threatened to harm the family living in the South Dahlia home if they didn’t give Hunter permission to dig there.
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The family acquiesced. It wasn’t long before Hunter and his team unearthed human remains—along with a gold medallion inscribed with the dead child’s name.
Yet the grisly discovery didn’t solve Hunter’s problem—in fact, the haunting only grew worse. A set of glass doors exploded in Hunter’s face, severing an artery in his wrist. The wall behind Hunter’s bed imploded and crumbled down on top of him.
Fearing for his life, Hunter fled to a new house on Kearney Street. But the hauntings moved with him. Finally, Hunter called in a priest from the Epiphany Episcopal Church to perform an exorcism, which seemed to clear the air.
Hunter’s account will sound familiar to anyone who’s seen The Changeling. The red rubber ball even makes an appearance in the original tale, as it was apparently the sickly boy’s favorite toy. Hunter’s claims also seems like they would be easy enough to corroborate.
And yes, when you begin inspecting Hunter’s account, gaps do emerge. The Denver Library recently did an excellent job of fact-checking Hunter’s ghostly claims. Among the library’s findings is the absence of any concrete records that Hunter actually lived in the Henry Treat Williams Mansion, though he did reside in Denver at the end of the 1960s, where he helped his parents manage the Three Birches Lodge in Boulder.
As for the boy who supposedly haunted the house, there isn’t any solid record of him either, and there’s no way he lived in the house a century before Hunter did, as it wasn’t even built until 1892. There are enough odd mysteries surrounding Hunter’s account to make a paranormal investigator curious, though, including the fact that the family who built the mansion owned farmland around where the child’s unmarked grave was said to have been located.
None of that stops people from continuing to report strange happenings all over the Cheesman Park neighborhood to this very day, including cold spots, sudden sensations of dread, and ghostly orbs appearing in photographs.
These may have nothing to do with Hunter’s story, however, and much more to do with the fact that Cheesman Park was originally a graveyard. As recently as 2010, workers digging trenches for the park’s irrigation system unearthed four skeletons from the abandoned cemetery.
And if that’s not the beginning of a killer ghost story, then what is…
Feature photo via Denver Public Library; Wikimedia Commons; Still from "The Changeling" via Chessman Park Productions; Still from "The Changeling" via Chessman Park Productions; Wikimedia Commons