The Doomed Aviator Haunting the Universal Studios Backlot

You may be surprised to know that the man behind one of L.A.’s premiere Halloween attractions can be frightened by something as benign as giggling, but as you’re about to read, it was for very good reason.

In later summer 2015, longtime Universal Studios employee John Murdy was tasked with bringing back Halloween Horror Nights to Hollywood after a five year hiatus. As the creative director responsible for the grand vision of the attraction, Murdy was scouting the backlot for areas that could be included as part of the “Terror Tram” experience. Accompanying him was a member of his team, Casey.

“It was long after dark,” Murdy recalled, noting that as far as he knew, he and Casey were the only people anywhere near that portion of the backlot. Which is why it surprised him when, he said, “I heard this diabolical giggling,” which stopped almost as quick as it began.

With that, Murdy said, “I bolted,” leaving Casey behind.

Casey cajoled Murdy to come back and investigate whatever it was that could have made the sound. Murdy sheepishly returned to Casey’s side.

The disembodied giggling started again. This time, it was much closer. When he bolted again, Casey was on Murdy’s tail.

By the next day, the story about Murdy and Casey encountering a “ghost” in the backlot was making the rounds among fellow Horror Nights and Universal staff. The more reasonable passed it off as a passing security guard. Most laughed at the notion that Murdy, a lifelong horror fan who began building home haunts as a small child, could actually be frightened. But not everyone dismissed the the possibility that the giggling was of supernatural origin.

Other employees began confiding of their own unusual experiences on the Universal backlot. One that stuck out to Murdy was the sighting of a man wandering the area near the “Psycho” house wearing a vintage aerial outfit, complete with a leather helmet and jacket. According to what he heard, a number of employees reported seeing a similarly dressed man over a period of years. What made this significant: the sightings were in the same area where Murdy and Casey heard the giggling.

Murdy dived into the Universal archives, searching for any films that may have had castmembers as pilots – considering Lon Chaney’s ghost has long been seen wearing his costume on the soundstage where “Phantom of the Opera” was shot, it was possible the ghost of the aviator was of an actor refusing to let go of a former role.

After hours of research that led him, Murdy came onto the answer: A Los Angeles Times article from March 17, 1915, the opening weekend of Universal Studios. The headline:

DASH TO EARTH ENDS LIFE AND ITS HOPE: Aviator Who Would Fly As Beachey Flew Falls To the Same Fate

Could this have been the spirit that Murdy and other employees have encountered? Whether or not this was the source of the ghost story, the true story is chilling.

To celebrate the opening weekend of Universal City, studio chief Carl Laemmle orchestrated a spectacle to kick off what the Times hailed as “the greatest motion picture city in the world.” Thousands of guests decended up Universal, many of whom had traveled to from across the country.

As they walked through the studio gates, gorgeous young ingenues showered flowers on the guests, while mounted cowboys and Indians fired shots into the air and whooped war cries. A who’s who of the studio’s directors, cast, and crew, demonstrated film shoots on a variety of film sets, and for the first time, the famous simulated “flood scene” had hundreds of thousands of gallons of water wash through the backlot.

According to the Los Angeles Times, on the first day of the momentous weekend, “only one or two minor accidents occured,” and those were from children who received minor injuries after running under the horses.

The next day, the planned show stopper would be a simulated aerial battle above the heads of the crowd.

Universal had enlisted Frank Stites, a pilot whose own high flying bravado was already known to newspaper reading Angelenos. Stites regularly performed aerial stunts in Venice Beach and other coastal communities. Stites was also the chief instructor of the Griffith Aviator Park, which had opened three years earlier.

For the stunt, Stites would fly his biplane over an enemy plane and drop a payload of explosives that would destroy his enemy. The “bomb” was, in fact, an inert bundle of cloth, and the unpiloted enemy plane, strung along a zipline, was loaded with a primed explosive.

The scheduled battle was postponed throughout the day due to uncooperative winds, and perhaps, due to an extra cautious Frank Stites. That morning, Stites learned that his friend, the leading aviator Lincoln Beachey was killed while performing a stunt in the San Franciso Bay. The Los Angeles Times speculated that Stites  faced with the challenge of taking Beachey’s place as “The Worlds Greatest Aviator.”

Everything went according to script, until the explosives went off. Before dropping the payload, Stites circled three or four times above the thousands of awestruck Universal visitors for effect. Spotting his cue from the director, Stites cruised back around on his path towards the dummy plane, and as scripted, dropped the payload, and the dummy plane was blasted into shrapnel. This was also when everything went horribly wrong.

To those on the ground,  it appeared that immediately after the unmanned plane exploded, Stites lost control of the plane.

It is not known if he was tossed from his seat, or if he jumped hoping for safety, but when the plane was sixty feet from the ground, Stites plummeted to the feet of the crowd. Moments later, the plane crashed into a patch of trees fifty feet away.

Frank Stites lies still in this photo taken moments after his tragic fall. Photo from “The Ghost of Frank Stites” Facebook page.

Stites was dead on impact. The Los Angeles Times reported, “His spinal column was driven into the skull.”

Immediately after the accident, Carl Laemmle himself announced that all further festivities would be cancelled, and the crowds made their way home. Besides reports of the accident that hit the news in the days that followed, Frank Stites name disappeared from the papers.

Perhaps all that Stites wanted was acknowledgement, which is why his spirit still lingers on the backlot.

After learning about Frank Stites and his dreadful fate, John Murdy said that with the help of a mannequin, he created an effigy of the doomed pilot to let him know he wouldn’t be forgotten (if you ride the Universal Backlot Tour, you may spot it along the route). Murdy claims that since then, the sightings of a lone man in an aerial outfit have stopped, and he hasn’t heard the giggling since.

In keeping with the times, The Ghost of Frank Stites now has his own Facebook page, and some Universal employees have taken to dressing up as his corpse to frighten visitors to the studio’s annual Halloween attraction.

So, if you’re on the backlot and happen to see a man walking around dressed as an aviator, it’s probably a live human being wearing a costume.



The article was originally posted on October 2, 2011.