Friendly, playful spirit is said to toy with employees, others at a store in Sunnyvale, Calif.


April 26, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

SUNNYVALE, Calif. -- Enter the Play-Doh aisle at your ow risk. Browse the children's books with caution. And don't even ask to go upstairs, where toys are stacked.

The Toys "R" Us in Sunnyvale is haunted by a man named Johnson, employees and psychics say.

"I don't believe in ghosts," said Putt-Putt O'Brien, who has spent 18 years stacking toys at the store. "But you feel a breeze behind you. Someone calls your name and there's nobody there. Funny things happen here that you can't explain."

Rag dolls and toy trucks leap off shelves. Balls bounce down the aisles. Children's books fall out of racks. Baby swings move on their own. The folks at Toys "R" Us say they've tried to explain it logically but can't.

"Many people have experiences, not just one or two of us," Ms. O'Brien said. "He's like Casper. Nothing he does ever hurt anybody."

Others have taken notice, too. Newspapers have written about him. The toy store has been featured on television's "That's Incredible" and other shows. A Hollywood script writer for the movie "Toys" spent two nights inside doing research. Psychic Sylvia Browne held a seance there in 1978 and has been back a dozen times.

Ms. Browne said Johnson told her he was a preacher and ranch hand in the 1880s on the Murphy family farm, where the toy store sits today. He spoke with a mild Swedish accent, and his first name was John, Yon or Johan. Ten of 16 people assembled there for the seance said they heard a "high buzzing noise" when Ms. Browne supposedly was listening to the ghost.

Ms. Browne said the ghost told her he had been in love with Murphy's daughter, Elizabeth, who ran off with an East Coast lawyer. Old news clippings say Johnson accidentally hacked his leg with an ax while carelessly chopping down trees. Another story said Johnson was found dead in the orchard with an ax wound in his neck. Both stories say he bled to death.

Ms. O'Brien said she saw Johnson once: A young man in his 20s or 30s, wearing knickers, a white long-sleeved work shirt and a gray tweed snap-brim cap, walked past her. Another time she heard galloping horses.

"Yohan used to exercise the horses, they say," Ms. O'Brien said.

Now he apparently gets his exercise playing with the staff. There was the time when men were waxing the floor, for instance, and a teddy bear kept appearing in each aisle as they moved their equipment through the store. There's the overwhelming sweet smell of garden flowers that haunts Aisle 15C, next to the Mickey Mouse dolls and the Batman toothbrush sets.

So, now the obvious question: Is it all just a desperate sales gimmick?

"It's very good publicity for us," said store director Stephanie Lewis. "But I personally don't believe in it."

But even if Ms. Lewis doesn't believe it, others do.

"Last week, we had to chase three or four teen-agers away," she said. "They were sitting out front at 4 a.m. with a Ouija board, trying to conjure up the ghost. Once a week someone comes in here asking about it. Teen-agers beg us to let them spend the night on the floor."

Johnson, who died a bachelor, toys with the women most.

"I have employees who will not go into the women's bathroom alone," Ms. Lewis said. That's because Johnson follows them in there and turns on the water faucets, she said.

Longtime employees say Johnson also has pulled pranks on contractors who come to do short-term jobs. They see a toy leap from a shelf and refuse to come back.

Ms. O'Brien believes Johnson "lives" upstairs in a breezy, cool corner. The pranks he pulls upstairs also are harmless, she said, but it's spookier because one is usually alone.

"When I go up there, I'll say, 'Johan, I'm only here to work,'" Ms. O'Brien said.

So if the place is haunted, why stick around?

"It's a good ghost," said Lisa, another employee, who didn't give her last name. "It's fun here."

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