Drawn to the spirit world
BY Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
The first time Lopaka Kapanui scared anyone, he was hiding under the table in his hänai mother's kitchen in Mäili, concealed by a crochet tablecloth that hung to the floor. He was 6 years old.
He could hear his hänai family listening to a story from Uncle Phillip. When he was younger, Uncle Phillip explained, he had stolen jewelry off the body of a dead woman whose family had her coffin in their Hilo home before the funeral.
A few nights later, Uncle Phillip's father answered a knock at the door and spoke to a woman dressed in black, her face hidden by a shawl. She insisted on seeing his son. When the boy arrived, the woman stepped into the porch light and lifted her veil.
All around the kitchen table in Mäili, everyone leaned closer for the rest of the story.
"For some reason, I screamed," recalled Kapanui. "They screamed, too, because they didn't know I was under the table."
He got dirty lickings that night. But his uncle's ghostly encounter helped spark a lifelong curiosity in Kapanui who today, at 47, has become one of Hawaii's most popular storytellers.
Over the past decade, Kapanui has developed a reputation for telling spooky stories and regularly leads tours that stop at some of Honolulu's most haunted spots.
When he shares a ghost story, listeners walk away looking over their shoulder. One night when he screamed during a tour — for dramatic effect, he said — three men ran off into the darkness, where they tripped over a hedge.
"The compelling thing about storytelling is being able to be possessed by the story," Kapanui said. "Not in an evil way, but where the story becomes you and you become it."
Sharing the stories is a logical extension of Kapanui's life. Although he started telling ghost stories only in 1999, as an apprentice of the late Glen Grant, Kapanui has been touched by the supernatural since his childhood, which was spent on the Leeward Coast, Kalihi Valley and the Big Island.
His hänai parents often told ghost stories — usually when they thought Kapanui wasn't within earshot — and they discussed how to bless troubled people and places. His six siblings have all had the ability to see and feel the presence of spirits, he said.
Kapanui said he's heard whispers from the other world himself — as a terrified young boy hearing a cry for help, as a teenager on Old Pali Road, and once on a tour of Mänoa Chinese Cemetery, where a voice said, "Valerie." It was the name of a woman in his group, there to visit the grave of an aunt who had died before Valerie could say goodbye.
The storyteller brings a heavy presence to his craft. Kapanui is tall and muscular — he spent many years as local wrestler Black Rain — and has a soul patch. His birth mother always told him he was 100 percent Hawaiian, but every time he looks in the mirror, he thinks his eyes are something else.
He discovered his ability to weave a story when he met Grant, a celebrated folklorist and historian who specialized in supernatural mysteries. Bringing life to words seemed a natural outgrowth of the Shakespearean drama classes Kapanui took at Leeward Community College, but Grant was the mentor who helped him put it all together.
Before his death from cancer in 2003, Grant spent three decades collecting ghost stories from Hawaii's various ethnic communities and sharing them on tours, the stage and books. He stressed careful research and an honest delivery. After Grant died, Kapanui started his "Mysteries of Honolulu" tours, which he currently folds into his schedule teaching Hawaiian culture and history for the state Department of Education.
"The most important thing I learned from Glen was that you are basically a vehicle for the story," Kapanui said. "Once your ego gets involved, it becomes entertainment and it isn't storytelling anymore."
WANTING TO BELIEVE
Nanette Napoleon, an author and historian who has studied cemeteries in Hawaii since the 1980s, said Kapanui can mesmerize an audience. His stories are compelling and his delivery becomes the trusted voice of authority.
"He is not making anything up on his own," Napoleon said. "He is not fabricating things. He is not saying he is an expert. He is saying, 'This is what the community is telling me.'"
In listening to the community, she said, Kapanui connects to something deeper: The desire to believe.
"I think it is part of our innate psyche to want to believe, to connect to the supernatural world in some manner or another," Napoleon said.
Kapanui has never lacked for believers. In fact, the more ghost stories he told, the more he found that people wanted him to deal with their demons.
People who claim to have felt the unwelcome presence of spirits have sought Kapanui with the hope that he could calm the ghosts with one of the blessings he learned while growing up.
He's always up for the task, but it hasn't always been easy.
A year ago, as Kapanui prepared to leave for a blessing at an apartment on Ward Avenue, a malevolent spirit showed up at the front door of his home in Kaimukí. It was a tall, angry missionary and as real to Kapanui as flesh and blood.
"It was standing right there," Kapanui said. "It was there one second and then it was gone."
And a few months ago, at a Makakilo home with his friend and amateur ghost hunter Preston Galera, Kapanui met a family of psychics whose house attracted spirits in every room.
"It just felt like something was there, like it was observing us," Galera said. "Over there it was creepy."
Galera leads Hawaiian Islands Ghost Hunters, a group that uses electronic equipment and night vision cameras to find spirits, but he was in Makakilo with Kapanui to explore the cultural side of the Galera family tree. His great-great-grandmother was a kahuna.
Strange things were going on that night. A coffee table bent as if someone heavy was sitting down on it. The scent of sweet tobacco filled a room. A blast of cold air rushed from a cupboard.
And something happened that Galera won't soon forget.
"I felt something pull on my hair at one point," he said.
Kapanui wasn't surprised. He's even sure that he saw blood on Galera's forehead, even though no one else did. It could be a vision of the future or maybe just a bit of storytelling flourish.
To hear Kapanui describe it, Honolulu is a haunted city whose spiritual residents occasionally reach out to their living neighbors. But even though his tales of the supernatural are popular, it's probably better if most people fail to see the ghosts around them.
"In some cases, it's best for them not to know, to not believe, to be skeptical, to be unaware," he said. "It would be too much for them to comprehend."
Kapanui prefers skeptics, he said, because the true believers have haunted him like no ghost ever has.
Sometimes, they call him after a tour to complain that something followed them home. They saw it in the backseat of their car. It choked them as they slept.
"The believers are the ones who drive me nuts," he said. "I have had phone calls at 3 o'clock in the morning. I have been followed to Zippy's. I have had people literally sitting at my door when I got home."