The Haunted Toys ‘R’ Us of Sunnyvale, California

Last month, the Silverburn Shopping Centre in Glasgow, Scotland hired a group of paranormal investigators after numerous sightings of a dark, shadowy figure lurking its aisles. According to The Daily Mail, the store, which opened in 2007, is reportedly home to the mysterious apparition of a woman dressed entirely in black.

Alleged ghost sightings in retail stores and supermarkets are fairly common. They usually involve objects popping off shelves, like what happened at an Adelaide IGA in 2012, or a Derbyshire Co-op in 2015.

But there’s one particular story, true or not, that always comes to mind when I hear about this sort of thing: The haunted Toys “R” Us of Sunnyvale, California.

Retail Terror

I first heard this story years ago on a miniseries called Real Ghosts, hosted by Leonard Nimoy. It dramatically recounted the tragic tale of Johnny Johnson, a lost soul who found himself the resident specter of an ordinary toy store in the 1970s.

Most of this information, by the way, was allegedly divined by the late Sylvia Brown, who appeared in both the episode of Real Ghosts in 1991 and a program called That’s Incredible in the early 1980s. Take that as you will.

At any rate, the story is a bit cliché: The Toys “R” Us in Sunnyvale, California sits on property that once belonged to a man named Martin Murphy. In the 1880s, it was a plantation, where he employed a preacher named Johnny (or Johan or Yonny) Johnson.

Now, Johnny suffered from encephalitis and was nicknamed “Crazy Johnny,” but he had a thing for Murphy’s daughter, Elizabeth. Let’s just say it was never meant to be.

One day, Johnny learned that Elizabeth was planning to leave and marry a lawyer. He didn’t take the news well. Later, while out angrily chopping wood, he missed and fatally wounded himself, bleeding to death.

Ever since, his restless spirit has wandered that same land, searching for Elizabeth. It just so happens that the old farmland is now home to a modern-day Toys “R” Us.

Unexplained Activity

His antics as a spirit were as you’d expect. Employees of the store complained about hearing their names called by a disembodied voice, or feeling touched by an invisible hand. Objects launched off shelves. Unexplained footsteps echoed through the aisles.

Even in the bathroom, doors seemed to open and close on their own, and the water would turn on and off by itself.

One incident, recreated in that episode of Real Ghosts, involved a mysterious voice whispering through the store’s PA system: “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away…”

They would also witness the occasional manifestation, the ghostly figure of a man in his 20s, dressed in old-fashioned clothing. Sometimes he’d be clear, other times he would appear as a shadow person.

The Séance

The Toys “R” Us employees eventually decided to hold a séance, during which photographer Bill Tidwell snapped photos. One of them, an infrared photograph, would seem to contain evidence that the haunting was real. The silhouette of a man leans against one of the shelves, surrounded by an intensely bright light.

The séance, led by Sylvia Brown, allegedly confirmed the story of Johnny Johnson. It revealed that he was stuck in a kind of time warp, still looking for Elizabeth, restless and unwilling (or unable) to move on to the other side. According to an article on, a few of the employees heard a “buzzing sound or sensation” as Johnson allegedly replied to Brown’s questions.

Restless Spirits

Have the sightings and paranormal activity continued? I’ve seen conflicting reports.

Some claim they haven’t, that current employees aren’t even aware of the strange tale. Others, like one individual in a Reddit thread on the topic, said he worked at a PETCO in the same area, and it too suffered bizarre occurrences. “Weird stuff [does] happen,” he wrote, like “dog tennis balls rolling out of the racks and office papers thrown on the floor.” It would seem Johnny Johnson haunts the entire plantation area.

Like I said, this is a ghost story I often think about, probably because I was very young when I first saw it on television. I can’t say if it’s true or not, but it thoroughly freaked me out. The image of Johnny Johnson’s spirit engulfed in purple light as a psychic attempts to lead him home is seared into my brain.

Perhaps it was just the idea that even something as bright and colorful as a toy store could be haunted.


Rob Schwarz

Rob Schwarz is a writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.


  1. I read an article that a certain type of ground could “hold” memories and feelings. I think it was granite. Some researches say that’s why there are “spots” of paranormal activity. So it could be a combination of the occurrence in the past, the emotions, and the ground that holds them like a recording, to be played over and over. I think of the sightings in Gettysburg as an example.

    1. That’s an interesting idea. Perhaps certain elements are more conducive to paranormal phenomena. I’ll have to look into that one.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      1. One of those shows from the 80’s or 90’s did a piece on a supposedly haunted courthouse. They made a similar claim about the granite used in the building being able to ‘hold spiritual energy’ (or just Radon, take your pick). But they went a step further by stating that the composition of the sheet rock used in recent renovations was similar to, and might therefore act like, a microchip. Actually, definitely the 80’s. Still a newish technology in the public mind at the time. But yeah, ghost microchips.

  2. Everyone as someone else’s phantom; we apparitions, all specters and revenants scattered across a cascade of timelines entwined in eternal recurrence and infinite regression, observers and observed all along the Now Continuum…

  3. I totally remember it being on that’s incredible and also when the San Jose Mercury News had a picture of Johnny Johnson on the front cover covering the haunting. Freaked the hell out of me as well. Nice article!

  4. The very fact that one of the most notorious psychic frauds in history, Sylvia Browne, was involved in that so-called seance completely discredits any merit regarding a haunting whatsoever.

    If you look carefully at the infa red photo of the supposed spirit of “Jonny” you’ll notice that the trousers on the man (the man “no one else saw standing in the aside”), is wearing flared leg jeans. This alleged seance took place in the early 1980’s when flared leg jeans were in style. Certainly not in the late 1800’s! Also, the hair style on the supposed spirit is clearly not form the late 19th/ early 20th century either. The hair on the man in the photo is somewhat longish and parted on the side. A style consistent with the gas of the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.

    I can say without conviction that the infra red photo is bogus.

    Sylvia Browne felt she could really “get on the map” with this kind of national publicity by faking a seance, in her days before she became a multimillionaire performing $1,000 phoney psychic readings, and later becoming Montel Williams’ second banana.

  5. hey when i worked as a merchandiser for lego back in 2011 i went to this store.. there were 2 levels of stocked boxes and a huge area with tall heavy rolling shelves that you had to crank to move.. i saw with ny own eyes two of these shelves move together and would have crushed my coworker.. and there was nobody (visible) there other than us two.. he swore i was cranking both doors which would have been impossible.. super creepy!!