The night Ying Liu’s mother died, Liu went to bed holding out her hand, pretending her mother could still place her palm in her’s.
“I was comforting myself — imagining it,” Liu says. Her mother’s death was sudden and unexpected. Left shocked in the aftermath, Liu stopped dancing, a longtime love of her’s, feeling like it was wrong to experience joy while someone she cared about was gone.
“If I ever have a daughter, I hope it’s my mom coming back to me through reincarnation,” she told herself. She dreamed of seeing her mother again in another life.
But Liu also wondered if there was a way she could speak to her mother without waiting for serendipity. The first sign came from a friend, who told her that she could see Liu’s mother hovering around her. “She has her hands around your neck. Maybe she wants to take you with her.”
The message was a little frightening, but Liu was skeptical, knowing that her mother would never try to hurt her. So Liu sought out psychic June Ahern, hoping she could connect her with the beyond. Liu already had a deep fascination with the supernatural thanks to her mother, who loved telling ghost stories. On their first call, Liu says Ahern was initially reluctant to find her mother, until she suddenly got a strong vision.
“She has her hands around your neck and your shoulders,” Ahern told Liu. “Because it’s cold and you’re not wearing a scarf.” Ahern said that Liu’s mother wanted her to put on her dancing shoes once more.
“I’m not even paying her at this point,” Liu says. After that first call, Liu was a believer. She kept seeing Ahern to learn more about her mother, and their sessions eventually helped Liu learn more about her extended family in Malaysia, unearthing volumes of history that had been lost to her. Ahern would see a peculiar detail about an uncle or third aunt, and Liu would chase down information from her relatives in Malaysia, reconnecting with them in the process. She visited Malaysia in 2018 with Ahern’s visions swimming in her mind.
“I kind of felt like I was this weird messenger, bringing these messages to my cousins who had lost their mom or dad,” Liu says. “It brought the family closer.”
Seeing a psychic was illuminating for Liu, who might not have been so encouraged to unravel her family history so doggedly without Ahern’s push. It also lit a new path for Liu, cementing her curiosity in the supernatural. While in a college filmmaking class, Liu decided she wanted to learn more about ghosts around the Bay Area for one of her projects. She recruited a classmate, cameraman Cody Kulka, and another interested filmmaker, Matthew Abaya, and started exploring different haunts in San Francisco and beyond for The Haunted Bay, an Amazon Prime documentary series that chronicles different supernatural phenomena around Northern California.
So far, Liu and her team have looked for ghosts at the Condor Club in North Beach, accompanied a psychic medium around what used to be known as the Barbary Coast, a former red-light district in San Francisco, and captured a mysterious thermal photo at the Warfield Theater. Their third season, premiering on AsianAmericanMovies.com or Amazon Prime on Oct. 30, tracks some old and new mysteries, delving into the history of a secret society called the Odd Fellows while revisiting one of The Haunted Bay’s past locations: a haunted theater in Chinatown called the Great Star Theater, and interviewing Ahern about the different ghosts that might be wandering around, unseen.
“Some of us started out with no belief in this stuff,” Liu says. But over the course of making three seasons about ghosts, Liu and her team were stunned to find what they believe is “physical evidence” for the paranormal. For Liu, The Haunted Bay has become more than just a documentary, but a personal journey into the supernatural, and a history lesson into some of San Francisco’s most curious chapters.
“I kind of feel like the spirits are actually reaching out to us to tell us their stories,” Liu says. Some of the tales they recount are of those who have been wronged — like a women-run soap company that got cheated out of their money. Or perhaps, they just have unfinished business, just like Liu’s mother, telling her daughter to dance again. In one of Liu and Ahern’s later sessions, Ahern felt a strong flood of emotions. Her eyes started welling up with tears.
“Your mother said, ‘Do that thing again, when you sleep at night, when you stick your hand out,’” Ahern told Liu. “She’ll hold your hand.”
Stream The Haunted Bay on Amazon Prime
Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.