A Southern Feast of All Souls—Thrilling Souls

Night creatures call
And the dead start to walk their masquerade…
–Michael Jackson, “Thriller” (1983)

Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery
3650 Charles Avenue
Miami, Florida

The scene is iconic of the early 1980s and plays a bit part in my own childhood: Michael Jackson donned in classic red leather dancing with a host of zombies outside a cemetery. Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album was the first pop album I owned and I’m sure my own interpretations of the song and video in my parents’ basement playroom hinted at  my future interests in theatre and the supernatural. In 2009, this video was considered important enough to be preserved as part of the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

As I was searching out an article on ghost tours being conducted at Miami’s Deering Estate, I happened on a 2012 article on creepy Miami from The Huffington Post. While I was familiar with most of the locations, Charlotte Jane Memorial Park stood out. The articles notes that neighbors of the cemetery claim that it was where the graveyard scenes in the ‘Thriller’ video were shot here. According to the excellent Wikipedia article on the video as well as later in the Huffington Post article, the video’s director John Landis has stated that the video was shot entirely in Los Angeles.

After looking at the music video, the cemetery does bear some semblance, especially in the fact that both cemeteries appear to be old, crowded cemeteries. A page from a website called Miami for Visitors, claims that Charlotte Jane Memorial Park provided the inspiration for the cemetery. But there is no real evidence behind this tenuous connection between the cemetery and the music video.

A further glance at the history of this cemetery, however, brings one into the mists of the early history of South Florida. Miami was a scrappy collection of settlements at the mouth of the Miami River when the city was incorporated in 1896. Henry Flagler, the railroad magnate who was instrumental in the creation of the modern state of Florida, had begun expanding his Florida East Coast Railway through the area the previous year. Coconut Grove was a well-established town by this time and continued to grow with the influx of immigrants from the Bahamas who enjoyed the South Florida climate that closely resembled that of their island homes. After Miami’s incorporation, wealthy families from the northeast began flooding into Coconut Grove and began erecting mansions such as the Deering Estate. In 1925 Coconut Grove was annexed by the City of Miami, though it remained a Bohemian and Bahamian enclave.

Charlotte Jane Memorial Park was established as the second Bahamian burying ground in the city, the first was located a little ways up Charles Avenue just after the turn of the 20th century. Named for the wife of community leader E.W.F. Stirrup, Charlotte Jane Memorial Park was originally called the Coconut Grove Bahamian Cemetery and founded around 1913. The cemetery features above ground tombs that painted silver and white. According to Alex Plasencia’s thesis examining the history and race relations in Coconut Grove, the graves are traditionally painted during the Goombay Festival, which is held annually to celebrate Bahamian culture.

This historic cemetery has been noted for odd occurrences for many years. A 1990 article in the Miami New Times explores the city’s historic cemeteries and mentions an incident at Charlotte Jane Memorial Park that had taken place in 1983. On a night of a full moon, a brown paper bag with flies swarming around it was discovered just inside the cemetery’s gates. When investigators opened the bag, the decapitated carcass of a chicken was discovered inside. After it appeared that a nearby mausoleum had been broken into, investigators discovered that a casket had been pried open and the corpse inside had been decapitated. A rusty hunting knife lay on the floor of the crypt. An investigator with the medical examiner’s office concluded that the head had possibly been taken as a part of a Santeria ritual. Sadly, a similar incident was reported earlier this year and a local man was arrested on charges of burglary, disturbing the contents of a grave and vandalizing a grave.

According to a variety of sources, there is some spiritual activity here including shadow figures and disembodied voices; activity which has been witnessed in many cemeteries. Those same sources also claim that the Michael Jackson, who may or may not have been inspired by this cemetery, has been seen here following his unexpected death in 2009. If, while exploring this historic cemetery, you encounter spirits, you may want to have some killer dance moves prepared.