When dealing with a reputedly haunted house, honesty is the best policy.
“Haunted” houses generally fall under stigmatized property laws. These laws cover homes where notorious crimes, violent murders, or suicides have occurred. The real estate law scholar George Lefcoe notes that, since the 1960s, there has been a shift in the U.S. from caveat emptor, or “buyer beware,” to the principle that problems with a house should be disclosed to interested buyers. Often this takes the form of detailed forms for property condition disclosure. In other cases, realtors are simply obligated to answer any direct questions about a home’s flaws.
Disclosure laws vary from state to state. “Hauntedness” isn’t considered a material fact in all of them, and in any case not all states require sellers to disclose aspects that might lower a property’s value. There are, however, also cases of haunted houses attracting buyers, who sometimes even contribute to rumors of a house’s haunted status to get a discount. Or they might simply be drawn to the paranormal aura.
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California, for example, has one of the more stringent disclosure laws. Its Civil Code mandates that realtors tell buyers if a violent death occurred three years before a purchase offer. The California realtor Randall Bell says that stigmatized property can sell for 10% to 25% less than a non-stigmatized one. As he explained to Curbed, “perception is everything with stigmatized properties.” This is why, when he consults on places where there are rumors of cultic murders or satanic rites, he effectively treats them as if they’re real.
The legal scholar Daniel Warner has referred to haunted locales as “karmic-based real estate.” His argument is that irrational beliefs shouldn’t have legal backing, and thus that sellers shouldn’t be required to disclose stigmas like murders and hauntings. His concern is that laws mandating disclosure might be seen as condoning belief in ghosts, and might actually influence it.
Case in point: In 1989, a man purchased a large Victorian house in Nyack, NY, before learning about local stories of Revolution-era ghosts inhabiting the place. He demanded to be released from the contract, as the realtor hadn’t disclosed the house’s reputation for being haunted. The buyer noted that he didn’t himself believe in ghosts, but was concerned about the effect on the property value.
The case eventually went to trial and later on to an appeal. In 1991, in a joke-laced ruling that quoted Ghostbusters, the appellate court agreed with the purchaser: As the house had been “possessed by poltergeists,” it couldn’t be said to be unoccupied. Real estate law in the state changed briefly as a result, requiring disclosure of a house’s haunted nature.
Ancient Disclosure Norms
Disclosure laws for haunted houses date back thousands of years, though pre-modern ghosts weren’t pictured the way contemporary specters are. Ghosts in ancient Rome weren’t always transparent, and instead were sometimes described as smoky or lifelike.
But then as today, plenty of people believed in ghosts. The oldest surviving haunted house story in Greek and Roman literature is the Mostellaria, or “The Haunted House,” by the Roman comic playwright Plautus. Likely first performed between 200 and 194 BCE, the Mostellaria was probably adapted from the Athenian playwright Philemon’s play Phasma, or “The Ghost,” which itself was written around 288 BCE. Phasma is among several stories whose titles are referenced in other documents, although the stories themselves don’t survive in their entirety.
Haunted house stories in antiquity, including the Mostellaria, followed a fairly standard template, writes the classicist Debbie Felton in a 1999 article. A guest is murdered in the house and buried on the property. The guest’s specter then begins to haunt the house at night. What stands out about this story, as in the Mostellaria, is the appearance of a ghost with a physical presence and a claim to a physical space—more alarming than a typical ancient ghost story, where the ghosts are relegated to dreams.
Finally, a brave and rational man arrives on the scene, determined to unravel the mystery of the haunting. The presence of this educated figure is meant to assure skeptical readers that the ghost does exist; after all, he’s no gullible sort. He follows the ghost to a spot that is then dug up. Human bones are revealed. Once the bones receive a proper burial, the hauntings come to an end.
The plot ultimately reinforces the gravity of the host’s transgression as well as the importance of burying bodies with due respect. The classicist Yelena Baraz has referred to this trope as an example of the standard “soul released from torment” plot. In the Mostellaria, this template is put to comic effect, as a ghost story told by the character Tranio within the larger story. One of the details Tranio relates is that the house’s ghost makes knocking sounds—likely the first recorded suggestion of a poltergeist.
Ancient stories of haunted houses also delve specifically into the question of disclosure. Although much contemporary knowledge of ancient laws is based on documents like the Roman Digest of Justinian, there’s also evidence of disclosure norms from the haunted house stories themselves. For instance, Pliny the Younger’s Letter 7.27, from the first century, is an early ghost story that centers on the philosopher Athenodorus. (The same letter also includes a story of specters that cut people’s hair as they sleep.)
Athenodorus is a prototypical educated and brave protagonist of a haunted house story. On arrival in Athens, he sees that a deserted house is for sale. He investigates and learns that it’s haunted by a bearded, chain-rattling ghost. The previous tenants have lost sleep and even died from terror due to the sound of the chains and the emaciated appearance of the old ghost. As fits the standard plot, Athenodorus follows the ghost to a spot in the courtyard. Digging reveals a corpse buried in chains. And surprise! Once the remains are properly buried, the hauntings come to an end.
Felton writes in her 1999 book Haunted Greece and Rome:
Pliny’s story also includes the detail that the haunted house was advertised at a low rent. Athenodorus, as a potential tenant, finds the low price of the house suspicious. It is an interesting detail, suggesting that haunted houses might in fact have been an economic reality in the ancient world.
Felton argues that the ancients recognized an ethical expectation (though not necessarily a law) that sellers would divulge the haunted status of a house to prospective buyers. The Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic, who died in 323 BCE, was recorded by Cicero as arguing that interested buyers should be told of flaws, including “an unhealthy atmosphere,” in the houses they’re considering purchasing. Felton therefore concludes that norms requiring sellers to reveal that their houses are haunted haven’t changed much in 2,000 years.
The Continuity of Ancient and Modern Ghost Stories
The modern stories are nearly as formulaic as the ancient versions. Generally, spirits invade because of something that went horribly wrong: a violent murder, an injustice, a violation of the rules of family life, etc. Audiences are often expected to be sympathetic to these ghosts, especially if they were marginalized during life: people living with mental illness, victims of violence, or otherwise vulnerable or exploited people.
Aesthetically, these tales often trade on Gothic tropes of spaces of darkness and shadow. The essential idea is that buildings and spaces correspond to people’s internal states; a house may be nearly as alive and feeling as its inhabitants. It’s challenging to show this kind of inner conflict directly, and one way to make it palpable is literalize it.
Commercialized and televised experiences of the paranormal lead to what Annette Hill, a media and communication professor at Lund University, calls a “revolving door.”
“This revolving door of skepticism and belief regarding the paranormal is part of how we experience haunted houses, and we carry this kind of ambiguous engagement with paranormal matters into our media engagement,” she told me. “At present, the rise of populism, and a politics of fear and anxiety about political and environmental catastrophes may be connected with a cultural dynamics of fear of the unknown, or the paranormal in our personal lives.”
Dale Bailey, a sci-fi-fantasy-horror author and an English professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University, believes that one reason these stories endure is that the haunted house is a flexible and potent metaphor. He explains:
The fear of an invasion of the domestic space–the safest space, the home–by forces natural or supernatural seems to be pretty universal. And the fear of your bonds with your most loved ones disintegrating is probably even more so.
There are ways to clean a house, spiritually speaking. Ghost hunters can locate the objects that ghosts are fixating on, or facilitate communication with the spirits to find out why they’re hanging around. More simply, some people swear by sage and cedar oil. But unless these remedies change the perception that a house is haunted, they’re unlikely to clear out the stigma.