The Dos and Don’ts of Living in a Haunted House (New York Times)

nytimes.com

Anna Kodé


Many Americans believe that their home is inhabited by ghosts, a conviction that researchers attribute to the rise of paranormal-related media, a decline in religious beliefs and the pandemic.

A man with short brown hair and a salt-and-pepper beard sits at a dining room table. His face is illuminated by a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Several paintings and photographs hang on the walls. The room includes a large window and a chair and small buffet. All furnishings are antique.
Shane Booth in his dining room where he said the bulk of the paranormal activity happens at his home in Benson, N.C.Credit: Eamon Queeney for The New York Times

Oct. 26, 2022

How to Live With a Ghost

On a routine afternoon, Shane Booth, a photography professor living in Benson, N.C., was folding laundry in his bedroom, when he was startled by a loud, crashing noise. He stepped out to find a shattered front window and his dog sitting outside it. He was confused, how could his dog have jumped through the window with enough force to break it?

After cleaning up the glass, Mr. Booth came back to his room, where all of the clothes he had just folded were scattered and strewn about, he said. “That’s when I thought, this is actually really scary now,” said Mr. Booth, 45.

In an interview, Mr. Booth described several other inexplicable, eerie encounters that have led him to believe that his century-old house is haunted. Pictures that he’d hung on the wall he’d later discover placed perfectly on the floor with no broken frames to indicate a fall. He noticed vases moved to different locations, had momentary sightings of a ghost (an old man), and heard bellowing laughter when no one else was in the house. “There’s so many little things that sporadically happen that you just can’t explain,” he said.

Many Americans believe that their home is inhabited by someone or something that isn’t a living being. An October study from the Utah-based home security company Vivint found that nearly half of the thousand surveyed homeowners believed that their house was haunted. Another survey of 1,000 people by Real Estate Witch, an education platform for home buyers and sellers, found similar results, with 44 percent of respondents saying that they’ve lived in a haunted house.

Researchers attribute increasing belief in the supernatural to the rise of paranormal-related media, a decline in religious affiliation and the pandemic. With so many people believing that they live with ghosts, a new question arises: How does one live with ghosts? Are there ways to become comfortable with it, or certain actions to keep away from so as not to disturb it?

In a person’s left hand is a cellphone showing a black and white photograph of a small white church with a steeple and a human figure standing in front of it.
Mr. Booth holds a cellphone showing a photograph of the church that is now his home in Benson, N.C.Credit: Eamon Queeney for The New York Times

Mr. Booth’s house was originally built as a Baptist church in 1891, he learned through some digging online. The religious ties made him think that maybe the unearthly happenings could be because he was gay, and the spirits weren’t welcoming of that. However frightening those experiences may get at times, Mr. Booth has made a sort of peace with it.

“I love this house. I’ve made it my space, and I don’t want to let anything kick me out,” Mr. Booth said. “When things happen, I talk to it and say, ‘Hey, calm it down.’”

While cohabiting with a spirit could be a fearful experience, some people enjoy it or, at the least, have learned how to live with it.

“I’m not opposed to a little bit of weird,” said Brandy Fleischer, 28, who lives in a house that was originally built in the 1800s in Genoa City, Wis. Ms. Fleischer said that she believes the house is haunted, and that one of the ghosts is named Henry. This, she figured out by placing a pendulum above a board with letters on it and asking the spirit to spell its name, she explained. “He likes to play pranks. He’ll move shoes around,” she said.

Ms. Fleischer wasn’t always so comfortable with the phantoms, though. “The very first time I walked in the door, it felt like I was walking into a party that I wasn’t invited to. It felt like everyone was looking at me,” she said, “but I couldn’t see them.”

An upstairs hallway has worn hardwood floors and a wooden banister leading to stairs. Two large windows of two different rooms can be seen through open doors.
The interior of Brandy Fleischer’s home.Credit: Via Brandy Fleischer

She compared living with ghosts to having roommates — these just happen to be ones she didn’t ask for. Ms. Fleischer has been able to get a sense of what to avoid in order to coexist harmoniously with Henry. In particular, when people in the house are squabbling, it bothers him, she said. “He’s slammed a drawer to interrupt an argument,” she said.

Some people believe that ghosts can follow them from one house to another.

Lisa Asbury has lived in her home in Dunlap, Ill., for three years now. But the paranormal activity she’s observed began in her old home in 2018, following the death of her husband’s grandfather, and is identical to what she’s been experiencing now, she said. Ms. Asbury, 43, said that she’s seen objects fly off shelves, lights flash in multiple rooms and fan blades start turning suddenly. “I hear my name being called when I’m alone, phantom footsteps, our dogs barking while staring at nothing,” she added.

But nothing has felt aggressive, Ms. Asbury said. Just attention-seeking. “I believe our spirits to be family,” she said. “I get the feeling that we have different family members visit at different times.”

And though it was unsettling for a while, she’s figured out how to live within the ghostly milieu. “Usually if something occurs, we will acknowledge it out loud or just say hi to the spirit,” Ms. Asbury said.

For sellers, paranormal murmurings could also be a helpful marketing point. Earlier this year, the three-bedroom Rhode Island house that inspired the “The Conjuring” horror movie sold above asking price for $1.525 million. In 2021, a Massachusetts property that was the site of the infamous Borden family murders sold for $1.875 million without any open houses or showings. Dozens of Airbnb listings advertise phantasmal experiences as well, such as a “second-floor haunted oasis” or a “Phantoms Lair.”

“Embracing a home’s haunted history may be a scary good seller strategy in the race to go viral,” said Amanda Pendleton, Zillow’s home trends expert. “Unique homes captured the imagination of Zillow surfers during the pandemic — the more unusual a listing, the more page views it can generate.”

Sharon Hill, the author of the 2017 book “Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers,” added that “many are no longer fearful of ghosts because we’ve been so habituated to them by the media.”

Haunted houses can also be “a way to connect to the past or a sense of enchantment in the everyday world,” Ms. Hill said. “We have a sense of wanting to find out for ourselves and be able to feel like we can reach beyond death. To know that ghosts exist would be very comforting to some people.”

Still, most sellers and agents are wary of taking that strategy. Of the over 760,000 properties on Zillow in the last two weeks, only two listings had descriptions that implied the home could be haunted, according to data provided by Zillow. One property is a six-bedroom hotel in Wisconsin where the description boasts that it was recently the subject of a Minnesota ghost hunter group’s investigation. The other, a rundown three-bedroom in Texas built in 1910, reads, “If your dream has been to host a Haunted Air BNB look no further. Owner has had ghost hunters to the house twice overnight.”

A two-story, brick building is painted red with white trim. It has several windows on both floors and a white porch. An American flag is hanging in front, and storage for ice is also in front. Two cars, one dark-colored and one red, are parked in the front on the street.
A six-bedroom hotel in Wisconsin is for sale, and a description on Zillow boasts that it was recently the subject of a Minnesota ghost hunter group’s investigation.Credit: via Zillow
A rundown house has chipped, white paint. It has lush green lawn that is not manicured, and bushes and vines in front of the house are also growing wildly.
“If your dream has been to host a Haunted Air BNB look no further. Owner has had ghost hunters to the house twice overnight,” reads a listing on Zillow for a dilapidated three-bedroom house in Texas built in 1910.Credit: via Zillow

Most states don’t mention paranormal activity in real estate disclosure laws, but New York and New Jersey have explicit requirements surrounding it. In New Jersey, sellers, if asked, must disclose known information about any potential poltergeists. In New York, a court can rescind a sale if the seller has bolstered the reputation of the home being haunted and takes advantage of a buyer’s ignorance of that notoriety.

There are generational differences in who believes in ghosts. In the Vivint survey, 65 percent of Gen Zers (defined as people born between 1997 and 2012) who participated in the survey thought their home was haunted, while 35 percent of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) surveyed thought the same.

“With so much conversation on TikTok about true crime, podcasts about haunted things and crime documentaries, we thought that could be spreading this trend among younger people,” said Maddie Weirman, one of the researchers of the Vivint survey.

Gen Z “might be searching for meaning in new places,” Ms. Hill said. “If the modern world they live in isn’t providing food for the soul, if capitalism is a system that drains us of personal enlightenment, it’s not hard to figure out that younger people will search elsewhere for that and find the idea of an alternate world — of ghosts, aliens, cryptids, et cetera — to be enticing to explore.”

The pandemic also played a role in society’s relationship with houses and ghosts.

The salience of death in our culture increased, igniting a desire for evidence of an afterlife for some people. “Think of all the sudden, and often not-sufficiently-ritually-mourned deaths during Covid. Many times people lost loved ones with no last contact, no funeral,” said Tok Thompson, a folklorist and professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California.

A sleek black cat sits on a table in the middle of a room painted red with white trim. The room includes a grandfather clock with two rifles hanging on a wall above it.
Shane Booth’s black cat Bullet poses for a photograph in the foyer of his home this week.Credit: Eamon Queeney for The New York Times

“People weren’t normally around all the time to notice the normal noises of a house as it heats up from the sun during the day and then cools in the afternoon. With everyone inside, there was even less noise outside to drown out the typical sounds,” Ms. Hill, the author, said.

Many experts also attribute a decline in religious belief to fostering a belief in the paranormal. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 30 percent of Americans were religiously unaffiliated, 10 percentage points higher than a decade ago.

After all, the same comfort or understanding that religion can bring people can also be found in paranormal beliefs.

Karla Olivares, a financial consultant living in San Antonio, Texas, said that growing up in a house she believed was haunted has made her more accepting of the unexplainable happenings that have occurred in other places she’s lived or visited.

“When I feel something now, I acknowledge it. It’s also made me become more spiritual myself,” Ms. Olivares, 27, said. “Now, I feel that it’s all around me, and I won’t get surprised if I feel something again.”

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