These brave souls live in haunted houses—and they love it

A writer crossed America looking for folks who consider ghosts to be part of the family. Surprisingly, they weren’t hard to find.

Published 1 Nov 2021, 14:05 GMT
Mark Twain House
Staff and visitors at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, have reported paranormal encounters inside the historic mansion. Each October the museum offers "fact-based" Graveyard Shift Ghost Tours.
Photograph by James L. Stanfield, National Geographic Collection

If they love a house enough, homebuyers are willing to overlook just about anything. Garish colours? We’ll paint over 'em. Tiny kitchen? We’ll knock out that back wall. Ghosts? Well, why not?

In fact, a 2018 realtor.com poll revealed that one-third of prospective buyers in the United States wouldn’t think twice about buying a haunted house if the price, location, and amenities were appealing enough. And 18 percent said, in effect, “Hey, a ghost is all the amenity we need! We’ll take it!”

While lawyers refer to haunted houses as “psychologically impacted” or “stigmatised” properties, a surprising number of people just call them “home.” I crossed the U.S. looking for folks who consider ghosts to be part of the family. Surprisingly, they weren’t hard to find.

Understand, I’ve never believed in ghosts, and I’m pretty sure I still don’t. But how, then, do I explain the weird event that’s been haunting me for a couple of months now? 

I was enjoying dinner with my wife, Carolyn, and her old friend, Mary, at a charming, century-old, Victorian home-turned-restaurant in historic Lewes, Delaware. The three of us were seated at a table with four chairs. Just as we began digging into our entrees—and you’ve just got to go with me here—the bottle of wine that we’d ordered started to slide, like a piece on a chess board, across the table toward the empty chair.

As we watched in silence, our forks hovering halfway between our plates and mouths, the bottle continued off the edge. But instead of falling, it rose over the tall back of the vacant chair, then descended gently to the floor and landed with a dull thud rather than a crash. There we sat, forks still frozen, mouths hanging open, our eyes darting back and forth. 

We were still in that stunned state when our server rushed from across the room. As she replaced the bottle on the table, she muttered, almost to herself, “It’s the ghost.”

It turns out someone…or something…has been pulling otherworldly pranks like this for years at the establishment. It took some time, but the owner and staff eventually came to terms with sharing the property with an unseen entity. That seemed odd to me, but as I set out in search of haunted homes, I was surprised by how many people share that attitude.

The home of Salem witch trials judge Jonathan Corwin in Salem, Massachusetts, is reportedly haunted by people wrongly accused of witchcraft and put to death in 1692.
Photograph by Steve and Donna O'Meara, National Geographic

Friendly ghosts 

A sprinkle is falling from a blanket of low-hanging clouds, and thunder is rolling in the distance. The atmosphere seems perfect as I stand along historic Bath House Row in Hot Springs, Arkansas, waiting for John Cooksey to show me his haunted house.

The human history of Hot Springs reaches back three millennia. Behind the bath houses rises Hot Springs Mountain, where 142-degree waters have attracted visitors ranging from the earliest Native Americans to 1930s gangsters. Ghost stories abound regarding the town’s old hotels, violent speakeasies, and shady brothels.

Cooksey pulls up in his car, which is comfortably cluttered with the tools of his multiple trades, including videographer, local broadcaster, and real estate agent.

“Actually, I’ve got two haunted houses,” he tells me jauntily as we head away from downtown and into the surrounding hills. “My wife and I live in one, and we rent out the other, right next door.”

It doesn’t take long to get there. These are no Addams Family-style Victorian manses, nor do they have spooky, eye-like windows, a’ la the Amityville Horror house. They’re just a couple of low-rise brick homes with struggling lawns and trash cans out front.

“This is Bill,” Cooksey tells his wife, Annie, as we enter the couple’s kitchen through a side door. “He’s here about the ghost.” Annie nods, as if she’s been told there’s a man here about the plumbing.

“Did you tell him about the smoke?” she asks. “That was…interesting.”

On the ride here, I’ve already heard about the mysterious late-night footsteps, and the occasional glowing eyes that appear in the dark, but not the smoke. Cooksey steps through an arched doorway into what is now the laundry room.

“One night we smelled something like cigar smoke,” he tells me. “We followed it around the house and finally discovered it was coming from in here. As we came into this room, the smell just vanished. Didn’t dissipate, like you’d expect. It was just…gone.” 

Cooksey calls his unseen boarders “friendly ghosts.” “We like them,” he says. “Every once in a while, they just do something to remind us that they’re still here.”

Of course, it’s one thing to happily cohabit with something otherworldly, and quite another to rent a haunted house to someone else.

We head next door to a residence much like the Cooksey’s place. The couple rents this house on a short-term basis, usually to tourists. Pausing on the porch, Cooksey confesses that he doesn’t tell prospective renters about the mysteriously moving items, the odd noises, the flickering lights.

“They usually come over and tell me about them,” he says. “We had a blind woman stay here once. One morning, out of nowhere, she said to me, ‘Tell me about the spirits in this house. I can sense they’re here.’”

We enter. Directly inside the front door, a dark wooden staircase winds to an upstairs room. We creak our way to the claustrophobic second floor, where there are a few beds and a window at the far end.

“I’m gonna go back downstairs,” Cooksey tells me abruptly. “Why don’t you hang here for a few minutes? Come down when you’re ready.” And then he’s gone.

I stand there in the silence, trying to discern if the uneasiness I feel is born of an unseen presence, or simply the creep-inducing power of suggestion. Either way, I decide, I’m ready. I flee down the shadowy stairs and back to the grey outdoors.

Long rumored to be haunted, this 1890s home in Yankton, South Dakota, was featured on national television after its owner listed it for sale on eBay. A psychic said the house contains a portal between the physical and unseen world.
Photograph by Christopher Gannon, Argus Leader/AP

The ghost with OCD

It’s certainly unusual—but, oddly enough, not unexpected—when Leslie Grunewald’s kitchen tap suddenly, and without apparent reason, starts running at full blast. “That’s just Greg washing his hands again,” she says.

Greg was an old friend of Grunewald and her husband, Doug. As so often happens in ghost stories, Greg met a sad and sudden end: At age 60, the lifelong physicist decided to retire. But two months before the big day, he died suddenly. The end came in a bedroom of this very house in Livermore, California.

Grunewald bought the place from Greg’s estate in 2016. But although she and her husband completely renovated the house, “Greg has never left,” she says. “I don’t think he was ready to go. He seems to be holding on.”

On her smart phone, Grunewald scrolls for a minute before she finds the video she’s looking for. It’s a shot of her kitchen sink, taken from across the room. Water is rushing from the faucet. Then, it just stops. The unforced eeriness of the clip makes me gasp.

“I never know when the water’s going to start running, so I can never get the beginning part,” Grunewald says. She also has videos of lights flickering mysteriously, but it’s the running water that has convinced her Greg is still around. He suffered from OCD, she says. He was constantly washing his hands.

“It’s almost as if he just decides to walk across the kitchen and wash them again, like he always did when he was alive.”

Even when she was buying the house, Grunewald sensed Greg was still in residence. “I could feel his presence, sort of an essence,” she says. “But that made me just want to buy the house even more. I’m glad he’s still here. It makes me feel privileged to think he wants to share his home. I don’t want him to leave.”

The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is said to be haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle.
Photograph by Jessica Christian, San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

Buyer beware

The purchase of Greg’s house was handled by Cindi Hagley, a real estate agent in nearby Pleasanton. Of the 100 or so houses Hagley sells each year, she says, two or three will have spirit entities inside.

“The very first house I sold was haunted!” says Hagley, who’s been a local agent for about 15 years. “It was a little crazy. The sellers told me about strange things happening in the house. I didn’t know what to do.” 

She consulted a veteran agent at the office. “He told me that so long as the spiritual presence was not public knowledge, there was no need to tell anyone,” she recalls. But if people in the neighbourhood knew about it, then it could affect the value of the property and should be disclosed.

“The owners said they’d never told anyone, so I felt home free. But then, at my first open house, a neighbour came in and said, ‘Finally, I get to see the inside of the haunted house!’”

Now, Hagley says, she discloses the presence of a home’s spirit squatters to buyers—but not until they’re ready to sign on the dotted line to purchase the place. “By that time they’ve been through a bidding process and they’re already emotionally invested,” she says. “They’re not going to walk away because of a spirit.”

That realtor.com poll bears her out: 54 percent of people who think their house is haunted say they knew that before they bought it. For proof, look no farther than the 19th-century house in Rhode Island that inspired the 2013 horror movie The Conjuring. It recently went on the market for $1.2 million (£880,000). 

It may be surprising to learn that, in many states of America, there are laws regarding how much sellers must reveal about a haunted house. In most states, a seller can remain mum—unless the buyers specifically ask about spirits. Alaska and California require sellers to disclose if anyone has died on the property in the past three years.

Then there’s the landmark 1991 New York State case Stambovsky v. Ackley. The sellers failed to disclose their resident ghost to a buyer, even though they had previously told just about everyone else, including Reader’s Digest magazine. A judge ordered the sellers to return the buyers’ money. “As a matter of law,” the judge wrote, “the house is haunted.”

‘Occupied by spirits’ 

I leave Cindi Hagley’s office in Pleasanton, turn east on U.S. 50, and head about 130 miles to the old California mining town of Placerville. The town used to be called Hangtown, in light of its Gold Rush reputation as the place where claim jumpers were regularly executed. Above the Hangman’s Tree saloon on Main Street, a blue-jeaned dummy dangles at the end of a short rope. 

I’ll be spending the night here, in a haunted bed and breakfast.

“Please don’t say the place is haunted,” corrects Robyn Rawers, owner of The Seasons Bed and Breakfast. “I prefer to say this house is ‘occupied by spirits.’ And it’s always been a very positive force.”

Rawers has had several incarnations herself. In the 1970s and ‘80s she was known as Robyn Douglass, costar of numerous films, including the cult bicycling classic Breaking Away, and a regular on the original Battlestar Galactica TV series. She quit acting to pursue her passion for animal welfare in Hollywood, and now here she is handing me the key to my room at this 160-year-old brick house on a wooded hillside above Placerville.

“I never tell my guests about the spirits,” Rawers says. “They tell me. They hear voices. They ask why the lights keep going on and off. The fan goes on by itself. I had an electrician come in to check things out, and he found nothing. So now I just sit there and smile.”

The Seasons made local news a few years back when a team of paranormal investigators swarmed over the place with spirit-detecting equipment. Their verdict: Yep, haunted.

In 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr., killed his father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters in this home in Amityville, Long Island, New York. The mass murder inspired the book and film versions the The Amityville Horror.
Photograph by Photograph via Bettmann

“The former owners told me we’ve got the spirits of three sisters who lived here—Martha, Margaret, and Catherine. And there’s a man named Buck, who used to sit outside the basement door skinning animals.”

Of course, guests are not always happy to share their quarters. One couple insisted they awoke one night to see the outline of a figure hovering at the foot of their bed, watching them.

“They were terrified,” Rawers recalls. “They didn’t even stay for breakfast—just left.”

And good luck getting utility service if the company gets wind of a ghost. 

“A fellow who came to read the meter ran away and refused to come back,” she says. “He said he was at the side of the house when ‘Something went through me!’ Some kind of entity entered him from the front and exited out the back. I told him, ‘Oh, that’s just Buck!’”

Alas, no ghostly visitors drop in during my night at The Seasons. Not Buck nor the sisters. No voices. Not even a flickering light.

Scientific literature is rife with “explanations” for supernatural activity, including electromagnetic fields, hallucinogenic mould, carbon monoxide poisoning, and of course the simple power of suggestion. Some students of the paranormal speculate that rather than having external causes, ghostly events are really manifestations of the observer’s psychic powers.

As for me, I’m still not ready to repeat the words of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz: “I DO believe in spooks! I do, I do, I do!” But neither can I deny those flickering lights…nor that running water…nor, especially, that sliding bottle.

I like the attitude Robyn Rawers expressed, sipping coffee with me as we watched a misty rain water the lush garden behind The Seasons.

“Maybe” she said, “there are just some things we’re not supposed to understand.”

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