Nice to Know a House is Haunted

by Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to the Washington Post
[My most popular piece, the following has been reprinted in newspapers from Maine to Alaska]

“As I was walking up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there;
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd stay away."

The Little Man. By Hughes Mearns (1875-1965)

‘“He” sat there in midair, smiling at me from in front of the cold fireplace. Hands clasped around his crossed knees, he was nodding and rocking. He faded slowly, still smiling and was gone…He was the most cheerful and solid-looking little person I’d ever seen…’”

“He,” was one of five friendly ghosts that inhabited Helen Herdman Ackley’s 18-room Victorian in the New York suburb of Nyack, or so she claimed in “Our Haunted House on the Hudson,” an article she wrote for Reader’s Digest in May 1977.

Sadly for Ms. Ackley, that tale came back to haunt her.


When the Stambovsky’s, a young couple from Manhattan, contracted to purchase the house in the early 1990’s they soon began hearing tales of things going bump in the night and wanted no part of them--even if the resident spooks did, as Ms. Ackley boasted, occasionally leave gifts like “tiny silver tongs” to toast a daughter’s wedding and a “golden baby ring” to rattle in the birth of her first grandchild.

The couple made their case to the New York Supreme Court and got their deposit back. Since Ms. Ackley publicized that her house had ghosts, the court ruled, “…as a matter of law, the house is haunted.”

Ms. Ackley should have made it clear that Casper and company conveyed.

The courts’ judgment was short-lived. By the mid-90’s New York and numerous other states including the District, Virginia and Maryland passed stigmatized property laws. While real estate agents must pass along information to prospective buyers about leaky roofs and other physical defects, immaterial taints like a murder or suicide in the house--or a ghost--may now remain shrouded in silence.

But should you tell anyway?

It was difficult to unearth a real estate agent who’d promote disclosure: “Honey! Are you out of your mind?” shuddered one. “Never, never, never tell anyone you have a ghost.”

Don Denton, a Branch Vice President of Coldwell Banker/Pardoe Real Estate, disagreed: “I’m of the school that you disclose everything—but you disclose with the permission of the seller. If you don’t, two or three weeks later the client will be walking down the street and hear about it and it becomes an issue. They feel taken advantage of.”

Washington real estate attorney Morris Battino attended the same school. “It goes with termites and leaky roofs,” he said. “People today are litigation happy. As far as I’m concerned, the more you disclose the better. In fact a ghost might turn out to be a good selling point. Something to brag about!”

Richard Ellis of Ellis Realty should know. He handled the sale of the Ackley home and listed it again several years later. “People love the history of the house, he said. “It appreciated with the marketplace when it changed hands.” The current owner has lived there six or seven years, he said, adding, “I assume they’re happy. They’re still there.”

Ellis, whose firm was sued along with Ms. Ackley for concealing the invisible, said his attorney observed that one of the ghosts bore a marked resemblance to George Washington, “He argued that if it was Washington’s ghost, the house might be worth more money.”

Are ghosts a serious issue in our area?

“Hauntings have picked up in the last year,” said Bobbie Lescar, founder and director of the 200 member Virginia Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society.

In early fall the organization was getting 300 to 400 e-mails and phone calls a month, now they’re up to between 70 and 80 a day. “Not all say, ‘I have a ghost,” she reassured. “Some just have questions.”

Lescar is not surprised at the volume. “Virginia is one of the most haunted states in the union--as an original colony, it has all that energy,” she said. “Fredericksburg is the second most haunted city in the United States, next to New Orleans.”

“There are hundreds of ghost sites in the U.S.,” said Beverly Litsinger, head of the Maryland Ghost and Spirit Association, which claims 600 members. “Maryland probably has 30 or 40. Virginia has 20 or more. There are a lot of people who believe.”

Lawana Holland, founder and web mistress of the Washington D.C. Ghost Hunting Page, said she gets “e-mail from people from all parts of the country, even from overseas, who say, ‘This has been happening…We don’t know what to do.’”

The graphic designer considers herself “more of a researcher than a hunter—I have a history background. It’s more the nature of ghosts, where the hauntings are located and why.”

Before jumping to the conclusion that your house has a haunt she suggests looking for “a natural cause first—an electrical problem or power lines.” But sometimes, she conceded, events appear truly unnatural.

She recalled the time the owner of a local restaurant called. “The staff was terrified,” he told her. “They’d seen an apparition of a woman and mirrors were breaking and things were being overturned. It subsided after a while, but the cook was still saying his rosary in front of the oven.”

It’s possible that the ephemeral nature of this haunting had to do with remodeling.

“Sometimes renovations stir things up,” Holland mused. “If you’ve gone and changed the home, the land, the place…it creates a little more activity. Disturbances. So much of D.C. is haunted…” she trailed off.

Lescar’s organization will investigate, but they won’t intervene either. “Our mission,” she said, “is to document and record empirical evidence. We want scientists to take the paranormal seriously so that some big research university will devote some money to it. We take a very scientific approach to something that hasn’t been proven by science yet.”

Her volunteer staff conducts about one full-scale investigation a month. After a phone interview to weed out the “crazies” a team is sent in to check out the home. “We look for obvious stuff,” she said. “Drugs, tapes like “Night of the Living Dead”--to see if they’ve been watching too many scary movies.”

If supernatural activity is suspected, “We set up surveillance,” said Lescar. “We try to catch phenomena on a tape or camcorder, which is pretty boring unless something happens.” They also monitor room temperature and electromagnetic activity using an electromagnetic field detector (EMF), the weapon of choice for ghoul watchers.

Lescar, a technology teacher at Cumberland County Elementary School, maintains that most spirits are benign, “I’ve only run across a couple that had negative energy,” she said.

Do people learn to live in harmony with their ghosts?

“Oh yes!” she exclaimed. “I had one lady who liked the fact that the house is haunted, that when she goes on vacation the place is protected.” This family’s retainer is “a mean looking old man that looks out the front window. They’re actually comforted.”

But who you gonna call when an uninvited guest has worn out its welcome?

Beverly Litsinger doesn’t claim to bust ghosts, she’s more of a mediator—and isn’t that appropriate for this area. Litsinger, who by day is a consultant for several non-profits, will work with you and your haunt to try to find a happy medium.

The huntress has always been comfortable with the spirit world: “As a child I’d see them and commune with them. I thought everybody did.” Her daughter, now thirty, also has the ability. Her husband “won’t talk, but the man has seen full-bodied ghosts.”

“People want to know if they really have a spirit,” said Litsinger, who often has several hanging around her home in Randallstown, Maryland. “They want to make peace with them so they’re not frightened.” The people not the ghost.

Take the case of the mother and son in Ellicott City who were being terrorized by…something.

“The kid was a teenager,” said Litsinger, “and kept playing loud music.” One night he was going full blast in the basement when he started hearing noises and noticing that “things” were moving around the room. Scared witless, he fled upstairs and slammed the door.

Then, realizing he’d left the light on—No! Don’t open that door!--He opened the door, reached in to flip the switch…and the door slammed shut on his head.

Mama called in Litsinger who communed with the speechless wraith via an EMF; hers is equipped with a gauge that allows “yes” and “no” answers.

“The ghost was an old, old, old lady,” Litsinger said, “and she didn’t like his music.” As long as the boy kept the volume down, the specter indicated, the scare tactics would cease. “She was very happy to chat. I liked her a lot.”

Sadly, this intervention didn’t succeed. The lad wasn’t about to give up his music and the family decided to move.

Litsinger was more successful at solving the problem of a woman in Glen Burnie whose tenant was “a very pleasant man—a full-bodied ghost who just smiled at people.”

While the family had grown used to him, his appearance at dinner parties was unsettling.

Litsinger discovered that the man, who had died in the house, had been a jeweler. He told her that he had dug out the floor by hand to make a workshop, was quite proud of it and didn’t want to leave. (It was, in fact, the only house in the neighborhood with a cellar, she later found.)

With Litsinger’s assistance, the lady of the house struck a deal with her smiling spook: He could stay, as long as he kept to the basement.

“People often make peace with ghosts,” said Litsinger. “They’re just people in another incarnation. And just like you, they don’t like to be ignored. They like to have their presence acknowledged. Sometimes they’ll leave when you ask. If they don’t feel like it, they won’t.”

Traditionalists might prefer to call in a priest to roust their demons. Father Michael O’Sullivan, Pastor of St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill, has some experience with them.

“Oh my yes,” he said in his thick Irish brogue. “The rectory is haunted.”

The first step, he chuckled, should be to “try a little Guinness.” If that doesn’t help, he said, “I’d go in and bless the house.” If that still doesn’t help, “and if there truly seems to be some supernatural being,” the good Father suggested calling the archdiocese.

He said that he learned from reading “The Exorcist” that every archdiocese has one.

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