By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
"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 Ackley's 18-room Victorian home in the New York suburb of Nyack, or so she claimed in an article she wrote for Reader's Digest in May 1977.
Sadly for Ackley, the tale came back to haunt her.
When Jeffrey M. Stambovsky contracted to purchase the house in the early 1990s, he and his wife soon began hearing tales of things going bump in the night. They wanted no part of them -- even if the resident spooks did, as Ackley boasted, occasionally leave gifts such as "tiny silver tongs" to toast a daughter's wedding and a "golden baby ring" to rattle in the birth of her first grandchild.
Stambovsky made his case to the Appellate Division of New York state Supreme Court and got his deposit back. Because Ackley had publicized that her house had ghosts, the court ruled, "as a matter of law, the house is haunted."
The court's precedent, though, was short-lived. By the mid-1990s, New York and many other jurisdictions, including the District, Virginia and Maryland, passed what are known as stigmatized property laws. While real estate agents must pass along information to prospective buyers about leaky roofs and other physical defects, immaterial items such as a murder or suicide in the house -- or a ghost -- may now remain shrouded in silence.
But should you tell anyway?
"Are you out of your mind?" one real estate agent said with a shudder. "Never, never, never tell anyone you have a ghost."
But 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 lawyer Morris Battino thinks the same way. "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 house 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 owners have lived there six or seven years, he said. "I assume they're happy. They're still there."
Are ghosts a serious issue in the Washington area?
"Hauntings have picked up in the last year," said Bobbie Lescar, founder and director of the Virginia Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society.
She said the organization gets 70 to 80 calls and e-mails a day. "Not all say, 'I have a ghost,' " she said. "Some just have questions."
Lescar is not surprised at the number of calls. "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, a founder of the Maryland Ghost and Spirit Association. "Maryland probably has 30 or 40. Virginia has 20 or more. There are a lot of people who believe."
Lawana Holland, proprietor 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.' "
Holland, a graphic designer, said she is "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 you jump to the conclusion that your house is haunted, Holland said, you should look 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," she said. "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 is 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."
Lescar's organization will investigate, but will not intervene. "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," Lescar said. "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 .
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 said. "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," she said. "They're actually comforted."
But who can you call when an uninvited guest has worn out its welcome? Litsinger does not claim to bust ghosts; she is more of a mediator. She will work with you and your haunt to try to find a happy medium.
Litsinger, a consultant for several nonprofit organizations, 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 30, also has the ability, she said. Her husband "won't talk, but the man has seen full-bodied ghosts."
"People want to know if they really have a spirit," Litsinger said. "They want to make peace with them so they're not frightened."
Take the case of the mother and son in Ellicott City who were terrorized by . . . something.
"The kid was a teenager and kept playing loud music," Litsinger said. 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 had 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 and she didn't like his music," Litsinger said. 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, the intervention did not bring about a lasting detente. The lad was not 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 did not want to leave. (It was, in fact, the only house in the neighborhood with a cellar, she later found.) With Litsinger's help, 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," 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. The Rev. Michael J. O'Sullivan, pastor of St. Peter's Church on Capitol Hill, has some experience with them.
"Oh my, yes," he said. "The rectory is haunted."
The first step, he said, chuckling, should be to "try a little Guinness."
If that does not help, he said, "I'd go in and bless the house."
If that still does not help, "and if there truly seems to be some supernatural being," O'Sullivan suggested calling the archdiocese offices.
Every archdiocese has a specialist in casting out demons -- at least, he said, that is what he learned from reading "The Exorcist."