Believe it or not, there have been numerous cases where property hauntings have gone to the courts. If the property gets labeled as stigmatized, the court sometimes rules in favor of the party claiming to be haunted, regardless of whether or not the presence of any actual poltergeists or demons has been established.
Here are some of the most ghoulish lawsuits to ever appear in the world of real estate.
1) The Watcher of Westfield
The letters reportedly started arriving in early June of 2014, only days after a couple moved into their Westfield, NJ dream home. A person calling himself “The Watcher” informed the family that he or she was part of a long line of Watchers of the house. And it just gets creepier from there.
Letters attempting to intimidate the family contained such passages as, “I am pleased to know your names now and the name of the young blood you have brought to me.” Another letter read, “Will the young bloods play in the basement? Who has the bedrooms facing the street? I’ll know as soon as you move in … It will help me to know who is in which bedroom then I can plan better … Have they found out what is in the walls yet? In time they will.”
In response, the couple sued the sellers for $1.3M, claiming they failed to disclose their knowledge of The Watcher. Not everyone is convinced their motivations are entirely above board; records show the new owners have had 12 mortgages over the course of the last decade, possibly indicating a more earthly incentive: avoiding bankruptcy.
So is it merely a hoax perpetuated by a shady family with a history of debt? Is there really no Watcher? Perhaps. But DNA samples from the Watcher’s letters indicate the letters may have been written by a woman—and they do not match those of the female owner of the house.
2) The Ghostbuster ruling
In 1991, one 18-room Victorian home in Nyack, New York, was believed to be inhabited by five ghosts, one of them “a cheerful ghost dressed in Revolutionary-era clothing.”
The owner, Helen Ackley, had openly promoted the haunted nature of the house, including a piece in Reader’s Digest. When she decided to sell the place, she found no takers locally, and thus hired an agency to help find an out-of-town buyer. Unfortunately nobody told Jeffrey Stambovsky, a New York bond trader, of the paranormal lore associated with the house before he purchased the property; that omission landed everybody in court.
The court found that caveat emptor did not apply in the case of haunted houses, since no amount of inspection could reveal the presence of ghosts. One of the most famous cases involving a purported haunting, the case set a precedent in the state that a defendant is liable in a real estate suit if a haunting is not disclosed to a buyer.
3) The Thornton murder house
In February of 2006, the owner of a Thornton, Pennsylvania house shot his wife before turning the gun on himself. These grim details were first revealed to the teen children of the new owners, the Millikens, a year later, on Halloween night. Over the next year, the Millikens would claim to see numerous dark spirits, feel ghostly hands touching them, and hear phantasmal footsteps in the hallway.
When Janet Milliken claimed that a ghost had awakened her at 11:34 (“HELL” upside down), she knew it was time to call a priest. And a lawyer.
The Millikens sued the previous owners for deliberately hiding the murder-suicide, but in 2014, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed lower courts’ determination that psychological stigmas on a property do not constitute a material defect requiring disclosure.
4) The lease-breaking demon of Toms River
After only a month of living in their new rented Toms River, New Jersey home, Josue Chinchilla and Michele Callan decided they had had enough of the property’s apparent haunting. A paranormal research team was called in to investigate and provide evidence for their lawsuit against property owner Richard Lopez.
Lopez claimed that Callan and Chinchilla could not afford the unit’s $1,500 monthly rent, and devised the haunting story as a means of breaking their lease. He counter-sued, and the case went before the television program People’s Court, which ruled in Lopez’s favor. The good news for the struggling couple is that the program covered the three months of back rent they owed.
5) The “Conjuring” house
No two people are more controversial in the paranormal research world than the husband-and-wife “demonologist” team of Lorraine and Ed Warren, who faced numerous lawsuits stemming back to the Arne Cheyenne Johnson controversy, wherein they allegedly performed an exorcism on a schizophrenic child. Now another of their investigations, which formed the basis for the 2013 surprise box-office hit The Conjuring, is in the legal crosshairs—not from any paranormal issues, but something rather more mundane: trespassers.
The owners of the house featured in the film, alleged to be based on the true story of a child-sacrificing witch who lived there, have sued Warner Bros for the trespassing fans who continue to torment the retired couple in the years since the film’s release. The lawsuit lists 5 trespassers and 500 “unnamed interlopers,” and blames Warner Bros for depicting the film’s events as true, as well as for not informing them of the film’s production.
The owners claim in court documents that they have been subject to “threats of physical violence and harm, sleepless nights, and worry that one day, one of the many trespassers will commit an act of destruction, violence, or harm.” The suit has not yet been tried.
It may be frightening to consider that diabolic spirits walk amongst us, but it seems humanity’s willingness to exploit that fear for cheap rent—or cheap thrills—is more frightening still.
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