Editor’s note: This four-part series delves into the realm of haunted houses, examining tales of home hauntings that seem to live on forever in film and paperbacks and how they affect real estate. Every scary Halloween story inevitably involves a house, and usually one with a sordid past. This series offers a practical look at the commonalities, overlooked facts in famous stories, and disclosure issues that haunted-home sellers face. (See Part 2: Dead movie stars return home for another ‘curtain call’; Part 3: Amityville: Haunted house or horrendous hoax? and Part 4: Real-life issues of haunted homes.)
Rita Chambers of West Los Angeles vividly remembers the first time she was visited by the spirit of her late father.
“It was just a few days after the funeral, and I had been thinking about him constantly,” says Chambers, who now lives in the same home that her dad, William, owned until he died from heart failure in 1980.
“I heard some banging in the laundry room, so I went to check it out,” she says. “As soon as I walked into the room, I had this overwhelming feeling of warmth and the lids on the washer and dryer were moving up and down even though they weren’t turned on.
“I wasn’t scared at all. I just said, ‘Dad, is that you?’ There were a few more bangs, and then he went away.”
Chambers, a medical transcriptionist who’s now in her 60s, says her father’s spirit continues to make occasional visits — comforting her when she’s sad, flicking the lights on and off when he’s playful, or simply taking a nap on the bed while she works on the computer in her spare bedroom.
“When I tell some people about his visits, they look at me like I’m crazy,” says Chambers. “But a lot of other people smile, and then start telling me about [similar] experiences that they have had themselves.”
Of course, not everyone believes in the supernatural. Many are quick to find holes in any story about haunted houses or visitors from the afterlife, saying such tales are best left to be recited around a campfire.
Yet, the naysayers are apparently in the minority: According to a 2003 Gallup Poll, 51 percent of Americans believe in ghosts.
Experts on the supernatural say that many visitations are similar to the experiences that Rita Chambers has had, when the spirit of a relative or close friend returns to a loved one.
But of the hundreds of hauntings that are formally reported every year, many more involve properties that were either the site of great physical or emotional suffering, or the location of a sudden or particularly tragic death.
Examples in the first group include the Southern plantations frequented by the ghosts of mistreated slaves or their owners, and the dozens of old asylums and prisons whose former occupants endured years of unspeakable cruelty or isolation.
The people who once lived in such places sometimes had “very powerful sources of energy that didn’t [necessarily] ‘go away’ when they died. So, they might come back seeking the sense of justice or personal identity that they didn’t have when they were alive,” says Bonnie Vent, a self-described “spirit advocate” who created the San Diego Paranormal Research Project several years ago and now specializes in working on spirit-related cases across the United States.
In reality, says Vent and other researchers, full-blown sightings of actual ghosts are relatively rare. Instead, spirits from the afterworld make themselves known in other ways.
“They can’t ‘talk’ to you like they could when they were alive, so they have to communicate using other methods — like making noises, or moving small items around,” says Vent.
“They’re not trying to scare you…They’re just trying to communicate with you, to let you know that they are there and that maybe they’ve got some issues that they’d like to have resolved.”
The second group of hauntings — those that stem from a sudden or unusually tragic death — cover an even broader array of properties than the first.
They range from New York’s Clinton Street Brownstone, often visited by the ghost of a young girl who died while undergoing an illegal abortion at the hands of her own father, to the dozens of highways where the spirits of those killed in violent car accidents are said to return to the scene of their worldly demise.
Because such unfortunates died so quickly, it’s believed that their spirits sometimes come back in an effort to bid a final farewell to their loved ones or to make peace with themselves — an opportunity generally granted only to those who die after a lingering illness or simply pass away from “old age.”
The spirits of others who return after a sudden death simply might not understand that they’re, well, dead.
“You’d be surprised at how many hauntings have ended after the homeowner made contact with the spirit, explained how he or she died, and then explained that it was time to move on to their next destination,” says Dale Kaczmarek, president of the Oak Park, Ill.-based Ghost Research Society.
Like the living, Kaczmarek adds, “some ghosts can actually be very understanding.”
Tomorrow: How some dead Hollywood stars keep making ghostly “curtain calls.”
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