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His House Isn’t Haunted, but His Feet Will Never Believe It

Fran and Smith Russell of Burbank have sent me a news item from New York that does nothing to reassure me about the sophistication of our courts.

The story is that two prospective buyers, Jeffrey and Patrice Sambovsky, put down $32,000 on a Victorian mansion in Nyack, only to learn later that it was haunted.

The current owner, it turned out, had frequently given interviews about the spirits she thinks haunt the house but had not told the Sambovskys. They sued for a refund and New York appellate Judge Israel Rubin, writing for the majority in a 3-2 decision, ruled that the house “as a matter of law” was haunted, and the Sambovskys were entitled to get their money back.

I suppose, the supernatural being as deeply believed as it is in our society, that this is not the first case of a court’s recognition of ghosts, but I do not recall hearing of any others.

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Not understanding the judicial mind, I do not know what the judge means by saying that “as a matter of law” the house was haunted. In any case, he cannot have meant that “as a matter of fact” the house was haunted.

Perhaps the court meant that if the owner of the house believed it to be haunted, then, in law, it was haunted, but that seems to me to be a non sequitur.

Under the California real estate code, I believe, a seller must advise a prospective buyer that someone has recently died in a house; that rule evidently rests on a supposition that if a person has died in a house, it might be haunted.

It is not surprising that such a fear exists when we consider that a recent Gallup Poll showed that 72% of the public believes in ghosts and 40% insist they have seen one. (An ad for a TV show states that 25 million Americans have seen ghosts.)

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I don’t believe in ghosts. I know that houses can creak, growl, sigh and tremble, all of which may be taken as signs of a supernatural presence. To me such phenomena are only natural.

Of course those who exorcise ghosts are not above a little chicanery, either. Writing in “The Skeptical Inquirer,” Robert A. Baker reveals that he gets rid of ghosts by telling their victims to scream at them, insult them, tell them to get lost. It usually works, he says, because it is fear that makes people think they see ghosts.

In stubborn cases, Baker moves into a house with tapes of rock music and strobe lights and puts on a high-power noise and light show that first drives out the victims, who choose to spend the night elsewhere. As soon as they’re gone, Baker turns off the light and sound so he can get a good night’s sleep. When the tenants return, the ghosts are gone.

“The Skeptical Inquirer” also recalls the notorious case of the Fox sisters of Hydesville, N.Y., who in 1848 announced that they were communicating, by exchanging rapping sounds, with spirits. For years the sisters played to gullible paying audiences. A team of doctors disclosed that the sisters were producing the sounds themselves by cracking leg bones, but the crowds were not diminished. Years later, in their old age, the sisters confessed the hoax.

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Ghost stories periodically make the media because readers and audiences swallow them whole. Inevitably the ghosts go away, but their demise is rarely reported.

What I find curious is that no house, however skeptical its tenants, is completely safe. No prudent ghost would think of haunting my house, knowing my skepticism, yet, if I believed in such things, I would have to suspect that our house is haunted.

There is no rapping, no bumping in the night, no howling, no ghostly apparitions. The only signs are the disappearance of objects. I keep losing letters. If I put a letter aside to quote from, it vanishes. If I put a letter aside to answer, I lose the envelope, and the address will not be on the letter. (A fie on people who do not put their addresses on letters; also on people whose signatures are unreadable.)

The latest object to turn up missing is my shoes. They are plain black shoes that I wear almost every day. My feet are hard to fit, and a good pair of shoes is hard to come by.

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They have been missing for a week now. I have looked everywhere. One does not lose one’s shoes. One does not take them off away from home and leave them; not at my age, anyway. One does not hide them from oneself.

Our housecleaner comes back tomorrow. One does not like to accuse one’s housecleaner of being a ghost. But I think she is. Either that or a poltergeist.


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