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Is Your Old House Haunted?

Here’s how to tell—and what to do if you find otherworldly visitors hanging around. By Anne McCarthy Strauss

    (Photo: JMB/

    Mark Hubbard was the first member of his family to sense that there was someone besides himself, his wife, and their two sons living with them in their Long Island house. Mark’s awareness of the spirit was subtle; it came as a sense of movement out of the corner of his eye.

    After a number of similar experiences—all of which occurred in the dining room of the family’s 1860s Queen Anne—he mentioned it to his wife and sons. Each acknowledged having had a similar sense of someone watching. They named the spirit Abe, and continue to feel his friendly presence from time to time.

    “Our home is definitely haunted,” says Ashley Rettig of Chelsea, Alabama. “Our family and visitors have experienced cold spots, common phenomena in haunted houses. The spot may move around, sometimes hovering close to a special chair or other piece of furniture. Sometimes these spots are accompanied by intermittent phantom smells.” (According to paranormal researcher Nanette Richford, an unexplained smell—such as the scent of a perfume worn by the deceased or the smell of cigarette or cigar smoke—may provide clues to the identity of a spirit.) As the Hubbards did, the Rettigs sometimes experience the feeling they’re being watched when no one is there. Spirits in both homes occasionally show their presence by tapping or touching the occupants.

    “Recently, the Birmingham Paranormal Group investigated our house,” Ashley says. “We called them after more than 20 people who had been in our home experienced hearing male and female voices, a few apparitions, and strange happenings like chills and that constant feeling of being watched. There were also some episodes of items moving, electrical items malfunctioning, and clocks changing time.” The latter manifestations are typical of poltergeists, a type of ghost known for rearranging or throwing household items, turning lights off and on, or making a household musical instrument play.

    The paranormal group conducted an investigation that confirmed with an electromagnetic field (EMF) detector that the house is occupied by spirits. Virtually everything in nature, both living and inanimate, emits an electromagnetic field; paranormal investigators believe that spirits give off electromagnetic energy as well. EMF detectors with readings in the 2.0 to 7.0 range that can’t be traced to an identified electronic source are typically thought to confirm spirit activity.

    Spirit Skeptics

    The Massachusetts house where Lizzie Borden allegedly murdered her father and stepmother in 1892 is said to be one of the most haunted homes in the U.S. Now a B&B and museum, the house regularly hosts paranormal investigators and is planning to launch a ghost webcam.

    The Massachusetts house where Lizzie Borden allegedly murdered her father and stepmother in 1892 is said to be one of the most haunted homes in the U.S. Now a B&B and museum, the house regularly hosts paranormal investigators and is planning to launch a ghost webcam.

    Of course, not everyone gives credence to the idea of a haunted house. A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that just 37 percent of Americans believe that houses can be haunted by spirits of the dead. Even in the same household, spirits often will choose to reveal themselves to some occupants and not to others. Those who believe in ghosts are more likely to sense their presence, but occasionally skeptics have been converted after witnessing paranormal activity themselves.

    Still, encounters with spirits happen often to perfectly sane and logical people. All things have energy—either positive or negative—which might help explain this phenomenon to those otherwise skeptical of paranormal activity.

    “We’ve had many spiritual guides tell us our house is full of spirits,” says Danielle Forget Shield. “Our 1920s-era house in Houston was updated in 2007, and every contractor who worked on the house had something crazy happen.” After several inexplicably moved or broken items caused a series of contractors to quit, Danielle decided to do something about it. “We consulted house clearers, who told us the spirits thought we were tearing the house down. We employed a Buddhist monk to clear the house. We still see one spirit occasionally, but the ‘negative vortex’ is gone. The house feels amazingly different, and our dogs will now go to the parts of the house that had the vortex. And the best part—our renovation was finally completed.”

    In San Geronimo, California, Cerridwen Fallingstar hired a Celtic Wiccan to exorcise her house. Prior to the clearing, all of Cerridwen’s family members had experienced identical nightmares in which they felt hands on their necks and something pressing on their chests. They felt unable to breathe and couldn’t wake up easily. They all smelled cigar smoke, although no one in the family smoked. They also experienced the typical patches of cold air. After the home was cleared, the problems were gone.

    The Fallingstar family’s experience also illustrates the fact that not every haunted house is ancient and eerie-looking. “The house was in Corte Madera, California,” Cerridan says. “It was an ordinary-looking four-bedroom, split-level tract home built around 1960.”

    In this photo Leslie Hart-Davidson took of her empty house, a shadowy figure appears to hover in the center of the left bank of second-floor windows.

    In this photo Leslie Hart-Davidson took of her empty house, a shadowy figure appears to hover in the center of the left bank of second-floor windows.

    Friendly Ghosts

    While some people seek to evict ghosts from their houses, others are content (or even excited) to live with them. Rebecca Brubaker Roberts of New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, once shared a Queen Anne home with Beverly, a spirit with a sense of humor. In a dream, Rebecca encountered a smiling, dark-haired woman dressed in Civil War-era clothing on the landing of the third-floor tower. Rebecca asked her who she was, and the woman replied, “I’m Beverly. I live here on the third floor in the tower room. I’d like to coexist, and I won’t scare you. But I am prankster. You’ll find out.”

    Soon after, Beverly revealed herself as more than a character in a dream. She was indeed a prankster who limited her intrusions to unexpectedly turning on a teakettle and hiding jewelry that later appeared in places Rebecca had no memory of having put it. Letters Rebecca later found in the house revealed that a married man who lived in the home in the mid-1800s had a mistress named Beverly.

    Similarly, Leslie Hart-Davidson, an interior designer based in Okemos, Michigan, happily shared a Queen Anne house in Troy, New York, with a ghost she and her husband named Gretchen. “Gretchen was a happy spirit,” Leslie says. “She kept me company during two summers that my husband was working in California. Each morning as I would stumble down the grand staircase to let the dog outside, I’d feel her beside me.”

    “The only physical evidence of her being there came from a photo taken of the exterior of the home when we were restoring it,” says Leslie. “One photo unmistakably showed a woman standing in what had been the nanny’s room generations before.” (Sprits often appear in photos as a fog- or smoke-like substance hanging in the air; skeptics attribute these appearances to things like cigarette smoke or the photographer’s breath on a cold night.)

    Friendly spirits who are welcomed by a home’s current owner tend not to make trouble. Fifteen years ago, New York lifestyle publicist Wendy Knight lived in a large and haunted Victorian house in Vergennes, Vermont. “The original owner had died in the house,” Wendy says. “More than once, I would wake to footsteps on the stairs, and the end of the bed would shake as if someone were pushing on it. An old photo of the original owner fell to the floor once. The house was definitely haunted, but I never felt afraid.”

    Clearing the Way

    After the book and movie came out, new owners of the “Amityville Horror” house replaced the arched windows in the gable of the Dutch Colonial to make it less recognizable.

    After the book and movie came out, new owners of the “Amityville Horror” house replaced the arched windows in the gable of the Dutch Colonial to make it less recognizable. (Photo: Jayne C. Moore)

    House clearing is a popular method for exorcising spirits from a house, but a home doesn’t need to be occupied by otherworldly beings for clearing to be appropriate. Lorraine Austin, a holistic nurse and Reiki master teacher, suggests these clearings be done as routinely as spring cleaning, especially if there has been any form of negativity in the home, such as a death, divorce, accident, or break-in. “The true purpose of a clearing is to remove any negativity from the home and replace it with positive energy,” Lorraine says.

    Sage, white candles, water (either holy water or water over which you have said a blessing), and an abalone shell or plate are all that is needed to perform a house clearing. “The success of the clearing depends upon intention,” says Lorraine. “If the person performing the clearing doesn’t believe in it, it won’t work.”

    Lorraine says a white candle should be lit in every room in the home, including the basement, attic, garage, and front doorway. As the clearer goes from room to room burning the sage, he or she should recite a good intention (such as “Allow only good to be present here” or “Negativity be gone, replaced only by goodwill”). Some windows should be open to allow the negativity to leave. Once all the rooms have been cleared with the sage, you can then bless each room by spritzing the water and saying something like, “May this house and all who dwell here be filled with peace and good fortune.”

    If the clearing is intended to remove a spirit, the clearer should ask the spirit to leave and claim the space for those who live there by saying something to the effect of, “All earthbound spirits, move to the light.” For less dramatic clearings, Lorraine suggests a simple incantation such as, “We bless this house with good fortune.”

    Published in: Old-House Journal October/November 2011


    Charles Mazurek October 6, 2011 at 8:31 am

    My family owns one of the oldest houses in Annapolis – and one of the most haunted. I just finished writing an account of what we have experienced here.

    The first known haunting in Annapolis took place in the house when
    on a cool spring evening in 1741 Sarah Turner entered the best parlor to get a treasured locket from the closet next to the fireplace. As Sarah stood there, an apparition of an elderly woman, ill with the smallpox and her body wrapped in bandages covering the many oozing sores, took shape in the armchair next to her. This account was documented in a journal.

    Although this was only the first time, of many, that ghosts would appear in the house. In the 100 years of my family’s ownership of the house almost everyone living here has encountered the ghosts.

    Emily October 25, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    I am a ghosthunter (as a hobby). EMF detectors are used mainly to look
    for EMF in the houses in high amounts. Old homes tend to have this problem.
    and the occupants will claim it is haunted but come to find out it was their
    exposure to high EMF causing hallucinations and creepy feelings. Most
    claims can be explained with natural explanations. Often times the electrical
    issues are resolved and the “haunting” goes away. So diagnosing a house
    haunted using an EMF detector is just plain incorrect and whoever does that
    is very uneducated and inexperienced. Before you get carried away with calling
    your house haunted, do your homework.

    Janeen November 3, 2011 at 10:05 am

    You’re right, Emily. We have a 100 year old home. Every few years around spring we heard a child sobbing, at first outside, then, in the house. My daughter heard her name called. Whisperings and footsteps late at night were also common. Finally, we replaced our electrical system and that ended our ‘haunting’.

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