The annals of weird lawsuits is about to be thicker by one more page. A young New Jersey couple is taking the owner of their rental home to court for not warning them that their rental property is … haunted! Yes, an actual court date has been set for later this month (April 2012). If the Yahoo reporter who broke this story had cared enough to inform his readership of where, exactly, the house is located, I would have made plans to sit in on the proceedings in that township’s courthouse and then report back to you, dear readers, the outcome.
Lacking this information, I can only speculate as to the suit’s denouement, given the limited information that was released. Tenants Jose Chinchilla and Michelle Callan claim to have evidence of the haunting, which includes taps on the shoulder (undocumented), sheets yanked off their bed (undocumented) and an EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) snarling, “Let it burn” (documented on audio tape). The couple also hired a paranormal investigation team to check out the property, hinted to be located somewhere on or near the Jersey shore. The team photographed lights turning on and off by unseen hands, and a bowling pin toppling over for no apparent reason.
Do these things indicate a true haunting? Or were they somehow manufactured, as claims the owner of the house, to weasel out of paying the rent? And how will a judge view the evidence? While the flickering lights and spooky voice may be unsettling, are they enough of a basis for a lawsuit? Was anyone harmed here? Was anyone even threatened? Apparently, they were not. On this basis alone, and although I believe strongly in the paranormal, were I the judge, I’d toss the case out of court. I would order the couple to ante up, and I’d issue a warning to the owner to advise future tenants concerning the unseen tenants of the property.
But what of cases in which the haunting has had definitive and deleterious effects upon the occupants of the home? I’m speaking of cases in which documented evidence exists and multiple occupants and property owners, dating back several generations, are convinced that the site harbors not only spirits, but evil spirits?
One case of many was Summerwind. An odd conglomeration of architectural styles, this private home once graced a seemingly peaceful tract of land in our corn belt. Built before the Great Depression by a wealthy couple, whatever lived in that home that was not of this Earth caused every servant in the house to flee and quit on the spot. The skeptical owners, however, remained. But one night while all alone in the house, the door to the basement swung open of its own accord, framing a vision so horrifying that the man of the house shot at it. Two bullet holes remained in the door, untouched for years. The owners fled immediately, never to return.
Fast forward to the early 1970s. Enter a family of six: two little boys, two little girls, their mother, and the man she married. The family assumed that Summerwind, now a handyman’s special that they’d rented, would be their dream home. It turned out to be their worst nightmare. Gripped by a malevolent spirit felt and seen by various members of the family, the head of the house descended into paranoia, violent behavior, and a creepy penchant for playing “funeral home music” on an old organ left in the house. As a direct result of this radical change in personality, he lost his business, his mind quickly following suit.
Friends ran from the house screaming. The little girls, then aged 8 and 10, had planned to commit suicide, as life in the house had become intolerable. Their mother had taken to sleeping outside in the woods, to avoid whatever had taken full possession of her husband. Only when she was reduced to abject poverty, to chopping up the furniture as kindling to offset the lack of heat and electricity (the utility companies had cut them off) did she beg her dad to rescue them.
The man did so, in his camper, shaking his head the entire time at things that go bump in the night. His daughter and grandchildren moved to Canada and never again saw or heard from the man so possessed that he played that organ all through the night. The inference was that the family had been forced to go on public assistance (Welfare). Meanwhile, the granddad had decided that his son, recently returned from Vietnam, needed a project. The granddad then rented Summerwind, but the then-owner refused to leave her car to accompany father and son even as far as the front door. Caveat emptor, caveat renter!
A good handyman, the Vietnam vet took on the job as a labor of love, but quickly abandoned it, refusing to speak of what had so spooked him. Later, he confessed to hearing two loud gunshots in the house, so close that he’d feared for his life. But all he found were the two ancient bullet holes in the basement door, no odor of fresh gunpowder and no new bullet holes anywhere.
Regressed by his sister, who had dug deeply into studies of the paranormal, the son was directed to unearth a box in the basement that predated the signing of the U.S. Constitution. The box was thought to have contained the original deed to the land: a gift to the Caucasian owner in 1767 from the two once-feuding and then-reconciled Native American tribes that had originally owned the land. The son, the daughter, and the granddad of the 1970s revisited the now empty Summerwind. The niche where the box was assumed to be found was exactly where the family, through the regression, had been led. It was a secret spot that no one would have bothered with, if not for the regression. And yes, it was in the basement. But there was no box and there was no deed, so the family abandoned their quest and never again set foot in the house.
Years later, Summerwind caught fire during a lightning storm and burned to the ground. A few brick pillars remain standing but the oldest daughter, one of the kids who’d plotted to end her life with her sister and who thankfully did not, swears that she will never return to the site, house or no house.
Let’s add up the witnesses. Conservatively, let’s assume that the original owners had two servants. Add the original owners, the family of six from the 70s, the granddad, the Vietnam vet, and the then-owner of Summerwind. This is at least thirteen people adversely affected by the haunted location, including three owners. Clearly, this was a case in which two separate sets of owners knew about the malevolent haunting. In such cases, do the owners bear the onus of alerting would-be tenants to the resident evil?
I believe that they do. Unless the outcome of the Chinchilla-Callan case proves favorable for the plaintiffs, no legal precedent will exist to force, say, a Summerwind’s owners to come clean. But the owners do have a moral obligation to their tenants. Most rental agreements stipulate that the property be “occupant ready,” a term that includes having the house cleaned.
Well, there are ways to clean houses and then there are ways to clean houses. If the judge rules in favor of Mr. Chinchilla and Ms. Callan, we may see a legal precedent come to pass in which allegedly haunted locations must be cleansed, prior to occupancy, by spiritually-minded mediums, ministers, Catholic priests, and zealous independent paranormal investigators. And if that’s not one for the law books, I don’t know what is!