Ghostbusters embrace spirit of the law

Vendors in New York State will no longer have to tell buyers if their house is haunted
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The Independent Online
IF YOU own a haunted house in New York State and you want to sell it, you are required by law not to keep your ghosts a secret. Potential buyers must be informed before they make the purchase that the house, in the legal terminology, is "stigmatised". Otherwise the vendor can be taken to court.

Six years ago a couple put down a $32,000 (pounds 20,000) deposit on an old Victorian mansion on the Hudson River. Then they learnt that the house was haunted by ghosts of men who fought in America's War of Independence. They sued the owner and won back most of their deposit. The judge declared that "as a matter of law" the house was haunted. Eventually the owner managed to sell the property, but at a somewhat reduced price.

George Pataki, New York's recently elected Republican governor, has decided that the law - 26 other American states have similar ones - stands in the way of free enterprise. He has promised to repeal it before the end of the year. To the delight of New York estate agents, house-sellers will no longer be legally obliged voluntarily to disclose the apparent existence of ghosts on their properties.

"It's good news for everyone," said Kevin La Point, a spokesman for the New York State Association of Realtors. "It'll open up the market."

America's ghostbusters are also pleased. Gordon Hoener of Haunt Hunters, a non-profit ghost-investigating agency based in St Louis, hopes that if other states follow New York's lead, the number of crank calls he receives will be reduced. "It's become a gimmick to institute lawsuits," Mr Hoener said. "It's just an escape clause to get out of making your house payments. Besides, having a haunted house is not something to be upset about. Our motto is: 'We've never met a ghost we didn't like.' "

Mr Hoener, a retired stockbroker, founded Haunt Hunters with Phil Goodwilling, a retired accountant, 31 years ago. They are ghost-hunters of the old school who believe in making contact with ghosts through the use of psychics and what they call "classical seances". In contrast to some of the younger practitioners in the field, they do not believe in getting machines to do the work for them. "Look," Mr Hoener said, "sometimes when we go on a call we find that's what people want - what they believe in - so we'll bring along zappers like in the movie, but it really makes no difference."

As Mr Goodwilling explained, the key is to build up a historical profile of the haunted house and a psychological profile of the family that inhabits it. "Ghosts are often a psychic imprint. For example, people will hear a baby crying in a house when they have no baby. You do the research and you find, as we did in one place, that a few years back a baby had died by suffocation after he fell asleep on his mother's breast."

Dale Kaczmarck, the president of a nationwide organisation based in Illinois called the Ghost Research Society, believes in using the psychic-historical approach - but in a more proactive role and only after first coming up with electronically tested evidence that a house is haunted.

"Often a ghost doesn't realise he or she has died," Mr Kaczmarck said. "The role of the psychic is basically to explain the situation to the ghost, who often wants to retain an attachment to the home or the people there. What the pyschic does is convince him to move in to the spirit world. Sometimes the ghost is bull-headed and won't move until he's tired or bored or just wants to move on."

Police sergeant Randy Liebeck is the official representative of the Ghost Research Society for the state of New Jersey. Unlike his president, who has been in the business since 1978, he is a novice who has yet to experience the excitement of actually communicating with a ghost. But he loves what he calls "the thrill of the pursuit". With electronic devices either owned by himself or borrowed from the police department -"We're Federal cops so we have some of the same great stuff the CIA and FBI have" - he holds what he calls "ghost stake-outs".

"I take with me sound surveillance equipment that can pick up a whisper a mile away - it's like a parabolic disc about 2ft in diameter; infra- red thermal surveillance equipment which detects heat anomalies in a room. I have an electro-magnetic device - it's the size of a police radio and has a counter with a needle - to test for unusual variations in the magnetic field; a Geiger counter for radiation detection; a video camera and a regular photographic camera."

Just recently, in May, he was called in to do an investigation at Bernardsville public library, where staff complained that a ghost was interfering with the computers and phones. The building was old, apparently once used by George Washington's revolutionary troops. Sgt Liebeck and three colleagues, armed with their ghost-detecting paraphernalia, staked out the library from eight at night until five in the morning.

Throughout the night he picked up "thermal alerts", although the electro- magnetic device, on which he said he had placed high hopes, yielded no signs of life. The most spine-tingling evidence of the night came from a more mundane quarter. "Around 2am, just as someone was wondering out aloud whether the ghost might hate the electronic equipment, the flash on my Olympus 35mm camera suddenly went off on its own. And then again. I put it down on the table and completely on its own it shot off the entire roll, each time with a flash. It shocked the shit out of me!"

Sgt Liebeck, a lumbering gentle giant of man, apologised for his rude language. A far cry from the tough cop of caricature, he is a soft-spoken romantic who has been reading ghost stories since childhood and finds in adulthood that he is driven by a quest to demonstrate that life retains a sense of wonder.

"I have a fondness for the Loch Ness monster: the idea of a strange undiscovered animal existing when science thinks it knows everything, I find fascinating. I haven't seen a ghost yet but I say that I hope ghosts exist because it would be sad if they didn't. If all the mysteries of the world could be solved overnight the world would become a very boring place."

Sgt Liebeck's dream is to accumulate enough money to buy a special video camera, new in the ghostbusters' market, which has an infra-red attachment that allows you to capture the image of unusual heat patterns. In common with most American ghostbusters, he regards his British counterparts with great reverence. The London-based Society for Psychical Research, of which he is a member, has been operating since the last century. "They are the pre-eminent organisation at this kind of thing in the world. There are far fewer people who investigate ghosts here than in the United Kingdom, but the difference, and where we possibly have the edge now, is that they're still more into the use of psychics and evidence from eyewitnesses - that sort of thing.

"What we're seeing now is the technology drifting from here to there. There's been a explosion of technological investigative aids in recent years and I feel that we're coming close to a breakthrough. The important thing is that soon we'll be able not just to say we saw a ghost, we'll show that we saw it."

What would he do the day he actually came face-to-face with one? "I don't know how I'd react. I might jump out of a window. I might shoot it. I might give up the whole endeavour and go off to Loch Ness in search of a new adventure. But I'd like to think I'd compose myself, relax and engage it in conversation."

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