These brave souls live in haunted houses—and they love it
A writer crossed the country looking for folks who consider ghosts to be part of the family. Surprisingly, they weren’t hard to find.
If they love a house enough, homebuyers are willing to overlook just about anything. Garish colors? We’ll paint over 'em. Tiny kitchen? We’ll blow out that back wall. Ghosts? Well, why not?
In fact, a 2018 realtor.com poll revealed that one-third of prospective buyers wouldn’t think twice about buying a haunted house if the price, location, and amenities were appealing enough. And 18 percent said, in effect, “Hey, a ghost is all the amenity we need! We’ll take it!”
While lawyers refer to haunted houses as “psychologically impacted” or “stigmatized” properties, a surprising number of people just call them “home.” I crossed the country looking for folks who consider ghosts to be part of the family. Surprisingly, they weren’t hard to find.
Understand, I’ve never believed in ghosts, and I’m pretty sure I still don’t. But how, then, do I explain the weird event that’s been haunting me for a couple of months now?
I was enjoying dinner with my wife, Carolyn, and her old friend, Mary, at a charming, century-old, Victorian home-turned-restaurant in historic Lewes, Delaware. The three of us were seated at a table with four chairs. Just as we began digging into our entrees—and you’ve just got to go with me here—the bottle of wine that we’d ordered started to slide, like a piece on a chess board, across the table toward the empty chair.
As we watched in silence, our forks hovering halfway between our plates and mouths, the bottle continued off the edge. But instead of falling, it rose over the tall back of the vacant chair, then descended gently to the floor and landed with a dull thud rather than a crash. There we sat, forks still frozen, mouths hanging open, our eyes darting back and forth.
We were still in that stunned state when our server rushed from across the room. As she replaced the bottle on the table, she muttered, almost to herself, “It’s the ghost.” It turns out someone…or something…has been pulling otherworldly pranks like this for years at the establishment. It took some time, but the owner and staff eventually came to terms with sharing the property with an unseen entity. That seemed odd to me, but as I set out in search of haunted homes, I was surprised by how many people share that attitude.
A sprinkle is falling from a blanket of low-hanging clouds, and thunder is rolling in the distance. The atmosphere seems perfect as I stand along historic Bath House Row in Hot Springs, Arkansas, waiting for John Cooksey to show me his haunted house.
The human history of Hot Springs reaches back three millennia. Behind the bath houses rises Hot Springs Mountain, where 142-degree waters have attracted visitors ranging from the earliest Native Americans to 1930s gangsters. Ghost stories abound regarding the town’s old hotels, violent speakeasies, and shady brothels.
Cooksey pulls up in his car, which is comfortably cluttered with the tools of his multiple trades, including videographer, local broadcaster, and real estate agent.
“Actually, I’ve got two haunted houses,” he tells me jauntily as we head away from downtown and into the surrounding hills. “My wife and I live in one, and we rent out the other, right next door.”
It doesn’t take long to get there. These are no Addams Family-style Victorian manses, nor do they have spooky, eye-like windows, a’ la the Amityville Horror house. They’re just a couple of low-rise brick homes with struggling lawns and trash cans out front.
“This is Bill,” Cooksey tells his wife, Annie, as we enter the couple’s kitchen through a side door. “He’s here about the ghost.” Annie nods, as if she’s been told there’s a man here about the plumbing.
“Did you tell him about the smoke?” she asks. “That was…interesting.”
On the ride here, I’ve already heard about the mysterious late-night footsteps, and the occasional glowing eyes that appear in the dark, but not the smoke. Cooksey steps through an arched doorway into what is now the laundry room.
“One night we smelled something like cigar smoke,” he tells me. “We followed it around the house and finally discovered it was coming from in here. As we came into this room, the smell just vanished. Didn’t dissipate, like you’d expect. It was just…gone.”
Cooksey calls his unseen boarders “friendly ghosts.” “We like them,” he says. “Every once in a while, they just do something to remind us that they’re still here.”
Of course, it’s one thing to happily cohabit with something otherworldly, and quite another to rent a haunted house to someone else.
We head next door to a residence much like the Cooksey’s place. The couple rents this house on a short-term basis, usually to tourists. Pausing on the porch, Cooksey confesses that he doesn’t tell prospective renters about the mysteriously moving items, the odd noises, the flickering lights.
“They usually come over and tell me about them,” he says. “We had a blind woman stay here once. One morning, out of nowhere, she said to me, ‘Tell me about the spirits in this house. I can sense they’re here.’”
We enter. Directly inside the front door, a dark wooden staircase winds to an upstairs room. We creak our way to the claustrophobic second floor, where there are a few beds and a window at the far end.
“I’m gonna go back downstairs,” Cooksey tells me abruptly. “Why don’t you hang here for a few minutes? Come down when you’re ready.” And then he’s gone.
I stand there in the silence, trying to discern if the uneasiness I feel is born of an unseen presence, or simply the creep-inducing power of suggestion.
Either way, I decide, I’m ready. I flee down the shadowy stairs and back to the gray outdoors.
The ghost with OCD
It’s certainly unusual—but, oddly enough, not unexpected—when Leslie Grunewald’s kitchen faucet suddenly, and without apparent reason, starts running at full blast. “That’s just Greg washing his hands again,” she says.
Greg was an old friend of Grunewald and her husband, Doug. As so often happens in ghost stories, Greg met a sad and sudden end: At age 60, the lifelong physicist decided to retire. But two months before the big day, he died suddenly. The end came in a bedroom of this very house in Livermore, California.
Grunewald bought the place from Greg’s estate in 2016. But although she and her husband completely renovated the house, “Greg has never left,” she says. “I don’t think he was ready to go. He seems to be holding on.”
On her smart phone, Grunewald scrolls for a minute before she finds the video she’s looking for. It’s a shot of her kitchen sink, taken from across the room. Water is rushing from the faucet. Then, it just stops. The unforced eeriness of the clip makes me gasp.
“I never know when the water’s going to start running, so I can never get the beginning part,” Grunewald says. She also has videos of lights flickering mysteriously, but it’s the running water that has convinced her Greg is still around. He suffered from OCD, she says. He was constantly washing his hands.
“It’s almost as if he just decides to walk across the kitchen and wash them again, like he always did when he was alive.”
Even when she was buying the house, Grunewald sensed Greg was still in residence. “I could feel his presence, sort of an essence,” she says. “But that made me just want to buy the house even more. I’m glad he’s still here. It makes me feel privileged to think he wants to share his home. I don’t want him to leave.”