Ghosts & a Spirit of Equity: Religion, Superstition & Stambovsky v. Ackley (1991) (by Drew Baker)

Ph.D. student Drew Baker

This post is written in conjunction with the “Religion and Law in the U.S.” course dialogue project and is directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

“[The] Plaintiff hasn’t a ghost of a chance.” So Justice Israel Rubin of the Appellate level of the New York Supreme Court wryly said in his majority opinion in response to a seemingly strange, but nonetheless precedent setting case. Today, Stambovsky v. Ackley is read by nearly every law student in the country, and even just a quick glance at the citation list of the case in Google Scholar illustrates the decision’s wide effects… in real estate law. The implications of this case for religion and law, on the other hand, have been mostly ignored. The full appellate decision can be found here (I encourage you to read it).

The Nyack Haunted House

Helen Ackley, the defendant, owned an old Victorian mansion in Nyack, New York. In 1990, she put the house up for sale. Patrice and Jeffrey Stambovsky bought the home for $650,000. They put down a down payment of $32,000. Unbeknownst to the buyers (who were not from the area), Ackley’s house was famous in the community for being haunted. Several articles in many different publications (including Reader’s Digest) had discussed the ghosts in the house. Ackley herself popularized this reputation, writing a number of articles about the domestic phantoms for local publications and allowing walking tours of her haunted house. After she put the house up for sale, however, she attempted to present the building as a “normal” home. She did not inform the Stambovskys of the mansion’s ghostly reputation.

After the buyers found out about the folklore surrounding the house, they demanded that their down payment be returned. Ackley refused, and the Stambovskys sued. At the first level, the Stambovskys lost on the ground of the legal doctrine of “caveat emptor,” (i.e. let the buyer beware). The lowest court ruled that the Stambovskys could have easily become aware of the house’s “reputation,” since it was well known in the community. Therefore, the court claimed that the legal protection of the buyer in this case did not apply; the buyers should have done their due diligence in researching the house. The Stambovskys appealed. This time, the court ruled in the Stambovskys’ favor in a narrow 3-2 decision.

Justice Rubin wrote:

[A] very practical problem arises with respect to the discovery of a paranormal phenomenon: ‘who you gonna call?’ as a title to the movie Ghostbusters asks. Applying the strict rule of caveat emptor to a contract involving a house possessed by poltergeists conjures up visions of a psychic or medium routinely accompanying the structural engineers and Terminix man on an inspection of every home subject to a contract of sale. In the interest of avoiding such untenable consequences, the notion that a haunting is a condition which can and should be ascertained upon reasonable inspection of the premises is a hobgoblin which should be exorcized from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest.

Rubin shifts the topic of the debate; the ghostly reputation of a building is not enough to establish that it is haunted. Instead, if the burden was placed on the buyer, for a building to be legally haunted, the home would have to be shown to be materially haunted. The state would be implicitly encouraging buyers to use “psychics” alongside exterminators.

According to Rubin, such a conclusion would be both absurd and untenable. Therefore, the burden should be placed on the seller “in a spirit of equity.” By forcing the buyer to disclose whether the house has a reputation for being haunted, the question of whether the house is actually materially haunted can be left aside. Does the house have a reputation for being haunted? If so, the home is a stigmatized property, and the seller should inform the buyer of this status.

At first glance, it may appear that this case deals only with issues related to real estate law. Rubin never uses the word “religion” in his decision. Throughout his brief decision, Rubin has an irreverent tone, and exhausts every literary and popular reference and pun related to ghosts imaginable. Rubin’s rhetoric is not only dismissive but also disrespectful of the topic at hand. One can imagine that if Rubin had written with similar word choice about the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, he would have been removed from the court quickly. Ultimately, one can infer that Rubin felt comfortable mocking both the plaintiffs’ and defendant’s belief in ghosts because it was not religious (something due judicial respect) but rather superstitious.

Historically, superstition and religion are closely related concepts. Therefore, on one level, the judges in the case functionally treated the topic of ghost belief as though it were a religious belief. They all wanted to avoid any government endorsement for or against ghost belief. Even the dissent at the appellate level mimicked this desire. Amusingly, while the judges involved in this case could not agree on the best decision, they all agreed on the common goal that should guide that decision.  That goal was functionally an antinomy: the government should be both neutral and not-neutral concerning superstition.

This seemingly contradictory reality is unsurprising, since at the heart of this goal is a problematic tension. On the one hand, ghost belief as superstition is like religion. As such, government neutrality is the ideal. On the other hand, ghost belief is not religion, but superstition. Therefore it should be ridiculed as absurd. Superstition receives all of the legal restrictions for being “religion,” without any of the protection or respect reserved for “religion.” This lesson extends far beyond law; this case serves as a symbol of the fact that there is hardly a spirit of equity between “superstition” and “religion” in any sector. We must recognize that the murky and politically charged relationship between the categories of superstition and religion is at the core of the modern conception of religion. As such, perhaps this “real estate” case deserves another glance from scholars of religious studies.

Drew Baker is a PhD student in Religion, Ethics, and Society at Claremont Lincoln University. He explores the historically constructed boundaries of the category of religion, particularly in relationship with peripheral or excluded categories like ghosts.