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.

  • Kile Jones

    Interesting post Drew. What an interesting case! I wonder how you think Rubin could have addressed the topic differently? Should we treat ghost-belief in the same manner as religious belief? As an atheist, I consider many religious beliefs similar to superstition and ghost-beliefs. How can somebody like me navigate between these terms without “judging” or “mocking” like Rubin did?

  • Grace Yia-Hei Kao

    A fascinating topic. Two comments come immediately to mind: (1) you are right that judges normally show (or at least ought to show) judicial restraint in commenting on the truth or merits of religious beliefs and yet, as we have already seen in several court cases discussed in class (e.g. Mormon polygamy in Reynolds, the I Am movement in Ballard), this has not always been so. (2) We will be talking later on in class about a fascinating case involving a tort suit against a religious institution because of an “exorcism gone bad,” so to speak. The parallel being that in both cases, the “material reality” as you put it (i.e., of whether there really were ghosts haunting that house or whether demons really were cast out of the daughter of the plaintiffs) was not understood to be the primary questions.

  • Mahmoud Harmoush

    It is interested from both ends, religion and real estate. I had similar encounter but the owner of the house finally left the property to the bank and left. He really believed that there were a ghost and they want to live in the house. The ghost asked him to take his family and leave. He did. As a believer of God, the man asked me to try to talk to the ghost to make them leave his house. I did not. I asked him to leave and he did. However, the judge is right that the seller should disclose such situations about their property. Nice thoughts.

  • Bryan Cottle

    I must ask if it was such a famous community known haunted house why did the sellers not advertise it as such? Granted I would not set foot in it myself, but I would assume that for many interested in such paranormal activity it would be a draw that might actually make the price go up, and turn a higher profit because of it. In the end however I agree with the later courts decision. If it is stigmatized as being a haunted house then the seller in fairness must indicate that in his selling of the home. The fact that it is haunted may be an infringement on a person’s religious belief.

    It makes me think of Judge Adams’ criteria number one on what defines a religion. If a religion deals with questions of life and death, and moral wrong then a family that unknowingly puts money down on a haunted house might be having their right to practice religion infringed. If they feel that living in such a haunted atmosphere is wrong or harmful to their soul then an issue can be made for return of the downpayment via free exercise. Even with a neutrally applicable law such as buyer beware, the court could be sympathetic and side with the family that feels moving into such a house would be a substantial burden just as much as lossing that 32,000 dollar downpayment. Anyway, it was an interesting case. Thanks for writing on this Drew.

  • Drew Baker

    Thanks for your responses everyone! I’ll respond to each of you individually below:

    Kile – Thanks for your questions and thoughts. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately pondering that very question (although obviously not from an atheist’s perspective). My initial and tentative answer is that I do think that “superstition” and “religion” should be treated similarly. Certainly in the case of law. I’ve been considering lately about how one might address the fears and critiques one finds of pluralism in Masuzawa and others (that pluralism simply serves as an apologetic enterprise for a specific kind of Christianity), and I think a radical pluralism that includes religion’s “other” (i.e. superstition) within its bounds might be a fairly effective solution to address this problem. By including something like “superstition” which functions (in some of the ways I suggest above) as religion’s opposite, it would be very difficult for anyone to collapse pluralism into an apologetic inclusivism, since the reminder of otherness would always be ever present. Difference would be preserved, and a new kind of pluralism might be possible. Of course, from a secularist perspective, things are quite different – as I suggested above, superstition functions as both the opposite and the ‘double’ of religion (one might call superstition religion’s doppleganger), and from a secular/scientific perspective, religion and superstition are typically conflated (to the detriment of both). I think I’d prefer that to the wider norm (religion and science/secularism being allies against superstition), but ultimately, I’d hope that the double complicity science/secularism and religion both share in attacking “superstition” might be unmasked and critiqued. From a postcolonial perspective, one could say that a political alliance has been made between two powers (religion and secularism), and the marginalized other (superstition) is left to die. As religion scholars (whether we are atheists, theists, or something else entirely), I believe that we must all evaluate our own scholarship in order to see to what extent we are responsible (either through positive theoretical constructions or an absence of scholarship, as in the case I blogged about above) in perpetuating this dangerous logic.

    Dr. Kao – Thank you for your points. In response to #2, I look forward to reading the case. In the case of #1, I think that the cases you reference are actually exceptions that prove the superstition/religion rule. The representational boundary between marginalized, minority religious traditions and “superstition” has often been incredibly thin; those “religions” that find themselves on that boundary line are often treated as superstition, even though a majority might also call them “religion.” The line is incredibly fuzzy; it would hardly surprise me, for instance, if one had recorded the justices’ private discussions about Ballard if they referred to that “religious” tradition (or in Reynolds, Mormonism) as also superstition. In that way, the real line (between respected religious traditions and everything else), would fall somewhere in between Ballard and Yoder; again suggesting that J.Z. Smith’s claims (that I mentioned in the beginning of this class) are right. The court evaluates religion cases differently, depending on their conceptually-mapped proximity to Protestant Christianity. “Religion” and “Superstition” as categories form a spectrum. On one side, Protestant Christianity sets the norm (for the ideal model example of “religion). Consider, for instance, can you imagine a religion scholar proposing a definition of religion that Protestant Christianity does not ideally fit within (since this happens all the time with proposed definitions of religion for Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism)? On the other side, superstition is the absolute other of orthodox religion. Most traditions fall somewhere in between on the scale. Of course, that does not mean that cases dealing with Protestant Christianity will always be decided for “religion,” it simply means that one can see (at least) two different logics unfairly functioning in cases about “religion,” one dealing with the outlands (superstition/marginalized religions) and one dealing with the center (Protestant Christianity and its kin). Separate but not equal.

    Mahmoud – Thank you for your story. I imagine that situations like the one you describe occur a lot, considering the percentage of the American population that believe in ghosts (well over 50% by most recent surveys). It is always interesting to hear how people navigate these issues, particularly in cases related to silenced/marginalized beliefs that are uncomfortable public topics.

    Brian – Thanks for your reflection. While I’ve been thinking about this case for a while, I’ve also been relatively uncertain about my own opinion on the actual decision in the case. I think I agree with you that the decision the appellate court reached was correct; even if they utilized incredibly problematic logic and rhetoric for that decision. Of course, as I suggested in my post, regardless of the decision, the logic and rhetoric the court used in this case raises many interesting questions about the relationship between “superstition” and “religion,” and how the government should approach that relationship. (On an unrelated note, a number of folklore scholars have written about how a well-known “friendly-ghost” haunted house will actually typically sell for more in the market, albeit not always, and it might take longer for the house to sell. After all, the market for such a house will be smaller, even if it is more interested. As such, many parties that have publicized their houses as “haunted” previously will try to cover up that publicity when they sell, for example, if they wish to sell the house quickly, etc. I imaginee that only a small percentage of those cases go to court).

  • Valentina

    Hi Drew, I did not see this post until I searched for it! Wow, I really enjoyed reading your post and am intrigued by the case. You bring a valid point to the surface, which is awareness of those on the fringes of society who believe in superstitions and who are usually shunned by the community at large. What rights if any do they have in legal matters involving their beliefs? And if granted any such rights, is it to the same respect and degree of recognized religions? Believing in superstitions such as ghosts and haunted houses, are “beliefs” in and of itself, however, the government may find it nonsensical to consider beliefs such as those on par with established mainstream religions….I can understand why a government would refeuse to hold the superstitious beliefs valid because of the lack of foundation and veracity in the suerpstitions usually. Though in this very unique case the law must open up and accomodate based on the facts. Caveat Emptor is a good defense, but an even better claim is that a seller should always disclose all issues that could be of concern to a future buyer, which is what this case was untimately about. Thanks again!