This time of year, it's not too unusual to have a ghost in your house. It's probably made of porcelain or paper, and next month it will get stored away along with the fake spider webs, the pumpkin-shaped candleholders and other Halloween trappings - not to be seen again until next October rolls around.
But some ghosts are not so manageable.
Generally, home buyers are preoccupied with things like school districts, closet space and room size; ghosts are not typically on the list of concerns, and many don't believe they exist in the first place. But plenty of people have purchased homes only to find out upon moving in that someone or something is already there - and has no plans to leave.
Take the case of Melanie Carter, who moved into a newly built Germantown townhouse nine years ago and slowly realized something was amiss.
The home's intercom system would turn itself on and off. She'd hear loud pops coming from her stereo speakers. Her son's toys would turn on by themselves. At first she tried to explain away these occurrences as electrical problems. But over time, the oddities increased.
She would repeatedly hear a hysterical-sounding woman in her hallway, moving toward her son's room, which would wake him up and make him cry. Her rocking chair would rock on its own. Just recently she felt a person caressing her arm while she was trying to fall asleep. She says her neighbors have also seen ghostlike figures in their homes.
"I can't afford to move," Carter says. "Right now I'm just trying to live the best I can."
There are two cemeteries on either side of her development, and after moving in, local residents told her that at one time the entire area was a cemetery, though she's not sure if that's true. Carter called in some paranormal investigators who told her she had numerous ghosts. One investigator told Carter that she heard a man say, "I've been here since 1871 and I'm not going anywhere."
Carter feels that if she could prove there are still bodies buried on the property, she might be able to take legal action. But she can't afford to hire an excavator and she's not up to the task of grabbing a shovel and digging up her yard in search of corpses. Carter also questions whether an attorney would believe her and take the case; in any event, she can't afford to hire one.
There is no law that explicitly requires sellers in Maryland to disclose that a property might be haunted. In fact, state law leans the other way. One statute specifically states that a seller is not required to tell potential buyers that a death - even a murder - occurred in a home.
"The issue of ghosts has absolutely never come up in my practice," says Herbert Burgunder III, a real estate attorney in Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood. "But it raises an interesting question."
Disclosure laws in Maryland changed in 2005 to become more strict, he says. In the past, a seller could sell a home "as is" and not be required to disclose any defects. But now, even sellers who are making no claims to a home's condition must sign a disclosure form that lists the property's "latent defects."
This was intended to protect buyers from unknowingly buying a house that, say, always floods during a storm - because the inspection might be held on a clear day when the defect would not be evident. But Burgunder says there's a chance someone could try to apply the rule to paranormal activity.
"I think it depends on some particular facts or circumstances, but I'd say it's highly unlikely," Burgunder says. "You'd have to prove, one, that the seller knew there was a ghost and didn't disclose it. Two, you'd have to prove that it was in fact a latent defect, and three, that it did threaten the health and safety of the purchasers. I think it'd be a very difficult case to prove."
With little to no legal recourse and an economy that makes selling a house challenging, those who might have paranormal roommates are left to pursue other options. Some decide to just live with it. Others have the house blessed, or demand that the ghost leave. If these things don't work, some people call an expert - a cleanser.
Nancy L. Fox is one such expert. She is an "intuitive psychic" and one of her services - in addition to astrology, dream interpretation and meditation - is ridding homes of spirits. She won't discuss in detail her methods for fear of novices trying them and making things worse. But basically, Fox says, she calls on devas, which she describes as "angelic equivalents to earth beings," to help spirits move on. Fox, who lives near Linthicum, charges about $300 for her cleansing services, which take several hours.
"It creates a portal for these beings to leave and to go back to source, to God," she says. "And to go so completely that they can't return."
Fox, 63, says spirits are everywhere. Some were humans at one time, but some never were. Some spirits are positive, and some are negative. And, she said, they can do more than just open all your kitchen cabinets when your back is turned. Sometimes they can cause marriages to break up or bring about severe depression.
One of her clients, land developer Michael S. Cook, has been using her services for about 20 years. He meets with Fox quarterly, and she clears all of the properties that he has acquired.
"She'll connect with the spirits on a property and in most cases she gets these spirits to move along," says Cook, who is based in Laurel. "I remember one particular property where a spirit was concerned about what we were going to do to the land - and I know I sound like a nut case - and there was a whole series of approvals that was driving us crazy and nothing was going right. [After Fox cleansed the site] it all started to flow, and we didn't do a damn thing differently."
Not everyone tries to get rid of their otherworldly residents. Maureen Majors of Frederick says she has been living with ghosts in her house for years. They bang hangers together, open doors and interact with her family.
One night, Majors says, she and her daughter were in the family room watching television when they saw a black shadow the size of a child walk down the stairs and stand in front of the door to the basement. Then they saw a woman dressed in white stand at the top of the stairs and the dark figure darted up to her and disappeared.
"I don't feel threatened because they've never tried to harm anyone," she says. "I'll share space with them."
Majors says she probably wouldn't disclose the ghosts if she were to sell her house.
"If it was something malevolent, that would be different," she says. "With friendly ghosts, not everybody pays attention. What my family experienced, the next family may not."
The president-elect of the Maryland Association of Realtors, Steve Meszaros, said only on rare occasions has an agent asked him for advice about disclosing a ghost.
"What I tell my agents is that I don't know anyone who has ever had an issue when they have over-disclosed - only when they have under-disclosed," he said. "A buyer could come back and say the belief that a ghost was in the house would have affected their decision to purchase the house, or affected what they would have offered for it.
"Let's make the assumption that ghosts are a pain in the neck and somebody would certainly not pay as much for a house where there were chains being dragged around and people saying 'Boo' in the middle of the night as they would for a house that didn't have that."
know your ghosts
House hunters who want to avoid buying a haunted property need to trust their instincts, said Laine Crosby, an investigative medium who lives near Rockville.
Crosby began honing her psychic abilities after she and her family moved from Atlanta to an old farmhouse in Maryland.
"Things started happening. ... All the cabinet doors would open on their own, the kids were seeing people - I thought I was losing my mind," she said.
Eventually she decided to just go with it, and now Crosby says she can communicate with spirits of many kinds. She has been featured on several news programs and also works with police to help solve crimes.
But even those without exceptional psychic abilities can often sense when a spirit is present, she said.
"There are a couple of ways a normal person can look for things," Crosby said. "One is just trusting their feelings. People know when they're being watched. Like when you're stopped at a red light and you're drawn to look over to the next car because you know someone is looking at you."
She said that if you sense a spirit might be present, you should try taking photographs of that area because the spirits might show up as orbs - dots of light - in the photos.
"It's like fan blades that you can't see individually when they're spinning around but if you took a picture it would capture the individual blades," she said. "It's the same with an orb."
For those already living with a ghost, Crosby said there are a few things to try, besides calling in an expert. She said owners might try burning sage in the house and putting a bit of salt in the corners of each room, including in the closets.
"I tend to pray in every room," she said. "I've also done cleansings with salt and sage, though I believe it's the prayers that work, but I hedge my bets."