The haunted house on the Hudson: How a ghost story becomes true

Cartoon ghosts peek out of a spooky Victorian mansion.
Katherine Qiu/Staff

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In 1989, a young couple purchased an old Victorian mansion on the Hudson River. Jeffrey and Patrice Stambovsky closely resembled ‘80s horror-movie archetypes: Jeffrey was a skeptic who worked in stocks and bonds, and Patrice was pregnant with their first child. After committing $32,500 to the purchase, the Strombovskys learned that their perfect mansion on the river, the home where they had hoped to start their new family, was haunted.

This is a ghost story, not because it involves a haunted house, but because it contains a different kind of haunting: a linguistic poltergeist. The persistent specter of fiction creeps into our reality through the language we use to describe it. This is a ghost story about ghost stories.

“Oh, you’re buying the haunted house,” a local architect said to Jeffrey Stambovsky as he and his wife prepared to move into their new home. Upon discovering that they had purchased a renowned haunted house, the Stambovkys did what any reasonable person would do on such an occasion — they sued. Jeffrey Stambovsky took the house’s previous owner, Helen Ackley, to the New York Supreme Court, claiming that he and his wife had been “the victims of ectoplasmic fraud.” Unsurprisingly, the court dismissed the case, filing it under “caveat emptor,” the legal term widely referred to as “buyer beware.” The term had never seemed so appropriate.

But the case was not closed. Jeffrey Stambovsky appealed, and the events of the second trial were so strange that its verdict has acquired the moniker “the ‘Ghostbusters’ ruling.” Justice Israel Rubin’s majority opinion included some truly frightening puns, but its conclusion was even scarier. Ackley had discussed the spirits who she said resided in her house in detail, telling ghost stories to reporters from the local newspaper and from National Geographic. Thus, the court decided that she had sold her house fraudulently, having failed to disclose the important detail that there were already people “living” in it. Rubin concluded:

Whether the source of the spectral apparitions seen by defendant seller is parapsychic or psychogenic, having reported their presence in both a national publication and the local press, defendant is estopped to deny their existence and, as a matter of law, the house is haunted.

With this verdict, the New York Supreme Court created a dangerous precedent. The house on the Hudson is haunted. That is a legal fact. In her book “The Law Is a White Dog,” scholar of American legal history Colin Dayan commented that Rubin’s conclusion “was more terrifying for some than if he had declared ghosts real. Instead, Rubin posited a reality independent of any conception of what is real.” In effect, he had transmuted the presence of an ostensibly fictitious ghost story into a legal reality and proven that, at least in a legal context, the language we use to describe the truth is more important than the truth itself.

So, this Halloween, be careful what you say. The language you use may come back to haunt you.

Contact Dorian Cole at [email protected].