Would you live in a haunted house? Justin Gregory asks why people avoid – or are attracted to – scary places.
It’s a little unclear exactly how much a real estate agent is required to tell a prospective buyer about the history of a home. Should they, for instance, have to disclose any deaths, murders or even hauntings that might have happened there? But why would a buyer be put off - or even stranger, attracted to – a property simply because of what had happened there in the past?
Marc Wilson is the Head of the School of Psychology at Victoria University. He says our aversion (or attraction) to sites of horror has to do with how we deal with disgust.
“Disgust is what we think of as one of the primary emotions. [But] people vary in their individual levels of disgust sensitivity. Some people are very, very sensitive to the sort of things that they might find disgusting, whereas other people tend to be much more tolerant.”
Disgust research is a fast-evolving field of inquiry in psychology. Testing sensitivity to disgust involves presenting individuals with scenarios and asking how comfortable they might be with them.
“The range of questions that we ask range from ‘how comfortable would you be sitting on a bus seat to find that it’s already warm?’, [the] implication being that someone’s bottom has already been on that seat, all the way through to things like picking up an animal that’s died on the road. How comfortable would you be coming across animals or even people engaged in sexual congress? How comfortable would you be eating monkey brains? Some people really don’t like the idea of eating a chocolate shaped like a dog poo, even though they know it is chocolate.”
There’s a belief in many human cultures that by coming into contact with something we will acquire the characteristics of it. This kind of magical thinking is a possible explanation for our issues with houses with bad histories.
“[Some people believe that] If I come into contact with this thing that has been in contact with something bad, things are going to rub off on me” says Marc. “I’ll become a bad person or something bad will happen.”
Curiously, an individual’s level of disgust sensitivity can also predict other parts of their lives. Research shows that people with a high level of disgust sensitivity are also often uncomfortable with needles and blood, are often opposed to immigration and hold conservative views on subjects like the legalization of prostitution and the liberalization of drug laws.
Wellington paranormal investigation team Strange Occurrences has been scientifically studying ghostly activities for nearly a decade. Team leader James Gilberd says they occasionally do investigate private residences but would like to do it more. And they almost never get asked to check out a house before someone buys it.
“We’d like to get called out a bit more often. When we do, it’s usually when people haven’t been in a place for very long.”
James says the unique set of noises specific to any house can be unsettling for new owners.
Strange Occurrences team member Denise Durkin agrees and has another theory.
“I wonder whether events actually imprint more on people than they do on environments. People are quite sensitive to hearing about an event rather than it actually staying there. All these feelings and emotions are from us rather than from the actual building.”
Positive associations work in a similar way to negative ones, hence the drive amongst some of us to acquire items that used to belong to famous or high-achieving people. Just as bad things might stick to us, so might good luck, genius, or fame and fortune. And if you are not particularly disgust sensitive, then a house with a past is simply just another building or even a potential bargain.
So it might be in the interests of real estate agents to be fully upfront about the history of the house they are offering for sale. But as Denise points out, what kind of history? And how far back can an agent reasonably be expected to go?
“What about the silence around suicide? Or from something back in the 1920s? Would that still cause you distress?
Finally, what does Marc Wilson believe a real estate agent should be required to tell a potential buyer?
“My preference would be that we have an understanding of the sorts of things which people should be, as a matter of course, made aware. As I don’t score particularly highly on disgust sensitivity I’d like to think I wouldn’t feel particularly uncomfortable buying a house in which something bad had happened. If other people aren’t going to buy it then it’s a chance for me to get it dirt cheap. But what works for the goose might not always work for the gander!”