CLOSE
IStock
IStock

Meet the Realtor Who Specializes in Haunted Houses

IStock
IStock

Cindi Hagley looked at the spot where the woman had been bludgeoned to death and paused. It had happened on the front lawn of an expansive property in the Midwest, with distinctive landscaping work acting as a backdrop for the media that had descended on the scene. The arrangement of flowers and other foliage would be familiar to anyone in the area who had looked at a local newspaper.

“What you need to do,” she told the seller’s agent, “is change the lawn. Rip it up. Plant something else. Make it look softer.”

Like an FBI profiler called in to consult with local authorities on a murder, Hagley had been summoned by the property’s representatives for advice on how best to market what’s known in the business as a “stigmatized home”—a slice of real estate that’s been the site of a violent crime or one purported to harbor spirits. As one of just a few realtors who specializes in houses with tumultuous histories, Hagley knows how to rid a listing of negative connotations.

It’s a skill that goes beyond simple remodeling. In many cases, Hagley is approached to market houses that owners are convinced are a hub of disturbing paranormal activity. That might require psychic consultations, signed disclosure forms, or the presence of a rabbi.

In 12 years, she has never failed to close on a haunted property. “Marketed properly,” she tells mental_floss,” I don’t believe a stigmatized home should sell for a penny less than market value.”

iStock

Hagley grew up in Southern Ohio experiencing what she calls a “sensitive” awareness to peculiar activity. When she was in high school, her family unknowingly moved into a home that was once a funeral parlor. “Faucets would turn on by themselves,” she says. “There were apparitions, noises in the basement. I believe it was haunted.”

After a stint in network television ad sales, Hagley made a move into real estate. While preparing for her first open house, she sensed movement out of the corner of her eye. When she asked the seller if she had ever noticed anything unusual, the seller said that her boyfriend had seen some sort of apparition.

Hagley believed her. She also wondered how a ghost could potentially affect the value of a home. “I asked my broker if I had to disclose that,” she says. “And I did. It can affect the material value of a home.”

California requires sellers to be forthcoming if a property is “stigmatized”—that is, if it has been the site of a death within the past three years, if it was home to drug manufacturing, or even if a spirit is believed to inhabit the premises, which are all considered psychological impactions that can affect a buyer’s perception of the home. It’s one of roughly 25 states that have such a mandate on the books, urged by a desire for real estate sales to be transparent (and made more relevant by the fact that one in five Americans have seen a ghost). A California appellate court once ruled in 1983 that such a belief can lawfully have a material effect on price. (A woman bought a house and was not informed five people were murdered in it. She was unhappy, sued, and won.)

Hagley studied the requirements carefully and became intrigued by the potential for a sub-specialty in her business. “Not long after that house, I had two homes where people had died a natural death,” she says. “No one else was an expert in this, so I just decided to run with it.”

Word of Hagley’s willingness to tackle properties with lurid histories spread: Sellers started reaching out and requesting her services. If they claim their house is haunted, Hagley will arrange for a walk-through to see if she can observe any unusual activity herself. She’ll also interview the homeowner to get details of what he or she may have experienced. Historical research on the address might lead to a possible cause of the disturbance—if someone was murdered there, or if previous owners had expressed concern over ectoplasmic squatters.

What Hagley does next depends on whether she considers the spirits to be generally benevolent or not. “Some buyers will be okay if the spirits are believed to be gentle,” she says. “Sometimes they need to be removed.”

If it’s the latter, Hagley has a psychic she works with regularly. Other times, prospective buyers will request that a representative of their church perform a kind of spiritual audit on the home—a “bless and assess.”

“I’ve had priests and rabbis walk through,” she says. “I’ve held séances. I’ll do whatever the prospective buyer feels they need to do.”

If someone is still unsure, Hagley offers to call a caterer and let them stay in the house over two or three nights. Safe in the knowledge that the dark doesn’t lead to any kind of real disturbance, they’re more likely to stand behind their offer.

The Hagley Group

Hagley doesn’t openly advertise homes as haunted or stigmatized. That kind of publicity just results in crime scene tourists or would-be ghost hunters wasting her time, she says. Instead, buyers interested in a home are told about its colorful history in person, with written disclosure forms sent as a follow-up.

Hagley is not required by law to get into details. “I might say, ‘There was a death on the premises in 2014,’ or ‘The seller believes there is paranormal activity here,’” she says. “I’m not going to say, ‘Someone was swinging from the chandelier with a gunshot wound to the heart.’”

If an interested party presses for details, Hagley will explain further: “At least 75 percent of people just don’t care. If they do care, I have three or four final offers in already. Someone is going to buy it if they don’t.”

Although Hagley hangs a shingle, Past Life Homes, to remind people of her unique skill set, she says less than 3 percent of her business comes from stigmatized deals; most of her homes are high-end luxury properties. Past Life is simply a way to satisfy both her curiosity about spectral entities and to assist sellers who may feel their home is unmarketable.

Despite her spotless record, she won’t take on everything that crosses her desk. “Recently, I got a call to consult on a haunted house in West Virginia,” she says. “I found out the owners had been offering Halloween tours, opening it as a haunted attraction. To me, that’s taking advantage of spirits. And while I don’t like to say I’m superstitious, I don’t want to piss them off.”

arrow
History
14 Haunting Facts About the Winchester Mystery House

Despite the Winchester Mystery House's cheerful appearance, this massive California mansion's history is edged with tragedy, mystery ... and maybe some ghosts. Naturally, it has inspired a chilling horror movie, Winchester, which opens in theaters today. But before you go to the movie theater, wander through the curious past of one of America's most infamous homes.

1. THE WINCHESTER HOUSE IS NAMED FOR ITS MISTRESS.

Sarah Lockwood Winchester—the wife of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, whose family created the Winchester rifle that was heralded as "the gun that won the west”—designed and oversaw the construction of the sprawling Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion that bears her name. Construction on the 24,000-square-foot home, which is located at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California, began in 1886.

2. MANY BELIEVE SARAH BUILT WINCHESTER HOUSE OUT OF FEAR.

Overcome with grief in the wake of her husband's death from tuberculosis in 1881, folklore states that Sarah sought out a spiritualist who could commune with the dead. While she was presumably looking for solace or closure, she was instead given a chilling warning.

Through the medium, William told his widow that their tragedies (the couple had only one child, a daughter named Annie, who died at six weeks old) were a result of the blood money the family had made off of the Winchester rifles. He warned that vengeful ghosts would seek her out. In order to protect herself, William said that Sarah must "build a home for [herself] and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon."

Sarah was advised to leave their home in New Haven, Connecticut, behind, and move west, where she was to build a grand home for the spirits. There was just one catch: construction on the house could never stop. "If you continue building, you will live,” the medium warned Sarah. “Stop and you will die."

3. THE HOUSE WAS UNDER CONSTANT CONSTRUCTION FOR 38 YEARS.

Sarah Winchester's bedroom, on the second floor of Winchester House
Sarah Winchester's bedroom

In 1886, Sarah purchased an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose, California, and began building. She employed a crew of carpenters, who split shifts so construction could go on day and night, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 38 years. The work only stopped on September 5, 1922, because the octogenarian mastermind behind the home died of heart failure in her sleep. It's said that upon hearing the news of Sarah's death, the carpenters quit so abruptly they left half-hammered nails protruding from walls.

4. THE HOUSE IS FULL OF ARCHITECTURAL ODDITIES.

Sarah issued many bizarre demands to her builders, including the building of trap doors, secret passages, a skylight in the floor, spider web windows, and staircases that led to nowhere. There are also doors that open to blank walls, and a dangerous door on the second floor that opens out into nothing—save for an alarming drop to the yard far below.

5. AN EARTHQUAKE ONCE RATTLED THE HOUSE AND TRAPPED SARAH.

In 1906, the great San Francisco Earthquake caused three floors of the then seven-story house to cave in. A 1900 postcard of the place shows a tower that was later toppled by the natural disaster. That tower—plus several other rooms destroyed in the disaster—were never rebuilt, but cordoned off. As for Sarah, she was safe but stuck in the Daisy Bedroom, named for the floral motif in its windows. She had to be dug out by her staff, as its entrance was blocked off by rubble.

6. THE HOUSE WAS DESIGNED LIKE A LABYRINTH.

Some say the labyrinth layout was meant to confuse the ghosts, allowing Sarah some peace and a means to escape them. She was the sole architect of this extraordinary home, and no master building plan has ever been uncovered. So Sarah may be the only person who ever truly knew all of its secrets. When movers were called in after her death, one lamented its labyrinthine design that includes many winding hallways. One mover told American Weekly the Winchester House was a place "where downstairs leads neither to the cellar nor upstairs to the roof."

7. SOME SAY THE SYMBOLS IN THE HOUSE POINT NOT TO GHOSTS, BUT FRANCIS BACON.

An alternate theory on the Winchester House's perplexing design declares that Sarah was creating a puzzle full of encryptions inspired by the work of English philosopher Francis Bacon. There's speculation that clues to the house's true meaning are hidden in the ballroom, the Shakespeare windows, and the iron gates. This theory suggests that Sarah was a member of a mystic society like the Rosicrucians, or a secret society like the Freemasons—or possibly both.

8. THERE ARE OTHER THEORIES, INCLUDING THAT SARAH WAS "CRAZY."

Others speculate Sarah was coping with her grief with a flurry of activity, or that she was simply "crazy." However, Winchester Mystery House historian Janan Boehme paints a happier picture, imagining that the continual renovations reminded Sarah of the good times when she and William built their New Haven home together.

"I think Sarah was trying to repeat that experience by doing something they both loved," Boehme told the Los Angeles Times. She also suspects that Sarah was just an ardent—albeit eccentric—philanthropist who used her family fortune to purposefully employ the San Jose community. "She had a social conscience and she did try to give back," Boehme offered, noting the hospital Sarah built in her husband's name. "This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all."

9. ONCE IN WINCHESTER HOUSE, SARAH WAS RECLUSIVE, BUT NOT ALONE.

There is only one known photo of the widow Winchester, which was taken surreptitiously. Though she was reclusive, she was never alone. She had 18 servants, 18 gardeners, and the ever-present construction team working on the grounds. Every morning, Sarah met with the foreman to discuss the always-evolving building plans. And it's said that each night, she visited the Séance Room to speak with the spirits, who weighed in on plans for the house's unusual design.

10. THE HOUSE WAS AS OPULENT AS IT WAS ODD.

The home boasts 950 doors, 10,000 windows, 40 stairways, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, six kitchens, plus a trio of elevators, and once-groundbreaking elements like wool insulation, carbide gaslights, electricity, and an indoor shower, complete with a sewage drainage system.

11. NO ONE IS SURE HOW MANY ROOMS THE HOUSE HELD.

Following Sarah's death, Winchester House was converted into a tourist attraction. But when trying to get a room count, the new owners kept coming up with different numbers. After five years of renovations, they estimated the number of rooms to be about 160, which is the number most often quoted today.

12. SARAH HAD AN OBSESSION WITH THE NUMBER 13.

Among the secrets Sarah took to her grave was why she insisted that so many things relate to the number 13. The Winchester House has many 13-paned windows and 13-paneled ceilings, as well as 13-step stairways. Even her will had 13 parts, and she signed it 13 times. But the pièce de résistance might be the house's 13th bathroom, which contains 13 windows of its own.

13. IT’S A NATIONAL LANDMARK.

The Winchester Mystery House earned landmark status on August 7, 1974. The fascinating mansion is still owned by the family (families?) who purchased it from the Winchester estate in 1922 for $150,000—however, their identity is another Winchester House mystery. But thanks to them, tourists can now explore 110 of the 160-some rooms Sarah dreamed up. The Winchester Mystery House even boasts special tours on Halloween and Fridays the 13th.

14. IT’S REGULARLY CITED AS ONE OF THE MOST HAUNTED PLACES IN AMERICA.

To this day, Winchester House is a destination for believers who hope to have a paranormal encounter of their own. A popular spot for such activity is the corridors of the third floor, where tour guides have claimed to hear footsteps and disembodied voices whisper their names.

In a Reddit AMA, a Winchester House tour guide confirmed that the house’s third floor—only a portion of which is accessible during house tours—is definitely the spookiest part of the house, “because that's where the servants lived, so there's been a lot of reported activity there. Also, when you are on that floor you can never really hear any of the other tours, so you feel pretty isolated.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
holidays
6 Historical Methods for Contacting the Dead (and Their Drawbacks)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

'Tis the season for getting in touch with the spirit realm. (This applies no matter what month we're in right now; 'tis always high time to get your séance on.) But there are several different ways you can go about it. Do you Ouija? Should you go wandering around a haunted house? No, you should probably pick up the psychic telephone.

Lapham's Quarterly helpfully charted out some of historical ways you could (supposedly) go about contacting the dead, from Chinese Fuji writing—a method that's kind of like a Ouija board, but using a stylus to make letters in sand instead of a board—to past-life regression via hypnosis. The chart lays out how each ghost-whispering concept works, and its theoretical drawbacks. Because there are always drawbacks.

Transfiguration, for instance, lets you see a spirit's face through the body of a medium, but that's a whole lot of hard work for your medium. You can listen for electronic voice phenomena via a recorder, but you have to buy the recorder first. F. R. Melton's 1921 invention, the balloon-powered psychic telephone, was a great option—except when his son George wasn't around to work it. And past-life regression, as you might imagine, holds “potential for new levels of self-hatred." No one wants to find out that their past self was a total jerk.

There are plenty of scientific and cultural explanations for seeing ghosts that don't involve the actual spirits of the dead returning to the Earthly plane, but if you're into the history of the occult, this is a great primer on spirit-conjuring traditions.

[h/t Lapham's Quarterly]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios