Over three successive days in 1997, members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide, with 15 dying the first day, 15 more the next, and the final 9 ascending to what they hoped was an extra-terrestrial spacecraft on March 26. During each of these suicidal waves, the dwindling number of members would do what they could to clean up after those who’d died that day. There was no one left to clean up after the final group. Eventually the bodies were discovered and in the following weeks, police, pundits and armchair psychologists struggled to make sense of what had happened. In the meantime, the house was cleaned and readied for sale. Despite the lingering smell of death—remember the deceased had been indoors for as long as a week in some cases—the house eventually sold two years later for just under $700,000. That was less than half the market rate.
Houses are meant to be lived in, and there will always be buyers (or renters) willing to once again make them homes. Sometimes it’s because the property is a bargain, others just don’t believe in ghosts and provided there’s no lingering trace of the tragedy left behind, are content to live where many would choose not to even walk inside.
In the real estate world, these are known as stigmatized properties and agents (at least in many states in the U.S.) are legally obligated to mention the circumstances of the stigma to prospective buyers. The expected circumstances are covered—death in the home, murder, suicide—but also, surprisingly, when occupants had serious diseases (including AIDS). But regardless of personal ideology, agents are also legally obligated to tell you if there is a common belief that a property is haunted.
Film has had a long love affair with domestic horror, from The Uninvited (1944) to House on Haunted Hill (1959), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to Suspiria (1977), and The Others (2001) and Dark Water (2005). Clearly, we’ve enjoyed being spooked onscreen by haunted houses for a long time. In fact, one of the earliest examples of the haunted house film goes back to 1908. La Maison Ensorcelée (also known as The House of Ghosts), below, is a six-minute delight.
For an excellent overview of Polanski’s apartment horror trilogy, see Becky Belzile’s piece on Polanski and The Claustrophobic Architecture of Self.
Film has even been the cause of some property becoming stigmatized, as in the case of the house depicted in Amityville Horror (and based on the book of the same name, which many believe to have been sensationalized, if not an outright lie). The home’s current owners have even changed the street address to dissuade the stream of gawkers wanting a look at the place where Ronald De Feo Jr. killed his family in 1974. While the haunting may be apocryphal, the attention from the public is not. Similarly, the home where Sharon Tate and others were murdered by members of the Manson Family was razed, but the home built in its place has a different street number on Cielo Drive.
While these were choices of the current homeowners, they were certainly aware of the past of these properties before closing the deal. But what happens when a home’s past is unknown—or when a blemish-free home nonetheless conjures up a living hell for its residents?
In 2014, the Indy Star published a story that far exceeded the standard amount of credulity granted to a haunted house story by a newspaper. It was the unlikely account of paranormal happenings at the Gary, Indiana house where Latoya Ammons and her three children lived. Much like Amityville Horror, this story begins with flies. Ammons first noticed swarms of them in winter, an unusual sight in December. Soon activity began to worsen and what began with the sound of footsteps turned into accounts of violent possession, levitation and actual physical harm to the children. After seeking help from clairvoyants and the church, Ammons confided what was happening to a physician. Not only did he not believe her story, he contacted the Department of Children’s Services (DCS).
This leadup is scary enough, but what makes this case so confounding is the reaction of the professionals who stepped in to investigate. It’s worth reading the whole story, but as a teaser, know that some of them walked away if not believing Ammons’ story, but having trouble doubting it.
The Indy Star article went viral and whether due to that notoriety or the terrifying events the family claimed happened there, Ammons soon moved out. A filmmaker, Zak Bagans, of the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, bought the house with the intention of making a documentary. The documentary is still in the works, but something about the home persuaded Bagans to demolish it, though maybe we’ll learn more once the film is finally released.
So how do you keep from falling victim to buying or renting a hell house? First, ask about the property’s history. While not a legal requirement in all states or municipalities, most reputable agents will disclose if the home has a violent or tragic past. Know the laws in your state (a simple search for “stigmatized property law” + your state will tell you) and you won’t become someone who regrets not doing their due diligence.
Let’s close things out with a clickable look at where things stand with some of the most famous stigmatized properties with film and TV connections:
- Menendez House | The home where Erik and Lyle Menendez murdered their parents Jose and Kitty was most recently depicted in a –by all accounts terrible—TV movie for Lifetime earlier this year. Though the home had trouble selling for several years after the murders, it eventually sold several times over, including to a Saudi prince, and a mystery novelist.
- Borden House | Christina Ricci charmingly hammed her way through a TV movie about Lizzie Borden in 2014 and if watching it inspired something in you, you can now stay in the home where the murders occurred. It’s a Bed & Breakfast with a hypnotic Geocities-style website where you can watch ghost cams, or as the homepage suggests over photos of family members murdered by axes, simply “Celebrate 125 Years of the Bordens!”
- LaBianca House| As seen in this clip from the 2004 adaptation of Helter Skelter, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca were among the first victims of the Manson Family. In fact, Manson’s dissatisfaction with the way their murders were carried out led him to order the breakin at the Tate-Polanski home the following evening. Unlike that home, the Labianca house was not razed, and has largely been occupied in the years since the murder.
- Sowden House | Just blocks away from the LaBiancas, the physician George Hodel lived here for six years. In 2003, Hodel’s son, Steve published the book Black Dahlia Avengerin which he claims his father murdered Elizabeth Short inside this home. Interestingly, as Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home (and a stunning one at that), the house is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2014, a forensic anthropologist, working with a cadaver dog, stated that soil at the home tested positive for human remains. It’s possible this house was the inspiration for the scenes in the first season of American Horror Story involving a clearly Elizabeth Short-inspired character portrayed by Mena Suvari.
- Wonderland House | Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon is among the most sought-after real estate in the city. It’s exclusive, remote and gorgeous, which is why, in 2008, Gawker expressed surprise that this home was renting for just $3,000 a month (keep in mind this is LA and that is rock bottom for that neighborhood). The site of the infamous Wonderland Murders, depicted in the 2003 film, Wonderland, starring Val Kilmer, largely drops from public view (at least in terms of real estate) after this date. But maybe the renters are still just grateful for a good bargain.
Featured Image: Helter Skelter (2004) CBS