Contested Property: Haunted Houses and the Anxiety of Ownership in America

Sometimes home becomes a place of fear for the least supernatural reasons.

8 minute read

October 31, 2023, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu


Old cemetery with weathered wooden cross grave markers in Goldfield, Nevada with mountain in background and blue sky.

Goldfield Pioneer Cemetery in Goldfield, Nevada. | Diana Ionescu / Goldfield Cemetery

Amityville, Poltergeist, Candyman. Horror aficionados will recognize these names as ghost stories immortalized on film. Besides purported paranormal events such as levitating bodies and inexplicable sounds and apparitions, many of these tales, forever seared in the popular imagination via bestselling movies and books, have another common thread. They all tell a story about housing: the struggle to get it, the conflicts of owning it, and who gets to do so.

Haunted houses, by their very nature, highlight an ownership dispute. Who belongs there? How can new residents coexist with the old? What right do prior residents—living or dead—have to a place?

In a 2016 piece in The New Republic excerpted from his book Ghostland, author Colin Dickey explains the phenomenon. “Home ownership has always been intertwined with the American dream; we have magnified this simple property decision in part because it represents safety and security. The haunted house is a violation of this comfort, the American dream gone horribly wrong.” The haunting embodies this “tension between holding the deed to a piece of property and true ownership of the land.” The ‘Indian burial ground’ trope, popularized by Amityville and present in a slew of horror stories since, represents the original sin that underpins the very foundation of our country.

A convenient hoax

What would cause a family to flee a perfectly good home, leaving behind their belongings less than a month after moving in? Besides a debt they couldn’t afford on a house that needed repairs, a tempestuous family dynamic, and the knowledge that a brutal mass murder took place in the home? Demons, of course. The Lutz family, on whom the main characters in The Amityville Horror are based, concocted a variety of scenarios and legends to pad what became a best-selling ‘non-fiction’ book, which was then adapted into 21 films (to date).

In truth, the house was the site of unimaginable terror: In 1974, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. murdered his parents and four siblings while they slept. A year later, the Lutzes moved in, notably keeping some of the murdered family’s furniture. Almost immediately, according to their account, they begin experiencing terrifying episodes and are driven out of the house after 28 days. But the ‘Indian burial ground’ story that the film popularized as a cause of demonic activity had no link to reality. Although the book claims the property was once the site of a Shinnecock burial ground for “the sick, mad, and dying,” the Shinnecock never lived in Amityville, and the story is pure fiction created by the Lutzes, DeFeo’s defense lawyer, and Jay Anson, the author of the book.

The likely explanation for the anxiety felt by the Lutzes and the drive to concoct a haunting is much more banal. The family needed money. They had purchased a home that would normally be far out of their means for a reduced price of $80,000. The price, brought down by the tragedy of the DeFeo family, made the American dream seem attainable for the Lutz family. When they found themselves overwhelmed, the haunting became a convenient way out. Who can be expected to live on a site plagued by evil? By this logic, the Lutzes weren’t skipping out on their financial responsibility or admitting the American dream had failed them—they were protecting their family from the vengeful ghosts of the past.

A national anxiety

A similar theme involving disturbed graveyards becomes key in the first Poltergeist film, which, although often credited with starting the ‘Indian burial ground’ trope, never makes use of that device—in fact, a character explicitly jokes that the cemetery can’t be a problem because “it’s not like it’s an ancient tribal burial ground.” (The concept does come up in the second movie in the franchise.)

Poltergeist says the quiet part out loud. A family living in a quintessential American suburban subdivision built on old graveyards is tormented by spirits that kidnap their young daughter. Although the location is not a Native American site, the film, in its less cheesy moments, reflects on the implications of making a home on top of the literal remains of the past. Whether Native or not, human or other animal, all land has been home to someone else. The Indian burial ground continues to make appearances in films throughout the 1980s, coinciding with the growth of Native American activist movements.

The discovery that a site is physically occupied by others is nothing new. Construction crews not-infrequently come across human remains or gravestones during their work. When San Francisco’s population began growing rapidly, the city banned new burials within city limits in 1900, and the city’s cemeteries were relocated south to Colma. Some gravestones were repurposed for city infrastructure projects, and the locations of cemeteries were overtaken by new development. Today, you can still see old gravestones lining pathways in some of the city’s parks and serving as seawalls, barely submerged under the water at Ocean Beach. In 1983, just a year after Poltergeist premiered, children in Staten Island discovered early 20th century graves behind a shopping center. In 2017, the University of Georgia unearthed 105 graves during construction on their campus, many of which could have belonged to enslaved Americans. In February of this year, the city of Houston halted construction on a transit project when 33 graves were uncovered, remnants of a Black cemetery that was supposedly relocated in the 1960s. The history of mistreatment of various ‘others,’ of appropriation and erasure, can haunt the most ordinary construction site.

The ghosts of urban renewal

In 1992’s Candyman and its 2021 adaptation, a notorious Chicago public housing complex takes center stage as the setting for the violence and stigma associated with low-income housing in the United States. The film makes effective use of a real-life feature—openings in walls, sometimes behind medicine cabinets for access to plumbing, that public housing residents or burglars would use to move around the buildings—and a pervasive aura of decay and apathy to weave a story about fear. Moreover, it centers the vengeful ghost of an unjustly murdered slave, Daniel Robitaille, as the titular villain, a reminder of the long history of disenfranchisement for Black communities.

The movie alludes to a real event, the murder of Ruthie May McCoy, a resident of Grace Abbott Homes—not Cabrini-Green—whose attacker entered her apartment through the opening for her bathroom mirror. In an article from 1987, Steve Bogira describes the murder and the conditions in Abbott Homes, noting that bathroom mirror break-ins were becoming common. “Even the dullest youth here knows you can slither from one apartment to the adjacent one through the pipe chase, about two-and-a-half feet across, between the cabinets. The cabinets themselves, secured by only six nails, are no obstacle.” Yet when McCoy called the police to report the break-in, officers came and went without ever entering her apartment.

Bogira’s article drew attention to the high rate of violence in Abbott Homes and other public housing developments in Chicago. While Cabrini-Green was not the most violent, it received the most media coverage, in part because of its proximity to wealthier neighborhoods and newspaper offices. In 2014, Bogira reflected on the influence his piece had on the film, noting that the film and its critics, through their white lens, missed some of the point. While the apathetic police response may have seemed shocking to white audiences, “Ebert may not have realized that in the projects, it was hardly a deep fear that calls for help would be neglected—it was simply expected.”

Although the high-rise towers of mid-century public housing were based on Modernist ideals for effective, healthy urban housing, the buildings, with their long corridors and dark stairwells, contributed to a sense of insecurity and higher crime rates. At one point, the city even stopped maintaining basic infrastructure in the area. Eventually, over 1,700 families were displaced when the city decided to raze the high-rises as part of its Plan for Transformation, with the last tower coming down in 2011. According to a 2021 article by Adam M. Rhodes, “The CHA reports that as of September 2020, 48 families were still waiting to move back into Cabrini-Green, and that the agency had additionally lost contact with another 293 families.”

The 2021 adaptation of Candyman even more directly addresses the racial underpinnings of U.S. housing policies and the impacts of displacement and gentrification. The film makes Candyman a composite of multiple characters, layering other forms of brutality against Black Americans on top of the original Candyman, the martyred slave Robitaille. The protagonist is now a young Black artist living in the renovated—gentrified—market-rate part of Cabrini-Green. The 2021 Candyman also works to reclaim the story of the community ties that people who lived in Cabrini-Green maintained before the high-rise towers were demolished and its residents displaced.

Cabrini-Green became a symbol of both unfounded fears and very real violence. Candyman, in its various iterations, distills the pain of decades of disinvestment and discrimination into an urban legend that, in one view, absolves the institutional factors that perpetuated the volatile environment of housing projects and, in the other, highlights how those systemic factors continue to impact Black communities. In this instance, Americans are haunted by the mistakes of a much more recent past that continue to impact access to opportunities and resources for entire communities.

Unfinished business

Like much folklore and art, ghost stories and urban legends reflect contemporary fears and traumas. They allow us to process the dark corners of our history in ways that can be restorative, apologist, or avoidant. At their best, ghost stories can keep alive the memory of a historical event and harbor lessons about past mistakes. At their worst, they project the very real failures of policymakers and planners onto mythical villains, positioning violence and poverty as the inevitable results of evil entities rather than systemic, profit-driven policies that make a building block of human society—the home—into a contested site, a luxury not afforded to all, haunted by debt, guilt, and discrimination.

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