When do you need to tell a prospective buyer your house is haunted? Where do you need a license to practice necromancy or to be reincarnated? And where can you file a lawsuit against a supernatural being? These real-life laws will tell you all that and more.
Top image from the hilarious comic Supernatural Law by Batton Lash.
1. In some cases, US home sellers must tell a buyer if a property is haunted.
There are all sorts of disclosures that home sellers must make to potential buyers, but do you really need a ghost disclosure? Some states require a seller to disclose if a property is “psychologically impacted” in some way, such as from a recent murder on the premises.
If your house is famously said to be haunted, however, you may want to make sure the buyer is aware of the situation. In the 1991 case Stambovsky v. Ackley, Helen Ackley had sold her Nyack, New York, property after she and other members of her family had widely reported that the house was haunted by poltergeists. Jeffrey Stambovsky, unaware of the stories surround the house, purchased the home and later sued, requesting rescission of the contract of sale. The New York Supreme Court justices had a field day writing that opinion, stating that the “plaintiff hasn’t a ghost of a chance” and “I am moved by the spirit of equity.” While the court didn’t state that poltergeists actually exist, it did say that, based on wide reports of the house’s haunted status, that its value was affected and therefore the house was haunted as a matter of law.
2. But if you base your horror movie on a “true story” or famously haunted house, you can avoid all sorts of intellectual property issues.
Famous mockbuster movie house The Asylum is best known for movies exploit the popularity of other films: Paranormal Entity for Paranormal Activity, Almighty Thor for Thor, Transmorphers for Transformers, and so on. Inspired by the film The Haunting in Connecticut, Asylum made their own Haunting of Winchester House, based on the stories surrounding the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. The corporation that owns the Winchester Mystery House (which had already contracted a studio to make a film based on the property) sued for trademark violation. The California Court of Appeal ruled that, since the name and images of the Winchester House refer not just to the tourist attraction but to the historical and legendary stories surrounding the property, that Asylum had every right to make its own Winchester House film.
3. In San Francisco, you need a license to practice necromancy.
There are laws regulating the practice of magical arts around the world, from the tragic laws that see people killed for supposedly practicing witchcraft, to Canada’s laws regulating the “crafty sciences.” But Kevin Underhill of the legal blog Lowering the Bar and author of the wonderfully weird law book The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance points to a particularly oddball rule in San Francisco. The city of San Francisco offers fortune telling permits (which includes permission to pretend to practice fortune telling), but then goes on to offer a bizarrely inclusive definition of fortune telling that includes necromancy, or the manipulation of the dead. I imagine that certain types of necromantic practice would run afoul of other city, state, and federal laws, however—not to mention laws of nature.
4. In New Orleans, a person may not set forth his or her power to convert bitterest enemies into staunchest friends.
It’s no surprise that New Orleans, a city long associated with the practice of Voodoo and the supernatural, has very particular laws governing the use of magic as a business, such as this one:
Sec. 54-312. Fortunetelling. It shall be unlawful for any person to advertise for or engage in, for a monied consideration, the business of (chronology, phrenology, astrology, palmistry), telling or pretending to tell fortunes, either with cards, hands, water, letters or other devices or methods, or to hold out inducements, either through the press or otherwise, or to set forth his power to settle lovers’ quarrels, to bring together the separated, to locate buried or hidden treasures, jewels, wills, bonds or other valuables, to remove evil influences, to give luck, to effect marriages, to heal sickness, to reveal secrets, to foretell the results of lawsuits, business transactions, investments of whatsoever nature, wills, deeds and/or mortgages, to locate lost or absent friends or relatives, to reveal, remove and avoid domestic troubles or to bring together the bitterest enemies converting them into staunchest friends. But nothing herein contained shall apply to any branch of medical science, or to any religious worship.
However, hiring a priestess to help you win a football game is apparently a-okay.
5. Different jurisdictions have very different laws governing the hunting of Bigfoot.
Want to bag yourself a cryptid? The best place to go is Texas, where the Chief of Staff of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Law Enforcement Division has said that it’s legal to kill Bigfoot since it isn’t listed by the state as a game animal. But Sasquatch hunting is actually on the books in Skamania County, Washington, where in 1969, the board of commissioners adopted an ordinance declaring the killing of “a nocturnal primate mammal variously described as an ape-like creature or a sub-species of Homo Sapian” a felony, one that could result in a $10,000 fine and five years in the county jail.
And when the US embassy opened in Nepal in the 1950s, the US State Department issued a set of rules for Yeti hunting in the Himalayas. In that case, you were allowed to photograph the creature, but could kill it only in self-defense.
6. If you want to start a construction project in Iceland, you may want to check with the local elves.
In Iceland, it’s the supernatural beings that regulate the humans rather than the other way around. This isn’t actually codified, but on an ad hoc basis the committees that oversee construction projects will sometimes delay or divert them so as not to disturb a population of elves. According to a 2005 New York Times article, sometimes a mystic will approach a planning committee to share the elves’ concerns about an imminent project, after which the committee may take those concerns into consideration. Recently, there was a bit of a stir about an “elf lobby” delaying a road construction project, although some later reports indicated that it was a bit of an exaggeration; apparently most of the folks protesting the project were concerned more for the environmental impact than for the elves.
7. Tibetan Buddhists must apply for a reincarnation license from the Chinese government.
Want to become a tulku, one of the enlightened teachers of Tibetan Buddhism? In China, you’ll need to follow State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5 and fill out a reincarnation application. The application will be submitted to the religious affairs department of the provincial-level government, the provincial-level government, State Administration for Religious Affairs, and the State Council. So what happens if you’re reincarnated as a living Buddha without a permit? Your reincarnation is deemed “illegal or invalid.” Bizarrely, China Daily calls the ban on unlicensed reincarnation “ an important move by the government to safeguard religious freedom of citizens according to law.”
8. If you want to perform an exorcism, you should probably do it in Texas.
In a rather tragic case, Laura Schubert claimed that when she was 17, members of her church, the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God, performed an exorcism on her against her will and that she received physical injuries and began hallucinating as a result. While a lower court awarded Schubert $300,000 for abuse and false imprisonment, the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God eventually appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which, in a 6-3 decision, rejected the jury award on First Amendment grounds, saying the case would “unconstitutionally entangle the court in matters of church doctrine.” The US Supreme Court declined to hear Schubert’s appeal.
9. You can’t sue the Devil in the US.
Gerald Mayo filed a suit against Satan and his staff, arguing that the Devil had violated his constitutional rights and “caused plaintiff misery and unwarranted threats, against the will of plaintiff, that Satan has placed deliberate obstacles in his path and has caused plaintiff’s downfall.” In a 1971 United States District Court decision, Judge Gerald J. Weber actually puzzled out the jurisdictional issues involved in suing Satan. He noted that, even if Satan were to appear, he would probably be considered a foreign sovereign and would argue that the US court lacked personal jurisdiction over him. He also noted that Mayo’s case would work nicely as a class action lawsuit, provided one could actually sue Satan. Ultimately, though, the case was dismissed because Mayo provided no instructions for serving process on Satan.
More recently, Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers tried to sue God, and fared no better in court.
10. But you can sue a genie in Saudi Arabia.
In 2009, a Saudi Arabian family filed suit against a genie in Shariah court, claiming that the genie was leaving harassing voicemail messages, stealing their cell phones, and throwing rocks at them. The head of the court, Sheikh Amr Al Salmi, announced that there would be an investigation into the family’s genie claim, but it’s not clear exactly what a lawsuit against a genie entails or what sort of restitution one can expect.